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Steve Phillips

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Major League Baseball and the Players Association have agreed on a set of significant rule changes that are set to roll out in 2019 and 2020. 

Here are the changes to be implemented in 2019:

Single trade deadline
The waiver trade period has been eliminated, which means that the only trade deadline is July 31. No trades can be made after that date for the remainder of the season.  
 
This means that teams on the bubble have to decide whether they are in or out of contending for the postseason with a third of the season remaining. Clubs who aren’t sure whether they are truly in the playoff race will likely take the conservative route and now become sellers. So, an unintended consequence is that it will likely reduce the number of teams making a playoff push. That’s not a good thing.  
 
Another consequence of the elimination of waiver trades is that it places limits on a club’s ability to fortify itself in case of injuries that occur during the final two months of the season. If a team loses its catcher to injury, their only recourse will be to call up an inexperienced player from the minor leagues. Teams will have to have their depth completely in place by July 31 which is not always possible.  
 
Also, if a team that is a seller at the deadline has an injured player as of July 31, that team may be stuck with that player. For instance, the Toronto Blue Jays could not have traded Josh Donaldson last year on July 31 because he had not started playing games due to his calf injury. It wasn’t until the end of August that he was healthy enough to play and be evaluated by the Cleveland Indians. The Jays would have been stuck with Donaldson if this rule had been in place last year.  

Shorter breaks between innings
Owners are putting some skin in the game when it comes to pace of play. It’s about time. The time between innings will be cut to two minutes (down from 2:05 in local games and 2:25 in national games) which reduces the amount of TV ad sales opportunities. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred also has the right to cut the breaks to 1:55 in 2020, if he deems it appropriate as well.  
 
Mound visits
The number of visits to the mound is reduced by one from six to five. This is a pace-of-play initiative, hoping to reduce the game-stopping visits to the mound by catchers, infielders, coaches and managers.  

All-Star Game voting
Fans will continue to vote as they always have in the primary vote but now it will take place over two rounds – there will be an additional vote in either late June or early July, which is being referred to as “Election Day.” On that day, fans will vote to determine who will start the game from the top three vote-getters at each position for both the AL and NL. This new system will make the game feel like a bigger event. Plus, in any extra innings of the All-Star Game, a baserunner will be placed on second base. 
 
Home Run Derby
The prize money for the derby will be increased to $2.5 million, with the winner receiving $1 million. The hope is that it will draw some of the superstars of the game to participate. I think it’s a great idea.  
 
Here are the changes for 2020:

Roster size 
The active roster from Opening Day through Aug. 31 will increase to 26 players from 25. I like this rule as it will give managers more flexibility to manage 162 games in 187 days. Teams are studying the impact of player fatigue and this will hopefully allow for healthier rosters. 
 
However, the roster size in September will decrease from as many as 40 players to just 28. This is far too restrictive. Rosters expand in the final month of the season because the minor-league seasons end and clubs need to have access to a pool of additional players in case of injuries or under-performance.

A 28-man roster is not large enough to get through the final month of the season. Normally, the September call-ups include at least one catcher, two starting pitchers, two relievers, two infielders and two outfielders.  
 
I am in favour of levelling the playing field in September with regard to roster size, but this isn’t the way to do it. I believe teams should be able to expand their rosters up to 40 players but they should stipulate which 26 players are eligible to be used for each game. 
 
Clubs will now have to send a taxi squad to their spring training sites to keep them baseball-ready just in case there is an injury. Plus, I anticipate there will be service time and payment issues with that group of players that could lead to challenges from the union.  

Three-batter minimum for pitchers
Starting pitchers and relievers must face at least three batters or pitch to the end of a half-inning, unless they are injured. The intent is to improve the pace of play but it will have unintended consequences. I am completely opposed to this new rule.  
 
In this era of “bullpening,” managers try to put relievers in situations where they can be successful. They also remove pitchers before they fail as opposed to after they fail. This gives a team the best chance to win a game, even if it leads to more pitching changes. This new rule materially changes the strategy of the game and ties the manager’s hands.  
 
It also eliminates the value of the situational left-handed reliever who is called upon to retire big left-handed hitters like Anthony Rizzo, Bryce Harper and Cody Bellinger.  
 
My greatest concern is that this rule increases the risk of injuries to pitchers. It will be extremely difficult for a manager now to use a reliever three days in a row. If a pitcher has appeared in two straight games, he will likely need a day off. Managers can no longer ask a reliever to get them one big out on that third day. Even if there are two outs in an inning, the manager can’t assume the pitcher’s immediate success. Any pitcher brought into a game has to be comfortable with the understanding that the manager can live with him facing three hitters.  
 
Managers will be faced with having to use lower-grade relievers in high-leverage situations or overworking the better relievers. Games will be lost that could have been won, if the manager had been given the opportunity to use the bullpen the way he had planned.  

Injured list (formerly the disabled list)
The injured list period will increase to 15 days from 10. This change will reduce the roster manipulation that the 10-day IL term allowed. Clubs were holding players on the IL like a taxi squad because it was such a short stint. In effect, the injured list will again be used legitimately.  
 
Optioned players
Pitchers optioned to the minor leagues will now have to remain there for 15 days instead of 10. The extra five days will make teams think twice about optioning a player to the minors just to satisfy a short-term roster need. Losing access to a player for 15 days instead of 10 is pretty substantial. I don’t like this rule as general managers need flexibility to manage the roster during the season. This is quite restrictive.  
 
SPITTING SEEDS

-Certainly, no team ever wants a player to suffer an injury but sometimes there can be a silver lining. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s strained oblique eliminates the issue of service time manipulation completely. It also allows the Blue Jays front office to focus on core conditioning in a justifiable way. Plus, Guerrero will likely be more open to the training staff because of the injury. It is tough to tell someone they need to change, when they are hitting .400 doing it their way. I don’t expect the young slugger in the majors now before May 1. There is no reason to rush the 19-year-old and the club can now set some goals for him to accomplish before a call-up is warranted.  
 
-The Jays named Marcus Stroman as their Opening Day starter. It was somewhat predictable as he is a product of the organization and has pitched well in some big games. Hopefully, the 27-year-old righty will feel a sense of appreciation to the organization for the Opening Day nod and some responsibility to be a leader. The Jays are hoping he will be energized positively to get his career back on track. The best thing for Stroman and the Jays is for him to pitch well. The key will be maintaining his pitching mechanics so he can stay on top of his sinker and slider. If he throws strikes, gets ground balls and keeps the ball in the ballpark he will be effective. There is no reason he can’t have an ERA in the 3.50 range. Just as important, Stroman needs to be a good teammate to maximize his value. I think it’s likely he will be traded by July 31 if he pitches well.

-Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel remain unsigned in the free agent market. It is clear that neither of them will be on an Opening Day roster. Their demands are still extreme compared to the offers they are receiving from interested parties. The challenge they face is that several of the teams that could use them are at, or over, the luxury tax thresholds. That would lead to a surcharge on top of the salary, possibly lost draft picks and reductions in international signing bonus money. Plus, both players have draft pick compensation attached to them as they were extended qualifying offers which means teams would lose draft picks for signing them.   
There has been talk of Kimbrel waiting until after the June draft to sign, thus detaching the draft pick compensation obligation. It would be a desperate move, but at this point there must be desperation.