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What is the Rule 5 Draft?


Former Twins' SP Johan Santana; Photo via UCinternational

Major League Baseball’s first player draft did not consist of teams selecting amateur players. Instead, it was an opportunity for clubs to swipe players buried on the rosters of their competitors. Beginning in the 1890s, professional teams engaged in a process similar to the modern Rule 5 Draft. Named for its location in the rulebook, the Rule 5 Draft, as we know it today, began in 1903 when baseball became organized.

These early drafts were designed to make sure that the most talented players were on Major League rosters and not stuck in the minor leagues. At the time, minor league clubs were not affiliated with major league teams. Minor league rosters could be filled with major-league-caliber players while an actual major league team lacked significant talent. At the time, this draft was the only way for a player to move from the minor leagues to the majors, as the amateur draft was over a half-century away.


Eligibility for this draft has been altered frequently, but its main purpose has been maintained over the last 120 years. At its core, the Rule 5 Draft is a method for teams to poach players who are stuck in the minor leagues with another club. Currently, eligibility is determined by professional experience and roster status. Players who occupy a spot on a club’s 40-man roster are ineligible for Rule 5 selection regardless of major or minor league status. Eligibility for non-40-man players is determined by experience. Players who sign their first contract at age 18 or younger must spend five seasons in professional baseball before becoming eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Players who sign their first contract at 19 or older become eligible following their fourth professional campaign. Furthermore, if a player signs a contract and is assigned to a team whose season has already ended, that season does not count for Rule 5 eligibility.


If a player has met the requirements for eligibility, they may be selected by any club with space on its 40-man roster in the Rule 5 Draft, held during Baseball’s winter meetings. Teams are ordered in reverse order of the previous year’s standings and take turns selecting players. When a player is selected, the selecting team sends $100,000 to the player’s previous team.

Once the draft fee has been paid, the selected player is now a member of the selecting team, with a few stipulations. The player must remain on that team’s major league roster for the length of the upcoming season. The player cannot be optioned to the minors and can only leave the active roster if they are placed on the injured list with a legitimate injury. Additionally, players must be active for at least 90 days on the Major League roster. If a player cannot meet this 90-day requirement due to injury, he must remain active for enough days at the beginning of the next season to meet the 90-day threshold.


If a team wishes to remove a Rule 5 selection from its roster, it must place the player on waivers. The player is removed from the 40-man roster if he clears waivers and is then offered back to his original team for $50,000. If the original team chooses to pay that sum, then the player is back under their control and can be sent down to the minors. If a team declines to pay the $50,000 and allows the player to stay with the selecting team, then the player may be sent to the minors by that team. Teams may trade Rule 5 players, but that is a rarity, as teams find it difficult to evaluate players with highly restrictive rostering requirements.


There is also a much less publicized minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. In the minor league phase, any player who is not on the 38-man Triple-A roster that also meets the eligibility requirements for the major league phase may be selected by a different club. Players selected in the minor league phase are not restricted to a certain level in the selecting team’s system and can be assigned anywhere once the $24,000 fee is paid.


Most players selected in the Rule 5 Draft enjoy, at best, brief MLB careers. However, there have been a few notable home run selections in the Rule 5 Draft. One took place on December 13, 1999. On the heels of an embarrassing 63-97 season, the Minnesota Twins held the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft. Jose Marzan and Billy Milos, Midwest League scouts for the organization, begged general manager Terry Ryan to select a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher from the Single-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. His name was Johan Santana.


The Florida Marlins, who held the second pick in the draft, were unaware of the Twins’ fixation with Santana and feared Minnesota would select Jared Camp, a reliever from Cleveland’s organization. Eventually, the two clubs worked out a trade. Minnesota would select Jared Camp with the first pick and Florida would select Johan Santana with the second pick. Camp would then be traded to Florida for Santana and $50,000 in compensation.

Santana, who said, “I didn’t even know what the [Rule 5] was,” reported to Minnesota’s major league camp the following spring. After a few poor seasons with Minnesota, Santana transformed into a high-end starter. In 8 years with Minnesota, Santana won two American League Cy Young Awards, in 2004 and 2006. He led all of baseball in ERA in both of his Cy Young seasons and was named to three All-Star Games as a Twin. Johan went on to post another league-leading ERA with the Mets in 2008 and nabbed another All-Star appearance in 2009 before retiring as a Met in 2012.


Santana is far from the only Rule 5 success story, as many All-Stars and tremendous players have seen their careers revitalized by the Rule 5 Draft. 2-time world champion and All-Star Shane Victorino was selected twice in the Rule 5 Draft, first in 2002 by the San Diego Padres and again in 2004 by the Philadelphia Phillies. In 2003, the Baltimore Orioles selected Jose Bautista out of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. 4 years later, he was traded to Toronto, where he made 6 All-Star appearances. 2010 American League MVP Josh Hamilton went through the 2005 Rule 5 Draft and multiple trades before finding his home in Texas.


Perhaps the greatest Rule 5 selection came all the way back in 1954 when the Brooklyn Dodgers left a young right fielder exposed. He was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates with that year’s first pick. In 18 seasons with Pittsburgh, he was a 15-time All-Star, 12-time Gold Glove winner, National League MVP, and 2-time World Series champion. He amassed 3,000 hits, 1,305 RBI, and 240 home runs and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973. His name was Roberto Clemente, and he is one of the greatest players to ever step between the lines.


The 2022 Rule 5 Draft was held on Wednesday, December 7th. By virtue of their disastrous 2022 season, the Washington Nationals held the first overall pick and selected right-handed pitcher Thad Ward of the Boston Red Sox organization. Ward has missed most of the last two years recovering from Tommy John surgery. Across multiple levels in 2022, he tossed 51.1 innings and pitched to a 2.28 ERA with a 1.14 WHIP. He projects to be an immediate multi-inning reliever in Dave Martinez’s bullpen.


When the dust settled, Boston and the Los Angeles Dodgers each had 3 players from their systems selected, while Cleveland and the New York Yankees each lost two players. While these teams are unlikely to lose all of their selected players, these farm systems have been raided for the time being. No team selected multiple players.


Another interesting player taken in this draft was right-hander Noah Song, who went to Philadelphia with the 20th pick. Song was selected by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2019 first-year player draft and had first-round upside. He fell down Rule 5 draft boards as he has not pitched professionally since 2019. Noah’s status is uncertain due to a service commitment stemming from his graduation from the United States Naval Academy. He has requested a waiver to play professional baseball in 2023, but it is yet to be granted. Song was far from the only pick with uncertainty, however, which is usually the case for a Rule 5 Draft.


The Rule 5 Draft allows teams to secure the services of players who are buried in the farm systems of other organizations. For players, the Rule 5 Draft is an important opportunity to restart their careers after stalling with their original team. This dispersion of talent, in theory, improves competitive balance and allows for teams to strengthen their major league rosters. Most players who are taken in the Rule 5 Draft end up with a short MLB career. However, the possibility of landing a Johan Santana, Jose Bautista, or Shane Victorino means that teams are willing to take a shot with a Thad Ward or Noah Song.



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