A Rule That’s Tough to Follow: What is the Rule 5 Draft?
Every winter, representatives from every MLB team gather to take part in what’s called the “Rule 5” draft. More often than not, the draft ends with little fanfare, as floundering minor league players are plucked from other teams. While the logistics and framework behind the draft are tough to put together for the average fan (and most diehard fans), the Rule 5 draft has been used by some teams with a large amount of success. While recent rule changes have somewhat dampened the success rate, many teams still use the Rule 5 draft in hopes of bolstering their respective teams. There are both Major League and multiple Minor League portions of the draft, but we will focus strictly on the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft. In order to understand who is eligible and how they switch teams, let’s take a deeper look.
BUILDING A DRAFT CLASS
In order to understand the Rule 5 draft, a couple of designations must first be made. A major league team has both a 25-man roster and a 40-man roster, with the 25-man being the active major league team. The 40-man roster is built with a combination of the 25 active players and up to 15 other minor league players they are hoping to protect. While teams do not have to designate their 25-man rosters until just before the season, they must designate their 40-man rosters before the Rule 5 draft. All players that are on a 40-man roster are not eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft.
While players on the 40-man rosters are not eligible for the Rule 5 draft, not all players that aren’t on the 40-man are necessarily eligible either. In order for the player to be eligible, he has to meet the following criteria:
- Must not be on a team’s 40-man roster
- For players signed at age 19 or older: must have spent 4 years or more in professional baseball
- For players signed at age 18 or younger: must have spent 5 years or more in professional baseball
Now that the pool of players is set, there’s a few more things to cover. The draft order is set, per usual, in the reverse order of the previous year’s standings. Teams are not required to make a selection, as they can choose to pass on taking any eligible players. Once a player is selected, they are not a guaranteed part of the team that drafted them. If a team selects a player, they are required to keep that player on their 25-man roster for the entire next season, and they will pay the player’s former team $100,000. If the drafting team intends to remove that player from the 25-man roster at any point during the initial season, they must offer the player back to his original team for $50,000. The original team can either spend the $50,000 to bring the player back to their organization, acquire a different player from the drafting team, or simply pass on paying the $50,000 and allow the player to continue to waivers with the drafting team. Here’s an example below:
- John Doe, originally a member of the Rangers, gets drafted in the Rule 5 draft by the Yankees, and the Yankees must pay $100,000 to the Rangers.
- After two months of playing for the Yankees, the Yankees look to remove him from the 25-man roster.
- The Yankees then have to either offer him back to the Rangers for $50,000 or offer a different player to keep John Doe’s rights.
- If John Doe is traded to a third team such as the Dodgers, the Dodgers would obtain his rights under the Rule 5 parameters, meaning they would have to follow the same rules as if they drafted him in the Rule 5 draft.
After the player completes a full season on the 25-man roster of his new team, he is now fully a member of the new team, and if able to be moved around accordingly. Teams have long used creative ways to keep Rule 5 players on their roster, finding ways to keep potential impact players while tiptoeing around the confusing rules surrounding the Rule 5 draft.
DIAMONDS IN THE RULE 5 ROUGH
What is today called the Rule 5 draft has actually been around since 1903. In order to find a recognizable name that was moved in the Rule 5 draft, you can look as far back as 1954. In February of 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers would sign a 19-year-old outfielder from Puerto Rico by the name of Roberto Clemente, who would spend one year with the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate in Montreal. Following the 1954 season, the Pirates selected Clemente in the Rule 5 draft, and he would go on to collect 3,000 hits over 18 seasons for the Pirates before his untimely death.
In the more modern era of the Rule 5 draft, teams have also been able to find elite talent that may have been overlooked by other teams. In the 1999 Rule 5 draft, the Minnesota Twins selected right-handed pitcher Jared Camp (originally of the Indians’ organization) with the first pick of the draft. The Florida Marlins picked second that year, and they plucked a left-handed pitcher named Johan Santana from the Astros’ organization. The Marlins and Twins quickly swapped pitchers, with Camp going to the Marlins, and Santana going to the Twins along with cash. Camp never made it to the majors for Florida, as he was returned to Cleveland. In fact, Camp never made it to the majors, as his lengthy minor league career came to an end in 2002. Santana would go on to have a storybook, if not borderline Hall of Fame career with the Twins and Mets. From 2004 to 2007, Santana led MLB pitchers in strikeouts, wins, and OPS+ against, and was second in ERA and FIP (min. 500 PA). This rendition of the Rule 5 draft was an obvious win for the Twins, as they gained an elite pitcher out of the deal.
Another player, Josh Hamilton, was a Rule 5 success story. After his well-documented battle with addiction, Hamilton became eligible for the Rule 5 draft and was picked by the Chicago Cubs with the third pick of the 2006 Rule 5 draft. Hamilton was then flipped to the Cincinnati Reds for cash considerations, and he would make his debut in 2007 with the Reds. In a limited role, Hamilton would show what originally made him the first pick of the regular (Rule 4) draft, posting a .922 OPS with the Reds while also clubbing 19 homeruns in only 337 plate appearances. The following offseason, Hamilton would be traded to the Texas Rangers, where he would eventually become the MVP of the American League.
A few other Rule 5 picks have found their way to MLB success after switching teams. George Bell, in similar fashion to Hamilton, would become the American League MVP after being picked in the Rule 5 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays. Second baseman Dan Uggla would become a National League All Star the season after being plucked by the Marlins in the 2005 Rule 5 Draft. Other success stories include Joakim Soria and Shane Victorino, who became All Star players with their new teams. Some players, such as Jose Bautista and Darren O’Day, were also part of the Rule 5 draft, but wouldn’t find MLB success until later in their careers. The Rule 5 draft has had many more failures than successes, but a valuable player can certainly be found in the mix.
WHY THE LACK OF RECENT SUCCESS?
In recent years, some Rule 5 picks have managed to stay on Major League rosters, but no players have had the sort of impact that Santana, Hamilton, or certainly Clemente had on their teams. Possibly the best recent Rule 5 draftee is Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera, who was picked in the 2014 Rule 5 draft and became a National League All Star in 2016. One reason is the change in the eligibility of minor league players for the Rule 5 draft. After the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), players were given an extra season of protection from the draft, meaning that teams had one more year of evaluation for their minor league prospects. Another recent change is the money involved with the Rule 5 draft, as the amount to pick a player doubled from 2015 to 2016 (from $50K to $100K), and the amount teams had to pay to reacquire their players also doubled (from $25K to $50K). With a smaller pool of players and more money involved, the amount of successful players to find in the newest versions of the Rule 5 draft is bound to be less. With that being said, you never know when you might find a player that can change your fortunes, which makes the Rule 5 draft very important and interesting.
(all statistics courtesy of baseball-reference.com)