This week’s Ask BA once again dives into the arcane world of player options and the Rule 5 draft. If you have a question you’d like to see answered, please email it to email@example.com and include your name and hometown.
How is it that Stolmy Pimentel is out of options at age 23? By my math, that means he had options exercised in 2011, 2012 and 2013 due to being put on the 40-man roster in 2011. The only reason the Red Sox would have put him on the 40-man in 2011 is to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. So his five years that count towards Rule 5 eligibility would have been 2006 (when he was 16) through 2010. If this is the case, why aren’t all Latin American players who sign as teenagers eligible for the Rule 5 at age 20 and out of options by 23?
Pimentel signed a contract with the Red Sox on July 2, 2006, so he reached Rule 5 eligibility heading onto his age-21 season in 2011. The Red Sox placed him on the 40-man roster to ensure they didn't lose him in the Rule 5 draft, and he's been protected ever since. Boston used an option to send him to the minors in 2011 and another to send him down to the farm in 2012. Pimentel's last option was used by the Pirates to send him to Triple-A Indianapolis this past season.
MLB's option rules do allow select players to get a fourth option year, but they're only eligible during their first five seasons in full-season ball. Because Pimentel was ready for low Class A Greenville in 2009, he doesn't qualify for that extra option. It's hard to project that far out, but if the Red Sox had left Pimentel in extended spring training that year until the short-season leagues began, they could have bought an extra option year for the cost of 12 or 13 low Class A starts.
So the Pirates will head into spring training knowing Pimentel will have to make the Opening Day roster or be exposed to waivers.
You are correct in noting that as it currently stands, players from Latin America face significant disadvantages compared to their U.S. counterparts when it comes to 40-man eligibility and option years. Latin players are eligible to sign at age 16 while U.S., Canadian and Puerto Rican players are not eligible to be drafted until after their senior year of high school, which means most U.S. players don't sign a pro contract until they are 17-19 years old.
While Latin players can sign a pro contract at age 16, they are not allowed to play in a National Association league (which includes the Dominican and Venezuelan summer leagues) unless they will turn 17 during the season. So many Latin players sign contracts at age 16, but cannot play in a game until the following season. For players like Pimentel, that means their 40-man roster clock starts ticking before they are even getting into actual games.
It also means that some Latin American players end up exposed to the Rule 5 draft when they are still in Class A. It is odd that a 16-year-old player can become eligible for the Rule 5 draft as a 21-year-old, while a college player drafted at age 20 won't become eligible until he's 24.
Let's trace the different scenarios of two hypothetical players. With a Latin American signee, it's highly likely that the player will have to sit out his age-16 season because of the National Association rules, spend his age-17 season in the Dominican Summer League, then play his age-18 season in a U.S. complex league and spend his age-19 season in a short-season league. At age 20, he moves up to low Class A, and then after the season his club has to determine whether to protect him on the 40-man roster or expose him to the Rule 5 draft.
If he's a position player who's not a defensive whiz at shortstop, he probably is left unprotected and goes unpicked in the Rule 5 draft. But if he's a pitcher with a 95-plus mph fastball, then the team faces a much more difficult decision.
Compare that to a college draftee. He gets drafted during his age-20 year, signs and spends that first season in short-season ball.
For his age 21 season, he plays in low Class A. Now a lot of college players move quicker than that, but we'll say our hypothetical player is on the slow track. As a 22-year-old, he plays in high Class A, and then he spends his age-23 season in Double-A. After that, his club has to decide whether to add him to the 40-man roster or expose him to the Rule 5 draft.
In the case of a college player like this, the team has a very good idea of what kind of player he is and will be. He's played in Double-A, so generally, you are ready to make a determination as to whether he's capable of helping the big league club. The Latin player? Much of his career is still to be determined. Decisions have to be made when he's still years away from the big leagues.
On one hand, you can argue that making the 40-man roster earlier in one's career is to a player's benefit. You get an invite to big league spring training, which means the big league coaching staff sees you and it makes it more likely you'll get a September callup.
But at the same time, a player who is out of options is less valuable to a team than a player with options remaining.
The same is true when it comes to the Rule 5 draft. There is an advantage to being made eligible for the Rule 5 draft—a player can be picked, which means that he has to stay on the big league roster all year or be offered back to his original team. That sounds great, as it's every player's dream to be a big leaguer. But for a still-developing player, a year of inactivity at the bottom of a team's big league roster can hinder his long-term development, even if it does pay very well.
So how could the system be made more equitable? It seems pretty simple. It would help even the playing field if MLB and the Players Association adopted a rule that made players eligible for the Rule 5 draft after six years if they sign at age 16. Alternately, the international signing age could be increased to 17. Nothing along those lines can be done until the next Collective Bargaining Agreement however.