Yesterday, the Athletics claimed outfielder Alex Hassan from the Rangers, marking the fifth time in the past seven months that Hassan has been claimed. Since November, Hassan has been property of the Red Sox, then the Athletics, then the Orioles, then the Athletics again, then the Rangers, and then the Athletics for a third time.
To outside observers, Hassan’s lengthy recent transaction history is merely a curiosity, but as Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal wrote in a lengthy piece that we highlighted earlier today, frequent claims and DFAs can be a significant problem for players, both personally and professionally. MacPherson writes that the MLBPA is likely to address the issue in negotiations for the next CBA, and it’s easy to see why the union is concerned. In recent years, players like Hassan, Adam Rosales, Gonzalez Germen and Alex Castellanos have been designated for assignment several times in short periods. While the waiver loop in which Hassan found himself is a minor problem in the grand scheme, it clearly was not a minor problem to him, and it served little purpose for all the teams that claimed and then designated him.
Some employment uncertainty is a necessary and understandable aspect of playing pro baseball, but players on the fringes of 40-man rosters have a particularly difficult time. Unlike players who are frequently moved back and forth between Triple-A and the Majors, players who are frequently designated and claimed often must move from one set of unfamiliar environs to another.
Also, while they’re in DFA limbo, they can’t play. That might not be a big deal for a player who is designated once, but it’s a problem for a player who is repeatedly designated in a short span of time. For example, as I noted in a post on this topic in early 2013, a series of DFAs prevented outfielder Casper Wells from playing in a game in 2013 until late April (April 23, to be exact), even though he was healthy. (Wells got designated for assignment again a week after I wrote that post.) The worst aspect of Wells’ situation was that he was in DFA limbo for a full ten days between when the Mariners designated him March 31 and the Blue Jays claimed him April 10, and another eight between April 14, when the Jays designated him, and April 22, when they finally traded him to the A’s.
One easy fix the MLBPA could consider suggesting, then, is to shorten the maximum DFA limbo period, as an MLBTR reader proposed in the comments to my 2013 piece. The current ten-day wait seems unnecessary and anachronistic. Even waiver periods in fantasy leagues usually only last a day or two. And teams shouldn’t need much time to collect information about a player they’re considering claiming once he’s in DFA limbo, because he’s no longer playing and thus cannot be scouted, except through video.
Unlike Wells, Hassan never had to spend anywhere near the full ten days in limbo. But he still felt behind in his routines, particularly since he bounced around so much since the start of Spring Training. “You’re just behind,” he tells MacPherson. “I’m like, ‘Man, honestly, it’s not my mechanics. It’s not anything like that. I just feel behind.’ The frustrating thing about that is that there’s no real fix for that other than going out and playing and getting the at-bats. … I can’t simulate that.”
This is especially unfortunate for Hassan, since the reason he and players like Wells keep getting designated and claimed is because they’re on the fringes. A series of odd breaks from their routines over the course of a month or two might not sound like an insurmountable obstacle, but for a fringe player, it might make or break his career. Equally problematic, as Hassan points out elsewhere in MacPherson’s article, is the fact that a player in his position must perform well immediately after being claimed, or risk being designated for assignment again.
At its best, the waiver system allows fringe players to find situations for which they’re best suited. A good recent example is that of Stolmy Pimentel, an out-of-options reliever who couldn’t break camp with the Pirates but got claimed by the Rangers, who had greater flexibility in their bullpen than Pittsburgh did. Pimentel has mostly performed well in Texas so far.
At its worst, though, the system is disruptive, and one potential problem is that a team can claim players it has no intention of using on its big-league roster and essentially take a free shot at trying to sneak them through waivers again and use them as minor-league depth. That might have been what the Blue Jays were trying to do with Wells and several other players during that period, and we might be seeing it again with, say, the Dodgers’ recent claims and immediate outrights longtime Reds farmhands Daniel Corcino and Ryan Dennick. The possibility of outrighting Hassan was surely at least part of the reason Hassan got claimed so many times. If it was, the teams who claimed him were behaving rationally, given the rules currently in place. They claimed him and tried to sneak him through waivers; as long as they didn’t mind him occupying a roster spot for a few days or weeks, they didn’t lose anything as a result of having claimed him, and were no worse for wear when their attempts to sneak him through waivers didn’t work.
In my 2013 post, I suggested that a team claiming a player should have keep him on its 40-man roster for 30 days before designating him again. That would have been an improvement over the current system, but upon reflection, it might not have given teams an appropriate amount of flexibility, since injuries can crop up at any time and force teams to change their plans.
An alternate possibility, then, might be to make every player designated for assignment eligible for free agency if he has previously been claimed in a specified time frame — say, the last 60 days. Such a player could also again receive the right to opt for free agency if he’s outrighted as a result of that DFA, even if he’s being outrighted for the first time. That would free the player to sign wherever he liked, as quickly as he liked, and allow him to find the situation and contract that fit him best. It would also disincentivize the practice of claiming a player purely to try to sneak him into the minors.