As noted last month when we ran through various key dates for the offseason, tonight marks the deadline for teams to protect players from the 2020 Rule 5 Draft. Clubs wishing to protect Rule 5-eligible players must add them to their 40-man rosters by 6pm ET tonight or else risk losing them to another team during next month’s draft, which takes place on Dec. 10.
Eligibility is dependent on a player’s age and the timing of his entry to the professional ranks. A player that signed at 18 years of age or younger and has five seasons of pro ball is Rule 5 eligible if he is not added to the 40-man roster in advance of the deadline. Players that signed at 19 or older and have four seasons of professional experience are also eligible to be selected if they’re not added to the 40-man roster tomorrow. (In other words, college draftees out of the 2017 class, high school draftees out of the 2016 class and most international amateurs signed in the 2016-17 international period are eligible this year if not protected.)
Players who meet those criteria but are not added to the 40-man roster by tonight’s deadline will be eligible to be conditionally drafted to another club at next month’s event. The new team will have to take said player and not only place him directly on its 40-man roster but also carry him on the Major League roster throughout the 2021 season. Rule 5 draftees must remain on the Major League roster for the entire season in order to be retained by their new club. They can be placed on the Major League injured list, of course, but a player must spend at least 90 total days on the active roster in order to shed his Rule 5 designation. Should he not spend 90 days on the active roster, his Rule 5 designation would roll over into the 2022 season and remain in place until his 90th (cumulative) day on a big league roster.
As those who’ve followed prior offseasons surely recall, tonight’s looming deadline will prompt plenty of action over the course of the day. Expect a handful of trades and waiver claims as well as a slew of DFAs today as teams look to create 40-man roster space to protect Rule 5-eligible prospects. Trades made in the runup to this deadline may not look like blockbusters at the time, but one need only look back three years to see that trades on this day can have enormous ramifications; on this day in 2017, the Astros traded a yet-to-debut outfielder named Ramon Laureano to the A’s for minor league righty Brandon Bailey (who was not Rule 5-eligible and thus did not need to be protected).
As you might imagine, it’s easier to account for protection of prospects for teams with extra 40-man roster space, but it’s not as simple as having an opening. That club also must be able to carry a player in that spot throughout the winter and into the season. Adding a player that wouldn’t have been selected (or wouldn’t have lasted on an active roster) therefore has its own risk: if you end up needing the space, you might have to expose such a player to outright waivers in the middle of the season.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com has a breakdown of the Rule 5-eligible players from each team’s Top 30 prospects who’ll need to be added by tonight’s deadline or else exposed to the Rule 5 Draft. Seven of MLB.com’s Top 100 prospects, headlined by Astros righty Forrest Whitley, need to be protected this year. Those seven will assuredly be protected, but not every player within a club’s top 30 rankings will be added to a 40-man roster today.
Not long ago, we’d already have seen a slew of 40-man additions and probably some minor transactions in the week leading up to this deadline as teams prepared. Today’s brand of general manager/president of baseball operations, however, seems wholly intent on waiting right up until every deadline to make final decisions — be it the trade deadline, Rule 5 protection deadline, non-tender deadline, etc. The Cardinals have made a pair of 40-man adds this week — catcher Ivan Herrera and righty Angel Rondon — but it’s been silence from the league’s other 29 teams.
This year’s Covid-19 pandemic, of course, only further obscures the already difficult task of determining which minor leaguers run the risk of being selected by another organization. Most clubs didn’t get to see the bulk of their prospects in a competitive setting in 2020. Even more difficult was their lack of looks at minor leaguers in other organizations. These decisions are never easy for any team, but the challenges of the 2020 make this year’s slate of roster protection transactions all the more complicated.
Here’s a look at how many 40-man roster openings each club has to work with at the moment, although it’s important to recognize that these totals will change within hours of this writing due to the aforementioned avalanche of transactions that looms:
Blue Jays: 5
Red Sox: 4
White Sox: 4