MLB announced a series of rule changes yesterday, which were part of an agreement between the MLB owners and the MLBPA. Some of the rules will go into effect in 2019, while others will be held until the 2020 season. Below is the breakdown of the rules, along with my thoughts on how this can impact the Pirates.

2019 Changes

Inning Breaks: Will be reduced from 2:05 to 2:00 in local games, and from 2:25 to 2:00 in national games. The Office of the Commissioner reserves the right to reduce this to 1:55 for both games in 2020. This will have no impact on the Pirates, as it’s a move to shorten games.

Mound Visits: The maximum number of mound visits will be reduced from six to five. This won’t specifically impact the Pirates, as every team will be under the same rule.

One Trade Deadline: There will be one trade deadline on July 31st. In previous years, players could be traded after July 31st as long as they cleared revocable waivers, or if they were traded to the team who claimed them. Players can still go on waivers after July 31st, but can’t be traded. The last day to trade a player now will be July 31st.

This is another rule that impacts all 30 teams, so there’s no specific impact for the Pirates. However, with so many teams still involved in playoff races in July, it will lead to some tougher decisions. There have been a few times where the Pirates didn’t make a move in July, instead opting to wait into August. The Marlon Byrd trade is the most notable here. Now, all decisions will need to be made two months before the season ends.

There were also rules to adjust the All-Star Game voting and the Home Run Derby, but I won’t get into those.

2020 Changes

26-Man Rosters: The active roster from the start of the season through August 31st will expand from 25 to 26 players. Doubleheaders will allow for 27 players. This is another rule that impacts every team the same, but it will be interesting to see how different teams use the extra spots in terms of strategy. The norm with a 25-man roster is 13 position players and 12 pitchers. I’m assuming the extra spot will be primarily used on a pitcher.

There will be limits set on how many pitchers a team can have.

September Limits: In previous years, you could call up anyone on the 40-man roster when rosters expanded in September. Now there is a limit of 28 players, and all teams must carry 28 players. I’m not sure if teams can rotate guys in and out, and how long a player would have to be in the minors (where the seasons are completed by that point) when sent down.

John Dreker made a good point here about how this rule really hurts the small guys. The roster expansions allowed for fringe MLB guys to get a brief look in the majors. Some turned that into a great opportunity. You’d wonder if Pablo Reyes would be in the position he’s in right now, competing for a bench spot and having a good shot at it, if he didn’t get that callup last September. But there are also a lot of players who get their only MLB experience in September, which also comes with the benefits of one day in the majors. That will be taken away from a lot of players now.

Minimum Number of Batters For Pitchers: Starting pitchers and relief pitchers must now pitch to a minimum of three batters, or until the end of a half inning, unless there’s an injury or illness. This all but eliminates the LOOGY role, as the only opportunity for that would be if a lefty comes up with two outs. This rule doesn’t really impact the Pirates, since they never focused on situational pitchers.

Longer Injured and Option Periods: Pitchers will now have to spend 15 days on the Injured List instead of 10, and 15 days on optional assignment instead of 10. This rule will make it more difficult for teams to use opener or bullpen game strategies, as they can’t easily rotate guys in and out of the minors. Again, this doesn’t impact the Pirates, since they haven’t focused on those strategies.

Impact to the Pirates

The biggest impact to the Pirates, and any small market team, is the reduction of September players. This removes their ability to get a look at younger players who might be able to help in the following season. That’s much more important for small market teams than big market teams, as the small market teams rely on those younger players more. Again, we don’t have to look far for an example of how this could hurt a team. Pablo Reyes probably doesn’t have an inside track to a bench spot this year without his September time last year, and he probably isn’t on a limited 28-man roster last year.

A lot of the rule changes — big surprise — benefit the guys at the top. The rules to eliminate LOOGYs and bullpen strategies helps to strengthen the importance of starting pitchers and full-time relievers. Teams were using those strategies to get an edge without having to pay bigger money to a starter or an established reliever.

I’m not here arguing for teams to save money, but the impact here is that a lot of the smaller guys are now out of a job in order to strengthen the jobs of the top guys. There are so many players in the minors who profile as situational pitchers, and now they have no path to the majors. And the guys who are fringe prospects, who might have an outside shot of being an MLB contributor, now see fewer opportunities to crack the majors with limited rosters.

The MLBPA always negotiates away the rights of the smaller guys in order to strengthen the negotiating power of the big guys. Then, MLB teams find more ways to remove the negotiating power of the big guys by finding an edge with the smaller guys. This cycle will continue until all teams are on an even level of spending. It doesn’t seem like MLBPA is ready to push for that yet, based on these rule changes.

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