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Baseball Buzzwords: The Rule 5 Draft

Just how does this arcane part of baseball roster-building work?

Major League Baseball

The Rule 5 Draft has two entirely different life cycles. Discussing the draft could almost be better discussed in two different articles, but I’ll try to limit it to this one. The premise of the December Rule 5 Draft is two-fold. It tries to prevent the “better teams” from hoarding talent. It also forces organizations to eventually bring some players to the 40-man roster, with the punishment of potentially losing the player if they don’t. The Cubs added and lost talent in both phases of the draft this past December, so the entire gamut is on display this cycle.

To be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, a player has to have spent at least either three or four full seasons in minor league baseball. If a player was drafted at 19 or older (generally, a college aged selection) he will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft in his fourth December. Players signed at 18 or younger are eligible in their fifth December. Not all will be viable enough to be considered, but those that are are worth protecting can be obtained for a fee of only $100,000.

The Rule 5 Draft has two phases, a major league phase and a minor league phase. Both are to help edge players to environments where they might get more playing time. The minor league phase is the last bit of business at the league’s Winter Meetings. If teams want to add players that another side left unprotected for the minor league phase of the draft, they can add them for a low five-figure fee. With the minor-league phase, no complications exist as far as playing time or returns. The Cubs added and lost two players in this season’s MiLB phase. Those added will be Cubs for the season. Those lost are gone.

The MLB Phase requires multiple antacids. While teams can acquire a Rule 5-eligible player in the major-league phase, strings are attached. To retain the player without complications, he must remain on the 26-man roster all season. He can’t be sent to Triple-A, as happens with many players. As such, if the Cubs wish to retain Trevor Megill, their December selection, he is best off staying with the parent club all season. No short trips to Iowa for Megill. While Injured List stints are allowed, trips to Des Moines aren’t, unless they are tied in with injury rehab.

If he is injured, he needs to spend 90 days on the 26-man roster to belong to the Cubs free-and-clear in 2021 and beyond. If injuries keep Megill below 90 days, he must serve the amount needed (to reach 90) in 2021, or be offered back. “Be offered back” means, in practice: If the Cubs call off the experiment, he can either be put directly on outright waivers, or designated for assignment. If you remember from that discussion, the Cubs would have a bit over a week to trade Megill (unlikely, though possible), release him (yery unlikely), or run him through waivers. If he is then run through waivers, two possibilities exist.

Another team claims Megill. The claiming team has the same stipulations and timelines as the Cubs did with their claim. Same party, different address.

He clears, and is offered back to his former team, in this instance, San Diego. If it gets to this point, the Padres have three options. Unless it gets to this point, the Padres have no realistic say in the situation. If the Cubs offer Megill back to San Diego, they can buy him back at half price, and he’s off their 40-man roster. The Padres can refuse Megill, and the Cubs keep him. The third option, and it only applies if it gets this far, the Padres and Cubs can make a trade, with Megill staying with the Cubs, and the Padres getting “something else” in return.

For the “trade” option, the Cubs executed a swap somewhat recently along those lines. Pedro Araujo pulled up a bit short of the 90-day minimum in his effort to stay with the Orioles in 2018. Run through waivers very early in the 2019 season, Araujo cleared waivers. The Cubs allowed the Orioles to keep Araujo, who has since been declared a free agent. In exchange, the Cubs added some international free agency spending space from Baltimore in early 2019, and added 21 international free agents after that point. As such, I refer to Araujo as “Ol’ 21-for-1.”

In the most recent Rule 5 Draft, the Athletics poached infielder Vimael Machin from the Cubs. He will face the same gauntlet as Megill odes. That the Cubs sent Oakland Tony Kemp might, or might not, make it more likely that Machin gets returned.

The specifics of the Rule 5 Draft are a bit arduous. It’s intended to be “possible, though not likely” for a team to keep a Rule 5 addition. Some times it works (Hector Rondon), but most times, less so (David Patton and Lendy Castillo). In the beginning, the December draft is about scouting. In the mid- and later terms, it’s about how important a roster spot is, and how well a player looks for the future. Very rarely is a Rule 5 selection about the current season. If Megill has a 3-WAR pitcher career for the Cubs, he will have been a heist. if he’s taking the spot from a far better reliever in Mesa or Chicago, he’ll visit the waiver wire.

If you understand the Rule 5 Draft combinations and permutations, you can likely grasp about any of MLB’s silly and contrived rules. If you have questions, ask below.