The August Waiver Trading Period

The July 31 trading deadline came and went last week, with quite a bang. Numerous deadline deals were consummated, with players of varying pedigree changing uniforms. David Price and Jon Lester were the big names, but perhaps the most notable aspect of the proceedings was the movement of incumbent major league regulars by contending clubs, such as Yoenis Cespedes and Austin Jackson, in lieu of or in addition to minor league prospects in pursuit of the biggest fish available.

“Deadline” is a somewhat misleading term, however, as trades will continue to be made throughout the month of August. A whole new bunch of arcane industry rules apply, however, in the August waiver trading period, creating a cat-and-mouse game where teams must not only know which players they covet and are willing to give up, but also which players their competition wants, prompting aggressive moves to block their rivals.

At some point in time during the month of August, virtually every player on all 30 clubs’ 40-man rosters will be placed on trade waivers. The only exceptions may be the foremost superstars in the game, such as Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, etc.. Some of them may even see their day on the trade waiver wire, even though their clubs have absolutely no intention of trading them. Trade waivers are revocable, after all. Most clubs have absolutely no intention of trading most of the players on their 40-man roster, but successfully clearing a player through trade waivers gives the club the option of moving a player should that pie-in-the-sky, dream trade offer come through the transom in August. From the perspective of the club placing a player through waivers, it’s all about creating options.

Clubs will place their players, a few at a time, on trade waivers throughout the month. The timing often depends upon the player, and upon the club’s place in the standings at any moment in time. There is usually a crush of players placed on trade waivers early in the month. Coming on the heels of the trading deadline, sellers may often try to sneak their foremost trade properties through waivers in early August, while the “fog of war” mentality that prevails on July 31 is still in place. The middle of the month sees a relative trickle of players being passed through trade waivers, and then it picks back up again at the end of August. A club that is still trying to determine whether to buy or sell may hold off on putting its premier trade assets through waivers until late in the month, when they have a better idea of their fate.

Each day, each club is informed of all players placed on trade waivers by all clubs on that date. Each player remains on trade waivers for two days, and a specific time deadline is noted informing each club of the expiration of those waivers. If no team claims a player, he is free to be traded to any of the other 29 clubs for the rest of the season. If a single team claims a player, that team is the only one that may trade for him. If multiple teams claim a player, the claiming team with the worst record in that player’s league is awarded the claim. If no club in his own league claims a player, the claim is then awarded to the claiming team with the worst record in the other league. For this reason, it is much more likely that the most desired, but ultimately untraded July 31 trade properties will remain within their own league if traded in August.

Once a waiver claim is awarded, the two clubs then have another two days to discuss a trade involving the claimed player. He cannot be traded for 40-man roster player(s) that have not yet cleared trade waivers themselves, though such players can be designated as “players to be named later”. Claimed players may also be traded for any minor league player(s) not currently on the 40-man roster.

It should be emphasized that when a club is claiming a player who is on trade waivers, it is claiming his contract as well. Matt Kemp will be placed on trade waivers at some point in August. Any potential claimer does so at its own risk, as the Dodgers could choose to simply step aside and allow Kemp’s massive contract to go elsewhere for no compensation. This is how the White Sox got Alex Rios from the Blue Jays a few years back. The Chisox assumed the contract, and the risk, and were vindicated at least to some extent as Rios got his career back on track afterward.

Quite often, clubs will have extensive, somewhat fruitful discussions about a player with a particular club in July, only for the deadline to pass without consummation of a deal. A team may wish to direct that player towards that specific team, especially if the target team is in the same league, but the standings on any given day may impact the timing of the placement of that player on waivers.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that the Twins and Royals had productive discussions about Josh Willingham prior to the July deadline. The Royals are in a four or five-team scrum in the middle of the AL wildcard race, with their waiver order spot fluctuating daily. The Twins could wait for the Royals to hit a dead spot of sorts, and fall beneath potential blocking teams such as the Mariners or Indians, and then put Willingham on waivers. Of course, the Royals could win the next two games while Willingham is on waivers, and rise in the pecking order, or continue their slide, and decide that Willingham isn’t worth the claim. This is just an example of the calculus each team goes through on a daily basis throughout August, except multiplied many times over, as large numbers of players work their way through the process.

