Top 10 Rule 5 Draft Success Stories, And How To Make The Rule 5 Matter Again

This year’s Rule 5 draft will be the 15th since the Twins acquired Johan Santana in the 1999 edition. His success with Minnesota, which included two Cy Young Awards as well as top-five finishes in two other seasons, stands as one of the great Rule 5 success stories.

To say that players like Santana are Rule 5 outliers, however, would be an understatement.

To illustrate this point, here are the top 10 Rule 5 selections made from 1999-2012. The Post-Draft WAR column refers to a player’s Wins Above Replacement in the season after he was drafted, when a team had to keep him on its major league roster, while Years and Total WAR are the seasons spent with the drafting team and the total WAR accumulated with that team.

 

No Player, Pos., Team Draft Post-Draft WAR
Years Total WAR
1. Johan Santana, lhp, Twins 1999 0.1 8 35.5
Two Cy Young Awards, three all-star appearances with the Twins, but only 0.1 WAR in 2000, as his restriction year was spent primarily in the bullpen.
2. Josh Hamilton, of, Reds 2006 2.5 1 2.5
After missing essentially four straight seasons, he surprisingly contributed to the Reds in 2007, after which they traded him to the Rangers for Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera. Hamilton racked up 22.1 WAR and won the 2010 MVP award in five years in Texas.
3. Dan Uggla, 2b, Marlins 2005 3.0 5 15.5
The power-hitting second baseman averaged 31 homers and made two all-star teams in five seasons with the Marlins.
4. Joakim Soria, rhp, Royals 2006 2.4 5 12.5
The Royals pulled off a Hail Mary with the selection of Soria, whom they scouted in the Mexican Pacific League that winter. He made a pair of all-star teams and saved 160 games in five seasons with Kansas City.
5. Everth Cabrera, ss, Padres 2008 1.4 5 5.9
Plucked out of low Class A, Cabrera claimed the NL stolen-base crown in 2012 (44) and served as San Diego’s primary starter at shortstop in three of the past five seasons.
6. Darren O’Day, rhp, Rangers 2008 2.4 3 4.6
The sidewinding reliever contributed 4.6 WAR in three seasons in the Texas bullpen and matched that total with the Orioles after Baltimore claimed him on waivers following the 2011 season.
7. Luis Ayala, rhp, Expos 2002 1.8 5 5.1
A four-year veteran of the Mexican League, Ayala served as a workhorse reliever for the Expos/Nationals, logging 70-plus innings four times with a high of 90.
8. Jay Gibbons, of, Orioles 2000 0.9 7 6.1
The corner outfielder had some big power seasons for the Orioles, typically as a league-average bat.
9. Jared Burton, rhp, Reds 2006 1.2 5 2.5
Though his stint in Cincinnati ended with two injury-plagued years, Burton pitched to a 1.34 WHIP and 2.0 SO/BB ratio in the first three seasons.
10. Four-way tie
A quartet of Rule 5 picks has contributed to postseason clubs the past three years: utility infielder Michael Martinez (2011 Phillies), lefty reliever Joe Paterson (2011 D-backs), second baseman Ryan Flaherty (2012 Orioles) and first baseman Nate Freiman (2013 Athletics). All filled very specific, minor roles on good teams and thus logged low WAR totals.

 

Santana, Hamilton, Uggla and Soria jump off the screen, having made a combined 12 all-star teams and won three major postseason awards. However, a closer inspection reveals that all four players were drafted prior to 2007, and that the top talents to hit the scene after that quartet—Cabrera and O’Day—have produced at a much more modest rate.

What’s more, teams made 232 selections in the major league Rule 5 draft from 1999-2012, which places the odds of landing an all-star-level talent at four out of 232—or 1.7 percent. Even if we count all 13 players above as smashing successes, the odds of finding another one are long: 5.6 percent, or about one in 20 Rule 5 picks.

Partly to blame for the watering down of the Rule 5 player pool was a change to the eligibility rules, enacted in 2006, that granted teams one more exemption year for players. We don’t really begin seeing the effect of the rules change until the 2007 draft, however, following an adjustment year. After seeing 2006 Rule 5 picks like Hamilton and Soria blossom in the majors, teams began looking at their high-ceiling-but-far-from-the-majors prospects in a new light.

