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Mudville: January 23, 2022 10:15 pm PDT
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Rule 5 Alive?

About 25 years ago, I was talking to an assistant general manager about how his club was preparing its 40-man roster for the upcoming Rule 5 draft.

“There has to be an easier way to do this,” he said.

There is an easier way: eliminate it.

This year’s draft will be held on December 8th and can be traced back to 1892. Later, it was considered a way to enable players to get a shot at the major leagues. If you were a shortstop in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system in the 1950s, you were stuck behind Ernie Banks. Same with a third baseman with the Baltimore Orioles system when Brooks Robinson was winning Gold Gloves every year.

But you don’t need it now.

Today, there is minor-league free agency, which can help a player “stuck” in an organization. When the rule was adopted, there were 16 major league franchises, for a total of 400 roster spots. Now, there are 30 teams with 26-man rosters for a total of 780 positions, so there are more opportunities. Major League free-agency opens up roster spots: when a player leaves, a player in that minor league system has a chance to move up, something he didn’t have before the free-agent era, something that the Rule 5 was meant to address.

According to a history of the draft done by MLB.com, a team that makes a selection pays a player’s previous team $100,000 and places the player on its 40-man roster, then must keep the player on the 25-man roster or injured list for the whole season. (He must be active for at least 90 days, so teams can’t hide him on the injured list the whole time.) If the acquiring team removes the player from the big league roster, it must offer him back to the former team for $50,000.

The most famous Rule 5 Draft selection: Roberto Clemente.

The costs increased from $50,000 and $25,000 to $100,000 and $50,000, respectively, in the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. The original club can choose not to accept the player back, and the drafting club can keep him.

There is also a AAA version of the draft.

The most famous Rule Five draft selection was in 1954, when the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates selected Roberto Clemente off the Brooklyn Dodgers roster. The Dodgers did not place Clemente on their 40-man roster (they’d have to keep him on it for two years before they could send him to the minors). One Clemente biographer wrote that everyone in baseball knew the Pirates, who had the first pick in the draft, would take the outfielder. So, Brooklyn’s AAA team in Montreal didn’t play him that much, thinking he wouldn’t put up enticing numbers. The Pirates selected him anyway, and he went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Supporters of the draft point to “competitive balance” as a reason to keep it, that bad teams can get better by picking the right player. I view it this way: why should a team be punished for having a good farm system and a team rewarded for having a bad one? If you can’t draft and develop players, why should you benefit by taking a player from a team that can succeed in developing talent?

Just ask Kevin Malone.

In 1994, Malone was GM of the Montreal Expos, an organization known for its strong minor league system. That year, the Expos lost four players in the draft.

“To be completely honest,” he said, “it stinks to lose one player, much less four. We were fortunate though, that through scouting and player development we (the Expos) had lots of prospects. Therefore, at that time we could endure losing four players. I would think from a logical perspective that there should be a cap or a limit on losing prospects. Maybe one, definitely no more than two.”

Kevin Malone

Dave Dombrowski, president of the Philadelphia Phillies, said the subject of keeping or eliminating the Rule 5 draft is “always a topic of conversation” when GMs get together.

He said he understands it from the perspective of providing opportunity for players, and how a minor league player after six years can be promoted to the major league roster (with no guarantee he’ll make it to the majors) and the club can keep him for three more years. The draft, he said, provides an “advantage for the player.”

But he also understands the idea that the R5 has outlived its usefulness.

Referring to when the Expos lost four players, he said, “Montreal was a small market club, it hurt them to lose players.”

He also told me, “Tampa Bay trades players it thinks it can’t keep for younger players and prospects they like from other systems.” He called such moves “smart.”

I once made the mistake of calling a sports talk radio show to give my opinion on the draft. The host nearly had a conniption (don’t they always?). He talked about the advantage of “stealing a player” and how the draft promoted “competitive balance.” I had a ready answer for him, but he cut me off.

“Should the Chicago Cubs, who had just won the World Series in 2016, be allowed to participate in the draft,” I would have asked him. They were the best team in baseball, so why would they need more talent, especially from an organization that wasn’t as good as developing prospects? A short time later, the draft was held and the Cleveland Indians, the American League pennant winner who took the Cubs to a seven-game World Series, selected a player from the Phillies, who had the worst record in baseball that year. Where’s the competitive balance in that? If that’s stealing a player, then the rich were stealing from the poor!

“A good club drafts a player from a bad club? That doesn’t make sense,” said Dombrowski. He said having division-winning teams not having picks in the draft is something to consider.

Dave Dombrowski

There’s one group of people who want to see the draft continue: fantasy baseball players. Would-be GMs can make all sorts of decisions about who to protect on the roster and who to select. I’m sure the marketing people at MLB would want to keep the R5 to maintain interest in the sport.

Teams in the American League (for now) had an advantage when it came to the draft. The DH allowed teams to keep a smaller bench, so they could draft a player, keep him on the bench for a season, then when he became their property, they could send him to the minors for seasoning.

If a prospect is injured, or coming off an injury, teams would be reluctant to keep him on the 40-man roster; a bad team – or even a good one – can draft that player, and let him ride the bench to get healthy, and if he does get healthy, they can let him play or after the season send him to the minors.

Another “problem” with the draft is a team can select a player then trade him. The Florida Marlins took Johan Santana from the Houston Astros in 1999 but immediately traded him to the Minnesota Twins, and he became one of the best pitchers in baseball. In the 2016 draft, the first two players selected were traded to the San Diego Padres.

In addition to Santana, other Rule 5 draftees who have made an impact with their new team include Hector Rondon, Dan Uggla, Josh Hamilton, Joakim Soria, George Bell, Graeme Lloyd and Antonio Alfonseca. Most recently, Red Sox reliever Garrett Whitlock comes to mind who was left unprotected by the New York Yankees.

But for every player who makes an impact, relatively few draftees stick with their new club. And the majority of players selected never make it to the Major Leagues. So why keep it?

There is more player movement than when the draft was created, which opens up roster spots for minor leaguers or allows them to change organizations that might have an opening for them. There are nearly twice as many teams and rosters have been expanded to 26. Aside from players who have more opportunities that didn’t exist when the draft was first started, why should a club – good or bad – benefit from someone else’s scouting and development? I suggest teams select better scouts and development staff, not players from other organizations. As that talk show host said, it’s a way for a club to steal a player. Last time I looked, stealing is a sin.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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