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Baseball Buzzwords: Designated for assignment

People say “DFA him!” all the time. What does “DFA” really mean?

Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

As we’ve discussed the 40-man roster and player to be named later trades in this series so far, I now extend a bit to discuss an incredibly baseball term: Designated For Assignment. A player gets designated (or DFA’d) most often when a team suddenly needs a roster spot, and doesn’t especially want to do anything in a hasty fashion. A DFA’d player is essentially put in timeout for up to a week.

The 40-man roster is a rather strict limit. If a team has a filled 40-man, but suddenly adds another player, a spot must be created out of thin air. When designated, the player remains a member of the team, continues to get paid, but is no longer on the 40-man roster. He’s also required to not be on the club’s facilities. It’s a bit of a Schrödinger’s Cat of the MLB roster. He’s on the team, but he isn’t.

The team has seven days to decide what they’re going to do with him. They have three options, and the calendar has a bit of sway on what has to, or ought to, be done by when.

  1. The player can be released. (This is more likely to happen if the player has worn out his welcome, and isn’t disposed of in another fashion. Nonetheless, release is a possibility.)
  2. The player can be traded to another team.
  3. The player can be run through waivers.

Note that if the player is run through waivers, he can’t be traded. If traded, he isn’t run though waivers. The waiver fee is $20,000 from the receiving team to the surrendering team. If he has any sort of a positive background, the waiver fee is quite insignificant. If multiple teams are likely to be interested in the player if on the waiver wire, the surrendering team is probably better off executing a trade. Regardless how small the market is, a $20,000 acquisition is only worth shooting for if the player has about no other value. A team can receive cash or player value in exchange.

The seven days is a full week. If a player is designated mid-afternoon on a Thursday, for instance, the team will need to decide by the following Friday. As the waiver wire requires two days to be completed, a player being run through waivers in that spot is best off being run through by (in the current case) by Wednesday morning. Then, the waiver process completes on Thursday, before the Friday deadline.

If the player isn’t put through waivers soon enough, the waivers option disappears. My hunch is that executives call around to anyone who has mentioned interest in a player previously. Usually, a player being run through waivers might bring back a slight piece in return, particularly one not on the 40-man. Recent draft choices are often preferred as return targets, as they leave a bit of extra development time before a final decision needs to be made.

While it’s an easy assumption to make that designated players are necessarily rubbish, that’s not an especially useful take. Progress isn’t linear. Some players need a new organization, coach, or Pitch Lab to figure out the fine art of MLB success. I enjoy seeing which teams tend to DFA better players than others, and similarly notice which teams seem better at upgrading players once acquired. Sometimes, the same teams are better at upgrading as having excess quality.

As usual, if you have any questions on the DFA procedure, ask away. Similarly, if any baseball buzzwords are confusing, post below, or contact me about them in some other way. Baseball has a few silly rules and terms. The more you understand the terms, the more you can enjoy the tapestry that is affiliated baseball.