Generally speaking, teams today can evaluate two- and four-year college players for four years and high school and international prospects for five years before facing a 40-man roster decision. In the pre-2006 days, teams received three and four exemption years, respectively. For that reason, most players available in the Rule 5 draft these days have been thoroughly scouted, typically falling in one of two categories: low-ceiling players who are close to the majors (O’Day) or players with high ceilings mitigated by extreme risk (Hamilton).

Rule 5 Revision Proposals

Given the state of the Rule 5 draft today, could the process be altered to encourage player movement and provide more impact for drafting teams, while being fair to both players and teams?

First off, not every organization believes that would be a good idea. “I am not a big fan of the Rule 5 draft,” said one front-office executive. “I think teams should be rewarded for stocking their farm system and should be protected against teams that did not do their jobs as effectively taking advantage of their hard work.

“What I mean is, bad teams have more major league opportunities and lack the same quality on their 40-man roster, meaning they can poach players you worked hard to bring into your system.”

For players looking for a fresh start in a new organization, though, the Rule 5 draft provides the best opportunity to make that change, at least prior to reaching minor league free agency. Here are a few alteration ideas we’ve discussed with baseball executives at the Winter Meetings:

• Loosen the reins on restrictions. While the Rule 5 restriction period is necessary to prevent a free-talent free-for-all on draft day, forcing teams to carry players for one full season can be excessive. This penalizes both players (who lose development time) and clubs (who must devote a 25-man roster spot to a player who isn’t quite ready for the majors).

What if the restriction period for players were reduced to 60 or 90 days on the active roster, with the caveat that the restriction period runs from Opening Day until the player satisfies the requirement? Teams could option Rule 5 selections to the minors after two or three months on the big league roster. This way the players won’t lose an entire development year, while the big league team won’t be effectively playing with a 24-man roster all season.

“This would allow the players selected to get a decent amount of playing time in the minors,” said one agent, “rather than potentially spend a full season seeing little playing time in mostly low-leverage situations at the major league level.”

This idea is more palatable when you consider that second-division teams are more likely than first-division ones to try to stash Rule 5 picks.

Get with the times and increase the participation fee. The major league minimum salary has increased five-fold since 1990, yet the Rule 5 draft fee of $50,000 has not changed in decades. Quadrupling the selection fee to $200,000 (and perhaps making it non-refundable) would encourage clubs to take only those players they intend to give a long trial.

The clubs would favor this measure more than players because selection in the Rule 5 draft provides ancillary benefits for players: an automatic invitation to big league spring training with the drafting team and, if returned to the original team, an outright assignment off the 40-man roster. This gets him one outright assignment closer to being able to elect free agency.

“(I would be in favor of) something that would make teams think a little bit before making a pick,” one front-office exec said, “because right now $50,000 does not disincentivize them enough to make some picks.”

Reinstate the old exemption guidelines, with one tweak. Teams value young, cost-controlled players more today than ever, and that’s understandable given the earning power of quality free agents and arbitration-eligible players. This can lead to accelerated timetables for the game’s best prospects. So the extended four- and five-year exemption rules may not be as crucial as they once seemed.

“If the goal is to encourage more action in the Rule 5 or to have more potentially major league-caliber players changing teams, I’d propose a rollback to the old rules,” the agent said, “before teams gained the extra year of protection.”

What if teams had three years to evaluate college players for the 40-man roster, four years for high school players and five years for international players, who can sign as young as age 16? (No exception has been made for international players previously.) This would leave many more enticing prospects eligible for selection in the Rule 5 draft each year. Clubs would not favor this arrangement because it exposes them to more risk, either by losing potential impact players to the Rule 5 draft or tying up 40-man roster spots on younger, less-developed players.

Even with the rules being what they are, one agent is surprised more teams aren’t active in the Rule 5 draft.

“Perhaps teams have resolved themselves to the fact that Rule 5-type players will come out of the blue and make an impact each year, but identifying them is too difficult,” he said. “Hence the hesitancy to spend even $50,000 or $100,000 on a player or two.”