Strategy-wise, teams differ very little with regard to placement of their own players on trade waivers. The timing of placement is basically the only variable. Clubs employ a variety of approaches with regard to making claims on other clubs’ players. There will be a significant group of clubs in any given season who will place few, if any claims. These clubs include sellers who are more focused on bolstering their minor league systems, or young, developing clubs who are happy with their current direction. There are also low-activity clubs who just don’t place claims, for whatever reason.

On the other pole, there are clubs who claim anyone and everyone in whom they are interested. Such clubs may be making claims and earnestly looking to make good, old-fashioned baseball trades, or they may be making claims just to make claims, and not having meaningful trade discussions regarding the claimed player. The latter case gets real old for buyers sitting behind such clubs in the pecking order who continuously get snookered out by relatively meaningless claims.

The most interesting clubs are the ones who claim aggressively but intelligently, either to go get a player they want, or just as importantly, block their competition from getting a player they want. Extremely taut pennant races in both leagues offer many front offices the opportunity to battle in the trade waiver trenches all month long while their clubs are duking it out on the field. In the AL, the Blue Jays, Yankees, Royals, Mariners, Indians and possibly another team or two are swapping claiming order spots on a daily basis. It’s even crazier in the NL, where there are no A’s or Angels running away from the pack. The top seven clubs – the Dodgers, Brewers, Nationals, Cards, Giants, Pirates and Braves – are swapping spots daily. Each of these clubs has multiple front office members monitoring the needs of their competition, often recommending “defensive” claims directly targeted at their competition.

August 31 then becomes the next important deadline – for an acquired player to appear in postseason play, a trade must be consummated by then. As we work our way into the second half of August, teams will need to whittle down their potential targets, and their potential trade bait, so they know where to direct their energies between then and August 31. Each and every day, the passage of players through trade waivers affects each club’s range of opportunities. Each team must have a detailed system in place to track the execution of all of these behind the scenes actions.

In 2012, I guarantee you that the Red Sox and Dodgers had absolutely no idea at the beginning of August that they would, within weeks, consummate a franchise-altering deal for both clubs. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and all of the money attached to them, would go to the Dodgers, while massive salary relief and some attractive prospects would head to the Red Sox. The Sox used such relief to rebuild their club into a World Series champion, while the Dodgers at least have gotten some mileage out of Gonzalez and Beckett, and remain a core NL contender. Both clubs utilized the August waiver process to keep their options open, and then drop a bombshell.

There is one other way that trade waivers can sneak up and bite you. As stated earlier, trade waivers are revocable – once. You had better track the dates on which you placed all our 40-man roster guys on trade waivers, because if you mistakenly do so a second time – they’re gone. This actually happened to the Pirates in 1990, when they placed outfielders Wes Chamberlain and Julio Peguero on trade waivers a second time. The Phillies noticed, and worked out a deal in which they acquired those two plus a third outfielder, Tony Longmire, in exchange for a cooked Carmelo Martinez. Chamberlain turned into a somewhat productive big leaguer, a platooner on the 1993 NL champs, and the Phillies got him only because of an administrative screwup.

There will be a few trades made this month, potentially even a large one or two, though history tells it probably won’t evoke the Red Sox-Dodgers mega-deal. For every one that is made, however, there will be countless ones blocked or made impossible by the chess players in the 30 MLB front offices. The standings aren’t based on how many games you win – they’re based on how many you win, relative to your opponents. Sometimes it’s just as important to impair your competition, within the rules, as it is to help yourself.

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36 Responses to “The August Waiver Trading Period”

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  1. PW says:

    Have to think the Red Sox will be a player/impediment in this year’s August deals? They have $ to spend, are looking for impact players for 2015, particularly SP, and given their poor record will be able to place claims ahead of a lot of the contenders.

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  2. The example of Willingham and the Royals is fascinating. This all is, really. Great stuff.

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    • Jason B says:

      …to which I’ll add that I didn’t know about placing players on waivers a second time, and that was how Wes Chamberlain came to be a Phillie. Neat!

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      • BDF says:

        I remembered that it was some fluke thing and everyone in Philly was so excited about it because he was touted, but I didn’t remember/never knew the details. Thanks, Tony!

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  3. fred says:

    If I were a GM, I would place all my players on waivers on August 1.

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  4. Jason B says:

    Does a totally out-of-contention team (say Boston, or Houston, or the Phils) ever just claim (almost) everyone out of spite or something? Probably best not to alienate potential trade partners down the road by the single worst team claiming almost every single player, I guess.

