Rule 5 Draft valuable or outdated?
Practice of protecting talent can be gamble for many clubs
There are 16 players in Major League camps today who are hopeful of making a team on Opening Day when all of the odds seem to be stacked against them.
All 16 were not rated high enough by their organizations to be a part of the protected 40-man rosters at the time of last December's Winter Meetings.
Now these players are bidding to become part of a 25-man roster when the start of the season gets under way in less than three weeks.
Welcome to the world of what is known as the "Rule 5 Draft."
It represents one of the most intriguing parts of the game, where the work and judgment of those who scout Minor League games becomes critical.
The Rule 5 Draft is really about the protection of talent by a Major League team, as well as the projection of talent by all of the organizations.
The Draft can represent turmoil and sleepless nights by a general manager when he has to make the final call on forming the list of 40 players who will be protected from the Draft just prior to the annual Winter Meetings.
The internal discussions of which players will be protected are given considerable time, and in these talks a GM usually will rely heavily on his scouts and player development staff. When it is all said and done, however, it is the GM who will put his stamp of approval on the 40-man list and place his head on the chopping block.
A team has four or five years before it has to protect a player, depending on the age of the player when he first signed, but after that period the player is subject to the Draft if he is not on the protected list.
It was just eight years ago, in the spring of 2000, that the Minnesota Twins had a Rule 5 selection on their roster. He was a left-handed pitcher from Venezuela and he created little attention after having been left unprotected in the Draft by the Houston Astros.
The player's name? Johan Santana, who happens to be one of baseball's featured players this spring after signing a six-year, $137.5 contract with the New York Mets in early February following a trade with the Twins.
Santana's new contract is light years removed from the cost of a player in the Rule 5 Draft. Each draftee costs $50,000, and if the player doesn't stay on the drafting team's 25-man roster all season, the player must be offered back to his original team at half-price.
It is the provision of having to keep a drafted player for the full season that causes most teams to give pause in the selection process in that in most cases these are young players with only Minor League experience. If you are going to draft a player, a GM has to ask himself, "Can this player help us this year or is he a good enough player that we can afford to keep him for a full season without any significant contributions from him?"
There are some general managers who view the Draft as a "great value," and others who see the process as "outdated for the modern-day value of young talent."
"I think the Rule 5 has great value and we do a lot of work in getting ready for the Draft, as I'm sure all teams do," said San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers.
Towers and the Padres selected two players and made a trade for another in last December's Draft, as they acquired pitchers Carlos Guevara and Michael Gardner and second baseman Callix Crabbe.
"We were most excited about Guevara [the Padres made a deal with the Florida Marlins to draft him No. 5 in the First-Year Player Draft, and then acquired him for cash considerations] because of his screwball. But he was hurt early in the spring and we have had only a brief look. Gardner is a sinkerball pitcher and faces an uphill battle to make our club," Towers said.
It is the third player whom the Padres took in the Draft, Crabbe, who has the best shot to make the team. "He is a good runner who can play second, short and third and all of the outfield positions. He is a good defender and it's easier to carry a position player as opposed to an 11th or 12th pitcher," said Towers.
Cleveland, with a strong farm system, lost two position players in the first 10 selections of the Draft -- first baseman Matt Whitney, taken by Washington; and outfielder Brian Barton, selected by St. Louis.
"My predominant feeling regarding the Rule 5 Draft is that the price is far too outdated for the modern-day value of young talent and the development costs associated," said Indians general manager Mark Shapiro.
"We need to raise the price of the acquisition to be in line with the modern realities of the game and insure that clubs consider the implications of the selection more seriously rather than taking many flyers on guys when they simply have open roster spots."
Towers points out that if a Rule 5 player makes a team, the player thus receives the Major League minimum of $390,000 and also assures himself of a like salary for the following year.
"You have to consider that you have made an investment of at least $750,000-plus over two years," said Towers.
There were a total of 18 players taken in the Rule 5 Draft last December, but Cincinnati on Monday offered pitcher Sergio Valenzuela back to the Atlanta Braves. On Wednesday, Rule 5 player Lincoln Holdzkom became a free agent when the Red Sox declined to take back his contract after he had been selected by Philadelphia.
As part of the process of returning a player to his original team, that player must go through waivers and can be claimed by another Major League club. If claimed, the player remains subject to the Rule 5 regulations.
On Wednesday, two days after returning Valenzuela to Atlanta, the Reds claimed Rule 5 selection player Jose Capellan from the San Francisco Giants. The Giants had started the waiver process to return Capellan to the Boston Red Sox.
The Red Sox value Capellan and would like very much to have him back in their fold.
All teams realize they may have let a good player get away when a player is taken in the Rule 5 Draft.
At the Winter Meetings of 1970, the Red Sox lost a young outfielder in the Draft to the St. Louis Cardinals.
In the Cardinals' final cut of the spring of 1971, that young outfielder was returned to the Red Sox. He went on to six seasons with the Red Sox and another 11 seasons with Milwaukee in a career that produced 241 home runs, 1,125 RBIs and five All-Star appearances.
That player is Cecil Cooper, now the manager of the Houston Astros.
In Houston's camp this spring, Cooper is keeping a close eye on a young pitcher by the name of Wesley Wright, a Rule 5 Draft selection from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Cooper is fully aware of the ramifications of letting a good young player get away.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice-president and general manager. His book -- Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue -- was published by SportsPublishingLLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.