What Does The Rule 5 Draft Really Mean?

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

It's that time of year. The Winter Meetings begin Monday, and far too much attention being paid to the Rule 5 Draft. Here is my contribution.

Al asked me to write an article on the Rule 5 draft. At first, I declined. Or refused. Whichever fit. After a day of thinking on it, I changed my mind. In part, because my article is more on the Rule 5 draft in general than the current Rule 5 draft. Just a couple of hours after I submitted this to Al for editing and posting, news 'broke' that the Cubs would surrender their pick at four to Philadelphia for chicanery on Lendy Castillo's injury status. Nonetheless, I still believe there are points to be made in favor of the Rule 5 draft.

Two types of people freak out over the December Rule 5 draft (or, from here on, "the draft"). Bungee jumpers and astrophysicists are, amazingly, not the two standard target groups. Instead, it's more prospect-niks and fans of minuitae of the game. As I fall in both categories, I'm locked into the draft. The Cubs will be able to leave early, though, with their pick not coming until Round Two (the minor-league phase). Unless they trade up.

***

Most things about baseball are about the team. The schedule. The standings. The post-season. The machinations surrounding the draft are almost entirely about the system or organization. As a macro-person, that's my bailiwick. I enjoy discussing options, waivers procedures, and... hey, why are your eyes glazing over?

The December draft exists to, ostensibly, keep front offices from torpedoing players opportunities at legitimate free agency. While there will always be (on other teams, at least) some really good players, there are many baseball players not lined up to be immediate stars. These are guys that slog through three, four, even six or more years of minor league seasoning before getting major-league meal money. Let's take a fictitious good 20th-round draft pick.

Let's assume he is a 22-year-old drafted out of college. And, there's no December draft. He does fairly well up the ladder, and after his third year, he did fairly well in Double-A ball. However, since there is no draft, the general manager has no compulsion to put him on the 40-man roster. Another team might like to add him to its roster, but there is no way to prevent hoarding talent. Perhaps he gets traded to a team that needs his skills. Or, perhaps, they play him again at Double-A.

Then, they finally move him up to Triple-A. But, he's not as good as the guy in front of him with the parent club. So he rots. Finally, at age 27, he gets dealt. He finally gets his first cup of coffee. It's in September, and doesn't go that well. Finally, in his second go-round,he finally figures out the big leagues. He makes it as a starter at age 29, and, when he finally has his chance to shine, he's past his prime.

***

The draft is in place to prevent that from happening. Each year, a new batch of players become eligible for the draft. The organization has two choices on each such player. Add him to the 40-man roster, or expose him to the draft. Many players will play out their career in bus-riding obscurity. However, any eligible player left unprotected has the opportunity to get drafted by another big league club. To explain what happens next, I will recount what happened to Starling Peralta.

After having a nice (though somewhat shortened, due to an injury) season in Low-A Peoria, Peralta was eligible for the December 2012 draft. The Cubs opted to not protect him, though it could have gone either way. Arizona drafted him, and gave the Cubs $50,000 to purchase his contract. The Diamondbacks had four options.Their hope was that he would break camp with the parent club. That is the hope with all of these longshots. Unfortunately, Peralta had one horrible outing, where all six batters he faced reached. The 25-man roster option had faded.

He wasn't injured, so choice number two was gone as well. While a Rule 5 candidate can always be traded, he wasn't likely to stay anywhere at the big league level, so it slipped to the other option. Peralta was put on waivers. Not surprisingly, he cleared waivers. Then, two things happened rather simultaneously. He was offered back to the Cubs (who accepted him back, returning $25,000, or half the initial fee), and negotiations began for a possible trade. The teams could have swapped players, allowing Arizona to keep Peralta (now permitted to be sent to the minors with any team, having cleared waivers and being re-purchased), with the Cubs getting another Snakes asset. Despite there being a discussion, no agreement was reached, and Peralta was again a Cubs prospect.

This is the usual result. December draftee gets drafted. He goes through spring training, and isn't good enough. He clears waivers, returns from where he came,and his career continues. However, sometimes they are (with the however being quite modified) somewhat of a success. The Cubs' selection last December was Hector Rondon. Rondon appeared in 45 games, topping 50 innings, and pitching rather well after an appearance in July that upped his ERA to 6.68. Over his final nine outings, Rondon allowed no runs over nine innings. In that span, he only allowed one hit and two walks, with eight strikeouts.

What does that clarify for 2014? Nothing. He'll still have to get people out, throw strikes, and prove September wasn't a fluke. But now, he has a chance. And he's a year closer to arbitration and free agency.

***

The draft goes from worst record to best from the previous season, with each team selecting until they pass. Probably about 15 will be selected from the ranks of the eligible but unprotected. The Phillies will now have the Cubs' fourth slot. In the December draft, the stakes are a bit lower. Many organizations have a few arms that they could have justified keeping, but didn't. A player not on the 40-man roster come January has more value than an identically talented player on the 40-man, as he isn't cluttering a valued spot. A minor league player can get run around from affiliate to affiliate by the team for six years, if unselected. Once added to the 40-man, options kick in, and the player starts getting paid more.

There have been a few major successes in the draft, but most return to obscurity, in a major stage sense, shortly after the draft. Success is rare, and fleeting. Shane Victorino, Dan Uggla, and Johan Santana are the outliers, not the expected results. Nonetheless, for a $50,000 gamble, execs will try to guess right next Thursday.

A selecting team has, realistically, three options. Eligible teams (teams with full 40-man rosters are ineligible) will all eventually pass. They can select a player for themselves. Finally, they can select and trade their pick. This trade can be for cash, a player (or players), or a combination of the two. A traded draftee retains the same obligations as, for instance, Peralta had. 25-man roster, DL, trade, or run through waivers. There are no shortcuts or loopholes. If the player completes the season with at least 90 days on the active roster, they are no longer subject to the Rule 5 rules.

***

For sheerly academic reasons (since the Cubs aren't picking), here are a few names that teams might be considering. For mere comedic value, my guess is the Cubs will, with the fourth pick, lose Marcus Hatley to the Phillies. I apologize if this comes out muddy. It was twice as long before the incriminating tweet.

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