Should MLB Change Its Waiver Claims Rules?

If you follow transactions closely, you may have noticed that the Toronto Blue Jays are among MLB's most active teams, particularly with regard to waiver claims. This is a curiosity, and it's amusing to watch for transactions enthusiasts, but it's also becoming a small problem. To see why, here's a list of selected transactions involving the Blue Jays from mid-March to mid-April.

  • March 16: Jays claim Guillermo Moscoso from the Royals.
  • March 22: Jays claim Todd Redmond from the Orioles.
  • March 27: Cubs claim Moscoso from the Jays.
  • March 29: Jays claim Alex Burnett from the Twins and Clint Robinson from the Pirates.
  • April 6: Jays promote Dave Bush and designate Jeremy Jeffress for assignment.
  • April 7: Jays claim Edgar Gonzalez off waivers from the Astros.
  • April 8: Jays claim Mauro Gomez off waivers from the Red Sox and designate Bush for assignment.
  • April 9: Jays outright Bush to Triple-A Buffalo.
  • April 10: Jays claim Casper Wells from the Mariners and designate Burnett for assignment.
  • April 12: Orioles claim Burnett. The Jays announce that Gonzalez has cleared waivers, and is outrighted to Triple-A Buffalo.
  • April 15: Jays designate Wells for assignment.
  • April 16: Jays outright Jeffress to the minors.

Ideally, waiver claims should allow a player who doesn't have a spot on one team's 40-man roster to find a spot on another team's 40-man roster. The Blue Jays, however, are using the process not (or at least not primarily) to improve their 40-man roster, but to improve their minor-league depth by claiming players from other teams and trying to sneak those players through waivers later.

From mid-March to mid-April, the Jays claimed Moscoso, Burnett, Gonzalez and Wells, and then removed them from their roster almost immediately. They were successful in getting Gonzalez through waivers, and he's now pitching at Triple-A Buffalo.

None of this qualifies as a tragedy, but it's still an issue that should be corrected. For one thing, players are subjected to unnecessary periods of waiver limbo, in which they aren't playing and aren't sure where they'll be headed next. Of course, these periods of time are part of being a ballplayer, but they should be limited whenever possible.

Take the case of Casper Wells. Wells isn't a great player, but he posted 1.2 wins above replacement in 2012. He should be a Major Leaguer. But thanks to the waiver claims process, he has yet to appear in a professional game this season. The Mariners designated him for assignment March 31, and the Jays' claim didn't come through until ten days later. Then, five days after that, the Jays dropped Wells from their roster without him having appeared in a game for them, and he hasn't yet resurfaced. The waiver wire has effectively kept Wells out of professional baseball for the better part of a month.

Also, the Jays' use of waiver claims enables them to beef up their minor-league depth at virtually no cost. And the only way other teams have to defend themselves against the Jays' strategy is to do exactly what the Jays are doing, which would lead to more waiver claims, and more periods of waiver limbo. The Astros signed Edgar Gonzalez as a free agent last year; if he's going to be pitching in the minor leagues so soon after being designated for assignment, it should be in Houston's system, not Toronto's.

Of course, what the Jays are doing is currently within the rules. It even makes sense, to a degree, even though it mostly amounts to wheel-spinning. And maybe the Jays feel they have greater flexibility at the back end of their roster than other teams feel they have.

Also, the Jays aren't the only teams subverting the waiver claims process. Sometimes teams even do it together:

  • November 18, 2011: Pirates claim Brian Jeroloman from the Blue Jays.
  • November 21, 2011: Pirates designate Brian Jeroloman for assignment.
  • November 23, 2011: Blue Jays claim Brian Jeroloman from the Pirates.
  • December 11, 2011: Blue Jays designate Brian Jeroloman for assignment.

From the outside, this seems harmless, but it couldn't have been easy on Brian Jeroloman.

Major League rosters need to be flexible. A key injury, or a series of injuries, could occur at any time, and a team in a tough spot needs to be able to react. But the Blue Jays' use of the waiver claim system is frivolous and unsustainable (in that a class of players would be trapped in waiver loops indefinitely if other teams imitated the Jays), and it's unfortunate for the players involved.

For now, this is a minor problem. But it's still a problem, and it would be an easy one to fix. If a team claims a player, it ought to be required to keep that player on its 40-man roster for 30 days. That way, a waiver claim carries a small but real cost. Such a rule would have little effect on waiver claims by weaker teams like the Astros, since there would be little harm in a team in the Astros' situation committing to keeping a player on its roster for 30 days. And it would prevent already-strong teams like the Jays from trying to use the waiver claims process to supplement their minor-league systems, rather than to improve their Major League rosters.



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