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At last, a quick explanation of the Rule 5 draft

By Alan Schwarz

Note: This story ran in Baseball America in 1995, and has been dusted off and updated where applicable.

You've seen it written and referred to a zillion ways: the Rule 5 draft, the minor league draft, the rule V drafts, that draft at the Winter Meetings that's a little too complicated so I'll wait to see if it matters later . . .

It's actually not that involved, so as a public service we now present to you an observer's guide to what Baseball America typically refers to as the major league Rule 5 draft.

The process doesn't shake baseball's rafters, but it does add a wrinkle to the player-development game that's worth understanding. Every once in a while, a player makes a significant impact after being chosen, Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente in 1954 being the classic example.

The Rule 5 draft has been a staple of the Winter Meetings almost from its beginning and sprung up as a method to prevent teams from stockpiling talent in their minor league systems. Players not on major league rosters would otherwise have little or no chance to find an opportunity to play elsewhere, though that restriction was further eased in the 1980s when minor leaguers got the right to become free agents after six full seasons.

Major league teams must protect players on their 40-man rosters within three or four years of their original signing. Those left unprotected are available to other teams as Rule 5 picks.

Players who were 18 or younger on June 5 preceding the signing of their first contract must be protected after four minor league seasons. Players 19 and older must be protected after three seasons.

But here's the kicker: To prevent teams from drafting players willy-nilly, each Rule 5 pick must be kept in the major leagues the entire following season or be offered back to his former team for half of the $50,000 selection price. Few players are ready for such a jump, so only about 10-15 get picked each year. Fewer still last the whole season in the big leagues.

"They have to keep a guy for the whole year, so a lot of teams are safe," says Paul Snyder, the Braves' director of scouting and player development. "But there have been kids drafted out of A-ball.

"A few years ago (in 1984) Toronto got two guys (Lou Thornton and Manny Lee) who could pinch-run and play defense. They're easier to carry in the American League because there aren't as many pitching changes."

Other miscellaneous Rule 5 rules and tidbits:

  • The "Rule 5" moniker comes from its place in the Professional Baseball Agreement. The June draft, for instance, is Rule 4.
  • Teams must file their 40-man rosters by Nov. 20, and only those not at the full allotment of 40 may select players.
  • Teams select in reverse order of that season's finish, with the American and National leagues alternating the No. 1 pick from year to year. The Twins have the first pick this year, followed by the Marlins (who can't pick as their roster stands at 40).
  • Since 1950, selections have included a low of three players in 1974 and a high of 24 in 1994. The selection price was increased in 1985 to $50,000 from $25,000.
  • There are Triple-A and Double-A segments of the Rule 5 draft, with price tags of $12,000 and $4,000 respectively. Minor league players not protected on the reserve lists at the Double-A and Class A levels are subject to selection, but almost no future big leaguers emerge from this process. It's basically a tool for major league teams to fill out affiliates rather than obtain talent.
  • In 1988, the Braves drafted a player from themselves. They neglected to protect righthander Ben Rivera on the 40-man roster, had the first pick in the draft and took him.
  • Players from the 1998 Rule 5 draft to stick all year include Pirates lefthander Scott Sauerbeck, Blue Jays catcher Alberto Castillo (acquired this month in a trade from the Cardinals) and Astros outfielder Glen Barker.

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