Langosch: Do August waiver rules work?

Langosch: Do August waiver rules work?

Remember how big a deal 4 p.m. ET was back on July 31? There was all that coverage devoted to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, all the analysis about the Deadline's winners and losers.

And yet, here we sit on Sept. 1, with more than a dozen players -- including plenty of impact pieces -- having been dealt since then.

It's all the result of an August waiver period that fans don't universally understand and baseball execs struggle to explain the origin of. Not only are the rules fuzzy, but they brings into question why we make such a big deal about a July 31 Trade Deadline that isn't truly a deadline at all.

There was once a point to putting waiver stipulations on trades. Enacting a system that gave teams with worse records first dibs on players was initially seen as an equalizer. It kept the top clubs from monopolizing the market and allowed those in pursuit to have the larger pool of players from which to select.

But though it's idealistic in theory -- and perhaps even in practice at its inception -- it no longer appears to work that way.

In the free-agency era of larger payrolls and long-term guaranteed contracts, no non-contending team is interested in taking on a large contract in August. That leaves the contending teams to claim players who have big money due them. Ironically, with baseball's revenue-sharing system enabling more small-market clubs to contend -- such as the Rays, Reds and Padres this season -- the waiver system, which sought to level the playing field, now has the opposite effect.

These waiver rules unfairly skew the power to clubs that wield heavy wallets. It's a month-long game of poker. with all 30 general managers sitting around an imaginary table, with the stakes, of course, much higher for the dozen or so who believe they still have a shot at October.

And then the guesswork begins. Some moves that a GM makes will be in an attempt to position his team for a postseason run. Other moves will simply be dictated by the hand that he believes his biggest competitors hold.

In other words, if the second-place Giants know that the division-leading Padres are seeking to fill a particular void, they have the opportunity to block players by putting a waiver claim on whomever they think might be San Diego's target. If more than one team claims the same player, that player can only go to the team that has the worse record.

August trade rules
How the deadline on Aug. 31 differs from the non-waiver Trade Deadline on July 31
Teams can put any or all of their players through waivers, with the ability to pull each one who's claimed off waivers.
If a player gets through waivers unclaimed, the club has no restrictions in finding a trade partner.
If a player is claimed by only one team, his current team and that claiming club have two days to work out a deal. If no agreement is made, the team that controls the player can keep him or hand him away for a minimal waiver fee.
If more than one team claims the same player, the process is the same. However, the only team with a chance at acquiring the player is the claiming team with the worst record in that player's league. If the claims were only made by clubs from the opposing league, the claiming team with the worst record gets the crack.
This process can go on through the rest of the season, but for a player to be eligible on a postseason roster, he must be in new uniform by Aug. 31.
The inequality in this game, however, is that not all clubs can afford such a risk. The hope might be that by claiming a player, he will be pulled back from waivers -- no harm done. The reality is that sometimes the team holding the pricey chip buys the bluff, leaving the claiming club stuck with a player it either doesn't need or can't afford.

"There is a danger, because if you take a claim on a guy and the team says, 'He's yours,' and that guy had future years on his contract, you're bound to him," said a front-office executive with a mid-market American League club. "The teams that are hurt are the small- and mid-market ones in the hunt who don't have the resources to pick up salary."

There's no better example of the risk this process puts on small- and midmarket clubs than San Diego's once-unwanted acquisition of Randy Myers.

The Padres never intended -- or needed -- to get Myers in August 1998. Their decision to put a waiver claim on him was singularly focused on making sure the reliever wasn't nabbed by the Braves. It seemed harmless enough at the time, yet it turned out to be a $14 million gamble that then-GM Kevin Towers lost.

The Blue Jays gladly handed Myers and his contract over to the Padres. Not only had Myers grossly underperformed, but he was hurt. Myers went on to collect his paychecks for two more seasons while only pitching 14 1/3 innings for the Padres.

Teams have learned from that error in judgment.

The Rays, for instance, can't risk claiming a player whom the Yankees or Red Sox may want. Just last week, the Red Sox put in a claim on outfielder Johnny Damon and the Rays did not, when Damon undoubtedly would have helped both clubs.

This strategy of blocking players wasn't so much an issue decades ago, before free agency, long-term contracts and payroll consciousness. There was also a gentleman's agreement among GMs that the practice of claiming players to block waiver trades wouldn't be the norm.

Now if such teams as the Rays or the Reds or the Padres can't afford the risk of being stuck with a waiver claim, too bad. It just puts those who can in the more enviable position. It gives teams with financial flexibility the upper hand, another advantage in their pocket for a postseason push.

The only way a small- or mid-market club can survive in this system, as the mid-market exec pointed out, is to plan for potential financial demands beforehand.

"There is a little more flexibility there for big-market clubs, but there is always a way around if it you're a small-market team," he said. "In the past we've set aside money for the Trade Deadline, not used it, and then had the flexibility to go get a player in August."

It's fair to argue that this inequality isn't as much of an issue for teams that are out of contention, as clubs playing for the future can use August to take a crack at shedding hefty and restricting contracts. You saw this last year, when the Blue Jays bid farewell to Alex Rios -- and the more than $60 million in guaranteed money the outfielder had coming -- in order to bolster the club's financial flexibility.

The Dodgers' decision to place Manny Ramirez on waivers last week was made with similar intentions. Los Angeles freed up about $3.8 million owed to Ramirez by letting him go to the White Sox, who have the financial ability to take on the entire salary and not give up a prospect to cut the cost.

So, indeed, August can be a month when contracts are shed and prospects are procured.

In the big picture, though, this process, which was established to help competitive balance, now inherently aids the rich. So why not just get rid of the August waiver practice altogether? No one seems to know where it came from, and this would clear up all that Deadline confusion.

That said, don't expect any changes soon. Altering the status quo is challenging enough, and multiple front-office people suggested that the process isn't any more unfair than free agency, an absence of a salary cap or unlimited freedom in Draft spending.

"There's not any solid logic I can give you as to why it's set up the way it is now," one American League GM said. "And there are plenty of reasons why it could be done differently. But while there's the potential for there to be a market advantage in the waiver-claiming process, of all the market disadvantages we deal with, that's one of the smaller ones."

Still, it seems as though one deadline -- make it whatever date you wish -- with one uniform process for player acquisition would cure a lot of headaches. And for a sport that has done much good over the past 15 years to balance the playing field among its small, midsize and large markets, it would be another solid step in that direction.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.