When Signing Players, Little Details Matter
Major League Baseball teams employ dozens of front office employees who have a variety of jobs. But in every front office, there are always a few rules experts. They are the people whose job it is to know the ins and outs of every rule surrounding contracts, assignments, waivers and other bits of the arcane.
And those rules experts earn their keep with decisions like the one the Rays made when signing catcher Ronaldo Hernandez.
The Rays signed Hernandez out of Colombia in 2014. He has since become one of the team’s best prospects as a catcher with excellent power, a plus-plus arm and some feel for hitting. He currently ranks as the No. 4 prospect in the Rays system after hitting .284/.339/.494 for low Class A Bowling Green.
Normally, as a 2014 international signee who signed during the season Hernandez would be Rule 5 eligible this offseason. Hernandez is not ready to play in the major leagues, but the Rays would face a difficult decision by Tuesday’s deadline to add players to the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 draft.
Either the Rays would add Hernandez to what is already a very crowded 40-man roster or take a risk that as a low Class A catcher he would either skate through the Rule 5 draft unpicked or fail to stick and have to be offered back to the Rays next season.
A decade ago, leaving a low Class A catcher unprotected would have seemed to be a safe bet–at that point no low Class A catcher in the past three decades had ever stuck as a Rule 5 pick–but since then the D-backs have picked Oscar Hernandez (from the Rays) and the Padres have taken Luis Torrens (from the Yankees) in similar situations. Ronaldo Hernandez is a better prospect than either of those two catchers, so it’s a pretty safe bet that someone would pick him in the Rule 5 draft.
The Rays don’t have to worry about any such decision because they were clever. Hernandez signed his contract on Aug. 9, a little over a month after he was first eligible to sign. Normally, that would make him eligible for the Rule 5 draft. But the Rays had a team in the Venezuelan Summer League that year (in the second to last year of the now-defunct league). While every other league in baseball (including the Dominican Summer League) runs until late August, the VSL’s season finished on Aug. 4.
So when the Rays signed Hernandez and assigned him to the VSL, he was added to a roster for a team whose season had already wrapped up. By rule, that meant that he was to be treated as an offseason signee. That means that Hernandez will not be Rule 5 eligible (and needed to be protected) until the 2019 season ends.
For the Rays, waiting a month to sign Hernandez after the period opened on July 2 means that they avoid a tough 40-man roster decision this year. For Hernandez, it actually might also be helpful over the long-term. He’s a catcher who will be headed to high Class A this upcoming season. While he’s a very promising prospect, that would require he use his first option next season when he is still far from the big leagues. It’s not a sure bet that he’ll be fully big league ready in the next three seasons, so he could have run out of options right around the time that he was getting fully settled into a potential major league role.
And while he could have potentially been a Rule 5 pick this year, being cemented to the bench as a developmental Rule 5 selectee doesn’t do much for a player’s development. At the time the D-backs picked Oscar Hernandez, he was seen as a promising young catcher with a chance to develop into a solid defender with an adequate bat. Being a Rule 5 pick meant he played only 31 games in 2015. He struggled in 2016, was designated for assignment in 2017 and has become a backup Triple-A catcher in 2018 as a 24-year-old.
Similarly, Torrens barely played at all with the Padres in 2017. He was sent back to high Class A last season for more seasoning but has a long climb to get back to the majors.