Front office executives with multiple teams have asked Major League Baseball to explore the possibility of canceling the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft this year, report Kiley McDaniel and Jeff Passan of ESPN. Because the Rule 5 is part of the collective bargaining agreement, MLB would need approval from the Players Association to do so.
Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark of the Athletic wrote this afternoon that front office personnel “almost (unanimously)” support the Rule 5’s cancelation as the lockout continues. Both The Athletic and ESPN explore various reasons behind the thinking, but they all revolve around the discrepancy between major league and minor league play. MLB Spring Training games won’t begin until March 18 at the absolute earliest; minor league Spring Training is already underway, as players not on clubs’ 40-man rosters are unaffected by the lockout.
The major league phase of the Rule 5 draft — which typically takes place at the December Winter Meetings — provides an odd middle-ground regarding the 40-man roster. Only players not currently on a team’s 40-man are eligible for selection (assuming they’ve spent enough time in the minor leagues). If selected, however, they immediately jump onto their new club’s roster. With all 40-man transactions frozen by the lockout, the Rule 5 was suspended indefinitely on December 2. However, the players who would be eligible for selection are all able to participate in minor league camp, since they’re not on their current club’s 40-man.
That culmination of factors has led to most teams closing their minor league camp to scouts from rival teams. The fear is that they’d identify Rule 5 eligible prospects who have taken steps forward in their development over the offseason. Rather than allow clubs to spot and potentially poach improving young players for essentially nothing — selecting a player in the Rule 5 costs only $100K — many teams have shut scouts out entirely. McDaniel and Passan report that the Reds, Brewers, A’s, Mariners and Rays are the only teams still allowing other teams’ evaluators into their minor league camps — and those clubs have just formed a reciprocal agreement with one another.
ESPN writes that some evaluators have expressed concerns that teams shutting out scouts to keep their Rule 5 eligible players could have an unintended deleterious effect on the post-lockout trade market. Teams are shutting the doors to minor league camp entirely, as it’s not feasible to prevent opposing scouts from seeing only Rule 5 eligible players. Therefore, pro scouts are mostly prohibited from getting a look at prospects of all ages and levels. Some of those players could be trade targets — the Reds and A’s, in particular, are expected to move multiple established big leaguers for controllable young talent — but scouts are generally unable to get eyes on them right now.
Pulling off the Rule 5 draft would only become more challenging if the lockout lingers into April. The Triple-A regular season is scheduled to open on April 5. (Minor league schedules are unaffected by the lockout). Clubs presumably couldn’t keep scouts from attending those games; they’ll be open to the general public, after all. Selecting players out of regular season minor league play to report to big league Spring Training could prove difficult. If the MLB lockout remains in place when MiLB games start, the Rule 5 would figure to be in particular jeopardy.
That said, MLB’s inability to cancel the draft unilaterally may prove its best hope of happening this year. At its core, the Rule 5 is a player-friendly provision. It’s designed both to incentivize teams to add prospects to their 40-man roster within a few years — which teams still had to do last November — and to give players who aren’t getting an MLB opportunity in their current organizations broad exposure around the league.
Rule 5 draftees have to stick on their new team’s active roster or be waived and offered back to their original franchise if they clear. Those who break camp with their new team receive major league pay and service time, in addition to the opportunity to prove themselves against big league competition. Red Sox reliever Garrett Whitlock and Tigers outfielder Akil Baddoo, for example, both look to have broken through as long-term big leaguers after impressing as Rule 5 draftees last year. As JJ Cooper of Baseball America points out (on Twitter), even those who don’t stick with their new team receive higher minor league salaries upon being returned to their original organization because they’d previously been on a 40-man roster.
Because of those benefits, it stands to reason the MLBPA won’t be enamored with the idea of approving the Rule 5’s cancelation. Minor leaguers aren’t members of the MLBPA, but the union does have some amount of influence on provisions that would affect non-union players (i.e. its opposition to the league’s efforts to implement a draft for international amateurs). McDaniel and Passan report that the league and union haven’t discussed the Rule 5 draft’s fate to this point in CBA negotiations. At some point, there figures to be more clarity on the draft’s future, but its delay is yet another of the ways in which typical offseason business has been thrown off-track by the lockout. The Rule 5 draft, rather remarkably, has been conducted in some form every offseason since 1920.