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December 4, 2003

Breaking Balls

Rule 5 Shenanigans

by Derek Zumsteg

Many people don't care about roster management. The ins and outs of the rules that govern how players get on and off the 40-man roster hold all the excitement of a dramatic Tess of the Durbervilles reading by Nate Silver.

And yet cheating, perceived or real, seems to interest people more than any other topic. People sincerely believe that Gaylord Perry should be removed from Cooperstown, and others that Barry Bonds should never get a chance because they believe he's using steroids. And then there's those damn Yankees, which is where I'm going to tie this all up.

The Yankees cheat. Oh, they're not the worst violators. There are other clubs that use the Disabled List and rehab assignments like they're an NBA team. Many teams that use the Rule 5 draft keep the player on the major league roster only as long as absolutely required. After that the player finds himself crippled by priapism that requires massage with release, or suddenly suffers a bout of the King's Evil, and his strength sapped either way, must rehab in the minors where he belongs, suffering occasional setbacks from Scrivner's Palsy or thrush, until September rolls around and rosters expand again.

How much is a prospect worth? It seems like a dumb question, obviously. You'd pay a ton for Mark Prior, very little for Jace Brewer. This becomes important because the Rule 5 (and it's the number, not the letter, please complain to publications that continue to get this wrong) is coming up. Here's the short version: Teams have to get players onto their 40-man roster within a couple years of their signing. If a player was signed at 18 or younger, he's got four years; older, three years.

Players who are in the organization longer than that and aren't on the 40-man roster can be plucked by other teams. The selecting team pays the losing team $50,000 and must keep the player on its major league roster the entire year, barring...you know that part already. If the team wants to keep the player but push him to the minors, they have to offer that player back to the original club for $25,000.

Here's the short, short version: Because a team can only have 40 players on its roster at the time of the Rule 5 draft, the club has to make some decisions about which guys it wants to leave unprotected, which ones it doesn't think other teams would take a chance on, and so on.

This gets even more complicated when you consider that the cost for the selecting team is much greater than it seems because of the salaries involved. Say you pick promising young pitcher/playwright-R Christopher Marlowe in the draft. He's 25, a converted catcher/playwright-R with a nasty fastball but ill breaking stuff and bad command. You plan to stick him on the major league roster until you can convince him to come down with jaundice, but he'll make the major league minimum that first year, and because he's a project, you'll be sending him down to the minors the next year to get his starts in, where he'll make about major league minimum, too. If he comes around completely and is ready to compete for a job in two years time (which is a longshot), you've poured over half a million dollars into him and wasted almost a year of a roster spot, which has a lot of value in itself.

This is why not a lot of players get picked in this draft. Few development projects are worth that kind of money, so largely the players who get chosen are those who teams believe can immediately step up and take a place in the bullpen. Guys like Aquilino Lopez who I didn't think would be above average, but it turns out he showed me good.

The whole point of the Rule 5 draft is to keep teams from massing talent in their minor league systems. The Yankees could field a 25-man lineup of great, highly-paid aging veterans and then have Columbus run a second team of good, highly-paid aging veterans for use as spare parts in-season, but then other teams would pick over all their good prospects and much of the secondary team every year, and the Yankees would...well, they'd go buy more, but that's not the point. In another way, it also allows teams to match up their evaluation staffs and strategies. You can come up with a Top 40 list of prospects for almost any team, and at a certain point depending on the team you're guessing that one player's command and curve will come around, but another's won't. And while you should have at least three years of scouting information, many players, because of injuries or other reasons, are unknowns.

As the Jays proved with Lopez, you can still pay $50,000 to snatch another team's mistake or positional overstock and make some money with it.

Every team wants to keep as many of these guys as they can, which means finding spots on the 40-man. Even if they've every intention of pushing Rule 5-eligible players back down off the major league roster, it becomes easier and easier to sneak them by as Spring Training approaches. Other teams' rosters fill with their Rule 5 draft selections, all their free agent signings and so forth.

Which brings us to Gary Sheffield. Sheffield has agreed to a contract with the Yankees--except that he hasn't. Now, if I was the Yankees, my major league roster would be stocked with guys who'll be playing for the 2004 Bombers, leaving only a little room for what few interesting prospects remain in the system. I really can't afford to see those guys go, what with my commitment to an eventual youth movement when the cap finally crashes down on me.

So I say to Sheffield: "Hey, you're a reasonable enough fellow, and we've agreed on a contract. Let's not pretend to haggle over the contract for a while, and I'll toss in a nice Hummer 2 for use in-city. You can use it to pollute the atmosphere recklessly and run over smaller, less fortunate vehicles."

And we haggle over whether or not the H2 will have those dumb wheel insert things that spin when the car is stopped and stop when the car is rolling. Or if the cupholders will be pre-cupped on delivery.

The Rule 5 draft comes and goes, just before Spring Training we agree to terms, and Joe Schlabotnik sneaks through assignment, allowing me to keep my emergency-emergency LOOGY in Triple-A. Sheffield gets a free astoundingly dumb SUV for not flying in to sign a contract sooner, and the good people of Fiji watch the Pacific Ocean rise just a little over the life of the deal.

The Yankees have gotten away with this before, most notably in 2001 when it appeared they had reached agreements with two different players (Andy Morales and Henry Rodriguez) but did not put them on the 40-man roster until after the draft, and the offices of one Commissioner of Baseball did nothing. This year, while the Yankees only have 39 men on their roster as I write this, I'd be willing to bet cash money that if this drags on much longer we'll see some marginal future Erick Almonte sneak on there.

And why not try? I can think of only one instance where the Commissioner's stepped in to void any transaction, a spike of a minor Rangers move after Tom Hicks angered Selig, while every suspicious Rule 5 injury and strange rehab assignment for badly-slumping players went across the transaction wire without a raised eyebrow.

If you're the Yankees, why not bid on every Cuban player, then stash them all in Triple-A until you sort out which ones are who they say they are and which ones are half as talented or healthy as they were supposed to be? You can delay the signing until after that year's Rule 5, and then pay off some team with a bad farm system to stash your lesser prospects (swap for PTBNL or warm body, swap back later) in subsequent years. And soon, only the intent of the Rule 5 draft--to offer some modest guard against player hoarding--remains, and money's solved everything.

It's possible Sheffield signs tomorrow, and that teams have shaken the urge to wiggle around the draft any way they can. But the announcement of deal particulars followed by a strange delay (like Jason Giambi in 2002, though that wasn't a roster-saving move) should be regarded with measures of suspicion and wariness.

One of the ways baseball could improve competition would be to keep a better eye on the transactions, making more players available to help out major league teams, rather than to rehab in Triple-A, showing no sign of whatever injury they supposedly were sent down for. Quashing agreements-in-waiting would also help, increasing the number of available Rule 5 players while laying down the law against rule offenders.

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