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    • Jeff says:

      They could do that but would have to be willing to take on every single potential contract they claimed as the other team could simply hand them the player’s contract.
      There are probably only 5 teams in MLB who have the money to actually do that.

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      • Jason B says:

        Yeah, that’s why I qualified it with almost. I’m sure even the most spiteful of teams will let Ryan Howard, Pujols, Carl Crawford, etc. pass safely on through.

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  5. Brain says:

    Do you know if a player has ten/five rights for the waiver trading period?

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  6. PWR says:

    I still would love to understand how AGon cleared so many other teams’ waiver given the Dodgers took on bad contracts (i.e. Crawford & Beckett) just for him. Tony?

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    • Eric F says:

      My guess is the other teams below LA knew they couldn’t afford those contracts and didn’t want to get caught if they tried to block.

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    • Ian R. says:

      Gonzalez’ own contract was pretty huge, too, to the tune of $154 million. How many other teams were in a position to take that on? Even the Dodgers had to get some money from the Red Sox to defray the cost.

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      • PWR says:

        fair point although the Dodgers got money not just for AGon but for the total package. They clearly could afford AGon on their own without JB and CC. I have to look at those standing but I am surprised basically no NL team saw that contract as an asset while LAD valued it so highly, it took on two other liabilities.

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        • dragnalus says:

          I think the real question you should be asking is how did Nick Punto manage to clear waivers?

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        • Ian R. says:

          Also a fair point. I think Gonzalez’ position helped him clear waivers as well – most teams that can afford to take on that sort of contract already have a big bopper at 1B.

          The size of Gonzalez’ contract made him basically only a potential target for the big-money teams. In 2012, the Angels already had Pujols, so they were out. The Tigers had Fielder. The Yankees had Teixeira, the White Sox had Konerko. That’s every team in the American League that could have even possibly entertained the idea of claiming Gonzalez off waivers. Over in the NL, the Phillies had Howard, the Cubs were on a 100-loss pace with no reason to pick up a player like Gonzalez, the Mets weren’t much better, and the Cardinals were quite happy with Allen Craig’s production at the position.

          So, the Dodgers were in a unique position as a contending team with deep pockets and a gaping hole at first base – James Loney wasn’t getting the job done. I doubt any other team put in a claim on Gonzalez.

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  7. Dave Cameron says:

    Tony, you idiot! You forgot to slam the Royals for this hypothetical trade!

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  8. Shadi says:

    The fallout from the Giants claiming Cody Ross from the Marlins in 2010 has made me hate the waivers process, the Marlins, and the Giants more than anyone reasonably should hate anything.

    -Disgruntled Padres fan

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  9. Underwood4000 says:

    I don’t completely understand the Phils-Pirates example. When you say that placing a player on revocable trade waivers a second time, they’re gone–what are the terms that come into play (or change) when that happens? It seems like the Pirates got some (awful) return on the deal. Did the Pirates have to accept whatever the Phillies offered them or something?

    Thanks. Great article, too. I feel like I’ll never fully understand the intricacies of the waiver wire.

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    • joser says:

      If you can’t revoke it, you have to trade the guy. And that means you have to trade him to the first team that claims him. In that situation, you have no leverage and have to take whatever the other team is willing to give you (whoever they just need to jettison to free up roster space, probably).

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  10. PXF says:

    Thanks for this detailed explanation, can you clarify two things? If claims are dependent on standings, that would be the standings on (a) the day the player is submitted, or (b) the deadline for claims, two days later? (I’m inferring that it’s (b).) Second, if i claim a player and his team decides to let me have him outright, that means I need to make room for him on my 25- and 40-man rosters, yes? So I have to be willing not just to spend, but to make option or DFA a player on my starting roster, if that’s the case.

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    • joser says:

      Hopefully Tony will respond, but the Willingham example makes it pretty clear that the pecking order gets recalculated every day, completely independent of who happens to be on waivers that day. The Mariners are a half game behind the Royals today, and let’s say today is the day the Twins put Willingham on waivers. The M’s can claim him, and block the Royals. However, suppose they don’t, and then go on to win tonight in their game against the Braves while the Royals lose in their game against the D’Backs. When everybody gets up tomorrow morning, Willingham is still on waivers and now the Royals can claim him ahead of the Mariners.

