Welcome back to week three of the Waiver Claim!
When I began planning out the weekly topics for this blogging project, I realized that some of the subjects I wanted to touch on lined up perfectly with the MLB offseason calendar.
Beginning the day after the regular season is completed, teams are faced with a series of dates and deadlines that impact their roster construction throughout the winter. Things like award announcements technically fit into the offseason calendar as well, but teams aren’t exactly building their plans around them.
If you’ve kept up with the baseball news cycle this week, there was a brief flurry of roster activity on Friday that broke up the monotony of November. Nov. 19 was the deadline for MLB teams to add players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft to the 40-man roster (done by “selecting” their contracts, as we learned last week!), or else risk losing them to another team when the draft takes place in December.
So what better time to dive into one of my favorite baseball subjects than now?
It’s a lot to unpack, so let’s get into the nitty gritty. The TL;DR version? A bunch on minor leaguers just got that much closer to reaching their dream on Friday.
What happens when a player signs his first contract?
Nearly every professional baseball player began his career by signing a minor league contract. Unlike the NFL and NBA, to name a few other pro leagues, MLB players simply aren’t ready for the elite level when they leave the amateur ranks. There have been exceptions, but they can be counted on your fingers.
From the moment that first pro contract is signed, and the player is assigned to a minor league affiliate, his Rule 5 clock starts ticking.
Wait, a real clock? No, it’s just an analogy that works!
The key date to remember is June 5. If the player was 18 or younger on the June 5 before he signed his first pro contract, he is naturally protected from the next four Rule 5 Drafts. If the player was 19 or older on the June 5 before he signed his first pro contract, he is naturally protected from the next three Rule 5 Drafts.
Generally, the first group is comprised of players who signed as international free agents from Latin American countries or were drafted out of high school. The latter group is usually made up of college draftees, though some international players sign later than their peers and thus qualify under this umbrella.
But what *is* the Rule 5 Draft? (And why is it called that?)
Both fair questions! I’ll answer the second one first.
Simply put, those running the league weren’t creative enough to come up with anything better. The Rule 5 Draft is governed by… you guessed it… Rule 5 of the Professional Baseball Rules Book. Note that isn’t the rulebook that tells players what they can and can’t do on the field. This is the document that contains all the details on how teams can operate with regards to transactions and player movement. You know, the fun stuff!
Every year in late November, MLB teams are faced with a deadline to submit their 40-man rosters to the league office. From that date through the completion of the Rule 5 Draft, the 40-man rosters are frozen from internal promotions.
Trades and free agent signings can still be made in this period, but if you qualify for Rule 5 selection (as outlined in the section above) and aren’t on the 40-man roster, you’re at risk of being taken.
Then, at the Winter Meetings in December, the actual draft is held. In reverse order of the previous year’s standings, teams who wish to participate (and have the open 40-man space) take turns selecting eligible players from other organizations.
Wait, free talent acquisition, just like that? Not so fast.
When a player is taken in the Rule 5 Draft, he essentially becomes frozen on his new team’s active roster. That means once the next season starts, he can’t be optioned to the minor leagues like most young players can. If he lasts the entire season on the major league 26-man roster, he becomes a full-time member of the organization, with those restrictions lifted.
Can’t stick on the active roster? That’s pretty good news for the player’s old team. In that case, he’ll be offered back to the organization he came from. In nearly every case, that offer will be accepted since the player can return to the minor leagues with no requirements to remain on the active or 40-man roster.
How do teams approach the draft?
It’s extremely rare that a player is left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, gets picked, and has a significant impact on his new team. It’s happened (Johan Santana and Josh Hamilton, to name two), but there’s such a small probability of players who are that good going unprotected.
For a mechanism that produces talent on such an infrequent basis, MLB teams must take the protection deadline seriously. It’s important to know which of your eligible players are 1) most likely to be selected, 2) are most likely to stick with a team if selected, and 3) would be a detrimental loss to the organization if that were to happen.
Each team usually has a few slam dunk adds each year. For the Mets, that was Ronny Mauricio and Mark Vientos, two of their elite hitting prospects. After that, it got trickier.
Pitchers are generally more likely to be selected, since it’s easier to “hide” a Rule 5 pick with untapped talent in a major league bullpen than it is to use a precious bench spot on one. The Mets, recognizing their general lack of upper-minors pitching prospects, decided to protect two of the more promising ones, José Butto and Adam Oller, instead of position players like Carlos Cortes and Hayden Senger.
So when teams come together for the Draft in December (keep in mind it would be pushed back to a later date if the CBA negotiations are unresolved by then), they’ll have the opportunity to pick a Cortes or Senger from the Mets if they believe they could fill a role on their 2022 MLB roster, or if they believe it’s worth using them sparingly next season to retain their rights going forward.
That’s a lot! Props to you for getting through it, because you’re now that much smarter than the casual baseball fan who doesn’t know Rule 5 from Rule 4 (that’s the rule that lays out the June amateur draft, the more commonly-discussed selection of players).
We’re over the hump of the Waiver Claim! After a week off for the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ll be back the following Sunday to take you down the finish line.