What Luiz Gohara Taught Me About Rule 5 Draft Eligibility

Brazilian lefthander Luiz Gohara is many things to the Mariners organization—electric, exasperating, one of the most promising arms in the system—yet one thing he is not is Rule 5 draft eligible this December.

I was convinced that the 20-year-old Gohara, based on his signing date, would be eligible for Rule 5 selection this year if not added to the Seattle 40-man roster. The Mariners insisted that he would not be eligible—and they, naturally, were correct.

The reason why they were right and I was wrong involves something of a procedural loophole.

All amateurs, be they domestic or international, who sign at age 18 or younger receive five exemption years from the Rule 5 draft. This grants teams five years to evaluate a player before being forced to make a 40-man roster decision.

The first of a player’s five exemption years generally coincides with his signing year, though there are exceptions for players who sign after the conclusion of the minor league season. Most minor leagues finish up over the Labor Day weekend in the first week of September. Some leagues run a bit later and some, as we’ll see, wrap (or used to wrap) earlier.

A Truly Short Season

The Mariners signed Gohara on Aug. 14, 2012. Seattle had followed the Brazilian closely for two years and signed him about two weeks after his 16th birthday. Most international free agents who turn pro at age 16 subsequently lose Rule 5 exemption for the first time at age 20. This forces clubs to make 40-man roster decisions on players who are younger than the typical college junior. (This is a topic for another day.)

In Gohara’s case, not only is he a “young” 20-year-old, but he also is an inexperienced one. He began each of the past four seasons in extended spring training, and this year he made just 10 starts at low Class A Clinton. Those 10 starts are the extent of his experience in a full-season league.

Virtually all international prospects who signed in July or August 2012 will become Rule 5 draft eligible this winter—but not Gohara. That’s because the Mariners effectively bought an extra years of Rule 5 exemption for him when they assigned his contract to their Venezuelan Summer League affiliate.

The VSL, now defunct, operated as a four-team league in 2012—the political climate in Venezuela posed enormous challenges for major league organizations, causing many to drop out—and the league’s final scheduled game that year was Aug. 4. For the sake of comparison, the Dominican Summer and Gulf Coast leagues in 2012 scheduled games until Aug. 25, while the Arizona League schedule ran until Aug. 29.

So by virtue of the VSL season ending three weeks earlier than other complex-based Rookie leagues—a fact which was true even prior to 2012 but had escaped my attention—Gohara did not officially sign his Mariners contract during the minor league season for the affiliate to which he was assigned.

Had the Mariners assigned Gohara to their Arizona League club, though, he would have been Rule 5 eligible this winter because his signing date of Aug. 14 fell during the AZL season.

The abbreviated VSL season, then, essentially opened something of a contractual loophole that allowed clubs to postpone Rule 5 eligibility for one year to any player signed in mid-August or later and assigned to the VSL.

Using History As A Guide

A helpful way to remember how Rule 5 considerations affect international free agents is to use the Twins as an example. In 2009 they signed two of the most talented prospects on the international market—German outfielder Max Kepler for $800,000 and Dominican third baseman Miguel Sano for $3.15 million—yet because the two players signed at different points in the year, they became Rule 5 eligible in two different years.

Kepler signed on July 11, during the heat of the minor league season, so in his case, 2009 counted as his first year of Rule 5 exemption. That in turn made him Rule 5 eligible after the 2013 season, when his exemption period expired. Accordingly, the Twins added Kepler to the 40-man roster following an injury-truncated 2013 campaign in which he hit .237/.312/.424 in 61 games at low Class A Cedar Rapids.

Sano signed on Oct. 9, long after all the minor leagues had concluded. This created a situation where his first Rule 5 exemption year was pushed back to 2010, and thus the Twins received an extra year before they had to worry about the Rule 5 draft. They added Sano to the 40-man roster after the 2014 season, when his exemption window closed. He had spent the 2014 season on the Double-A New Britain disabled list after having Tommy John surgery in the spring.

In the table below, you can trace the progress of Kepler and Sano (with signing date in parentheses) as they climbed the minor league ladder. The “R5 After Season” column indicates the offseason in which each player joined the Twins’ 40-man roster because they became Rule 5 draft eligible for the first time.

A Tale Of Two Twins Prospects Signed In 2009
Year Max Kepler (July 11)
R5 After Season?
Miguel Sano (Oct. 9) R5 After Season?
2009 Signed for 2010 No Signed for 2010 No
2010 Gulf Coast League (R) No Gulf Coast League (R) No
2011 Appalachian League (R) No Appalachian League (R) No
2012 Appalachian League (R) No Midwest League (Lo A) No
2013 Midwest League (Lo A) Yes Eastern League (AA) No
2014 Florida State League (Hi A) Did not play—Injured Yes
2015 Southern League (AA) American League (MLB)
2016 American League (MLB) American League (MLB)

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