      This is the essence of Tony’s example: if earlier discussions had led the Royals and Twins front offices to explore a Willingham trade, then the Twins won’t put Willingham on waivers today if they suspect the M’s might claim him (unless they think whatever the M’s might offer is better than what the Royals have mooted). Instead, the Twins might wait and see if the Royals and M’s trade places in the standings before dangling Willingham. (Of course, there some other AL Central rivals with worse records that could still make a claim).

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      • Peter says:

        I don’t understand how that’s workable. You’re saying that it’s neither (a) nor (b), but (c) the rankings at the hour that the claiming team submitted its claim. Hypothetically, the Twins put Willingham through waivers, the Mariners claim him while they have precedence, they go on to pass the Royals in the standings and they next morning the Royals also claim him. That leaves the problem of how MLB determines who has priority — the M’s would say “two days ago we had priority” and the Royals would say “as of yesterday we have priority.” I think the answer must be (a) or (b), the priorities have to be fixed for everyone.

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        • Elias says:

          Maybe once a claim is in, that locks in priority? Or maybe there is no opportunity for a second claim?

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  11. joser says:

    A whole new bunch of arcane industry rules apply, however, in the August waiver trading period, creating a cat-and-mouse game where teams must not only know which players they covet and are willing to give up, but also which players their competition wants, prompting aggressive moves to block their rivals.

    And this is why I disagree with Dave Cameron, and think the trading deadline is fine where it is. Maybe this August cat-and-mouse game is less entertaining for the fans, since so much of it happens behind the scenes, but I still find it fun that it goes on, like a battle by deep sea creatures that only yields the occasional flash of tentacle or splash of fin for those of us sitting in the rowboats on the surface. And occasionally a great white whale like the Dodgers-Red Sox deal emerges. If the waiver-free trade deadline was hard on the August 31 postseason roster deadline, we’d lose that.

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  12. Chris from Bothell says:

    What I’d like to know is how the heck the convoluted rules got to this point in the first place. Would be great to see a FG article about the history of the various waiver rules and deadlines some time.

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  13. dc says:

    So does every player need to go through waivers in a trade

    lets say hypothetically, the Jays claim papelbon.

    A deal is reached between the jays and phils, for papelbon, utley and cash for Kevin Pillar and Sean Nolin.

    Does every player exchanging teams need to clear waivers? IE like Pillar and Nolin and utley? wouldn’t it be easy to block a trade then, by claiming the young (cheap)) players going back.

    just curious, always wondered this

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Every player does need to clear waivers. If someone like Pillar and Nolin were claimed, the Jays could pull them back off of waivers, then trade 2 PTBNL for Papelbon, Utley and cash, and the Phillies would get them after the season ends.

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      • Anthony says:

        This happened sort of last year with the Mets’ trade of Marlon Byrd for Herrera and Vic Black.

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        • LaLoosh says:

          a deal in which the Reds could have and should have blocked with a claim of Byrd. Byrd was only making 700K last year and so no one thought he’d get thru waivers. Thnk goodness no one did bc Dilson Herrera might just be the Mets best position prospect at the moment, ripping up AA as the youngest position player in the EL.

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  14. Johnny Ringo says:

    I think they should eliminate all of this. Too much headache and chess playing. Simply have the trade deadline end on July 31st.

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  15. Jason says:

    How did Brett Gardner not get claimed? He is a good player on what could be a bargain contract. Even if the Yankees have no intention of trading him, multiple teams should have put in a claim.

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  16. Curious George says:

    I’ve always wondered about how the waiver wire actually works. Is the “wire” actually the method in which the system is used, or used to be used? Is there an Internet site or a portal? How much time does each team get to claim a player before the right to claim moves on to the next team? If the Internet is used, how did it work before the Internet was widely used?

    If anyone can point me to a place where I can find the answers, I’d appreciate it.

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  17. Slacker George says:

    re. “Twins and Royals had productive discussions about Josh Willingham prior to the July deadline.”

    Here’s how that sounds:
    Twins official (TO): How about Willingham?
    Royals official (RO): He’s not good.
    TO: Yeah, you’re right.
    RO: We’ll be Minneapolis in August: any new lutefisk restaurants open up this summer?
    TO: Yes, Sons of Norway in St. Paul.

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  18. BritDawg says:

    Terrific article, thank you.

    One question, please: What happens in August when a player is not put on ‘August trade waivers’ but is actually DFA from the 25-man (like Jacob Turner). If someone claims him do they need to work out a trade with the Marlins, or do they get him outright? Is that kind of waiver also revokable?

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