The Josh Donaldson Controversy Highlights the Flaws of MLB’s Waiver Trade System

On August 31, the Toronto Blue Jays traded former All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Cleveland Indians, and several teams are rightfully angry about it.

According to a recent report from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, several contending teams in the American League are upset about the circumstances surrounding Cleveland’s acquisition of Donaldson.

The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees were apparently two of the teams at the forefront of the issue, both going as far as filing official complaints to Major League Baseball. The defending World Series champion Houston Astros, meanwhile, reportedly “asked the commissioner’s office for clarification on why baseball allowed the deal and were satisfied with the response.”

The reason why all of these contending teams are upset pertains to the murkiness surrounding Donaldson’s health status. He has been on the shelf since May with a calf injury but had begun a rehab assignment with Toronto shortly before the August waiver deadline. However, it is the 48-hour period after he was placed on waivers where things become increasingly puzzling, according to Ken Rosenthal’s report.

“Teams already skeptical of Donaldson’s health grew more suspicious during the 48-hour waiver period before he was traded. Shortly after news of the Jays placing him on revocable trade waivers became public, Donaldson revealed he could not play in his second rehab game due to soreness in his legs. At that moment, some rival officials said, the Jays should have pulled back Donaldson from waivers because he was not healthy. But the game eventually was rained out, and Donaldson resumed playing the next day — the day of his trade.”

One of the official rules pertaining to the August waiver trade deadline is that a player must be medically cleared to play “at a level that he is accustomed to” in order to be traded. Hence, rival American League teams were understandably miffed when the Cleveland Indians placed Donaldson back on the 10-day disabled list on September 3, just a few days after acquiring him from Toronto.

“I guess he got reinjured on the plane,” an unnamed executive told The Athletic.

Donaldson was traded to the Indians just before the August waiver trade deadline had passed, meaning that he is eligible to be a part of Cleveland’s postseason roster. Should Donaldson recover from his injury and become a big contributor for the Indians in the playoffs, it will only throw even more gasoline onto this fire.

On the surface, it certainly seems as though the Indians and the Blue Jays skirted the rules of the waiver trade deadline in order to make this deal work. However, the bottom line is this: Major League Baseball approved the deal and saw no reason to intervene, despite the numerous complaints from rival teams. Do these other teams have a legitimate gripe with how the deal went down? Yes, absolutely, but it is not the fault of the Cleveland Indians nor the Toronto Blue Jays. The fault lies with Major League Baseball and its massively flawed waiver trade system.

As we all know, Major League Baseball has an official trade deadline of July 31, after which players are no longer eligible to be traded without clearing through waivers first. The last few years, there are nearly as many deals being done in August as in July. Most teams have a much better sense of where they are, what they need, and who would be a good fit for their postseason roster in August than they do in July.

This raises the question: Why does baseball even bother with its July 31 trade deadline? Why not just extend it to August 31? The only difference between the two trade deadlines is the cockamamie waiver process that must be completed for August trades.

The waiver system, while not overly complicated, still introduces more irritating roadblocks for teams that are trying to bolster their playoff rosters. Major League Baseball could simplify the entire trading system by eliminating the waiver system and replacing it with a standard August 31 trade deadline.

There are several aspects of the waiver system that are inefficient and mostly needless that baseball would be well-served to be rid of. For example, the idea of revocable waivers which allows teams to put superstar players on waivers and then essentially say, “Oh, just kidding!” and pull him back anytime they want. What is the point? Either you want to trade the player or you don’t, so what is the point of announcing it to the entire world? With a regular trade deadline, players are dealt as result of private conversations between general managers. Revocable waivers just make the whole trading system seem like one big bidding war.

One of the worst aspects of the August trade waiver system is the order in which teams are given priority during the claiming process. When a player is placed on waivers, the first team that gets a crack at claiming him is the team with the worst record in the same league as that player’s team. For example, when Josh Donaldson was placed on waivers by the Blue Jays, it would have been the Baltimore Orioles who would have had the first chance to place a claim on him. A National League team would not have a chance to claim Donaldson until all other 15 American League teams passed over him, and it would then start over with the Miami Marlins, who have the worst record in the National League.

This part of the process completely spits on the idea of having a competitive balance in baseball. Teams at the bottom of the standings are not going to trade for a superstar player at the end of the season, and they certainly don’t want to assume the rest of that player’s salary. This order also punishes teams for being the best in their league, which is absurd. Take the Red Sox as an example for the 2018 season. They currently have the best record in their league, but if a player who could help them in the postseason is placed on waivers, the Red Sox would be the last team in the American League to have a chance at claiming him. This also allows Boston’s rivals, such as the Yankees, to place a claim on a player for no other reason than to block the Red Sox from claiming him. The Yankees wouldn’t even have to acquire the player. They could simply place the claim, sit on their hands for 48 hours, and then allow the original team to pull the player back.

This system also hurts the teams that are placing these players on waivers. The Blue Jays, as an example, most likely would prefer to deal a player the caliber of Donaldson to the National League rather than an American League rival. More importantly, the Blue Jays may have been able to receive a better return for a superstar player had they been able to negotiate with more teams.

There is only one part of the trade waiver system that makes sense, and that is the rule that players must be dealt before the August 31 deadline in order to be eligible to play in the postseason with their new team. However, this rule could and should be expanded to say that a player must not only be dealt by August 31, but must also spend the whole month of September on the active roster in order to be eligible for the postseason roster. This will prevent controversies such as the one surrounding Donaldson from occurring.

Every year there is at least one major trade that is done at the tail end of August, and every time it happens it leaves fans thinking, “Wait, I thought the trade deadline passed?” Major League Baseball would be doing itself, as well as its fans, a big favor by simply extending the standard trade deadline to August 31 and eliminating this asinine waiver system.

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