The Rule 5 Draft is coming up today. A lot of people think that the only good things that come out of the draft are lowly middle relievers, or utility infielders who will enjoy their cup of coffee and then disappear into the abyss, never to be heard from again. While that’s true for the most part, there have been examples of Rule 5 draftees finally figuring it out and becoming great players, either for the team that selected them, or another club in the future.

First, what is the Rule 5 Draft? Every December, at MLB’s Winter Meetings, a draft takes place in which players who meet certain qualifications are exposed to the other 29 clubs. The draft order is the same as the Rule 4 draft, otherwise known as the “First-Year Player Draft,” that will take place the following June. Teams will have the option to select a player in order of lowest winning percentage to highest. However, because a Rule 5 draftee must remain on the club’s active roster the following season, any team that does not have an open spot on their 40-man roster is omitted from the order and unable to select any player in the draft.

Now, who is eligible to be drafted​? Players who are not on the 40-man roster of their parent clubs are all eligible, after meeting service time requirements. Any player who was 18 or younger on the June 5th prior to their signing and who has been in the minors for five Rule 5 drafts is eligible. So is any player who was 19 or older on the June 5th prior to their signing, and who has been in the minors for four Rule 5 Drafts. A club who selects a player pays $50,000 to the former club for the selection in the MLB portion of the draft, and the player is immediately added to the 40-man roster. Once the season begins, he must be on the 25-man active roster, and remain there for the entire season. A player may be placed on the Disabled List, but he must be active for at least 90 days in order to satisfy the Rule 5 requirements.

If a player is only active for less than the 90 days, he must remain active for the remaining period of time the following season. If a club, at any point during the season, decides not to keep the player, the player will be placed on Outright Assignment Waivers and the other 29 clubs can select the player for the cost of $25,000 and the player’s Rule 5 requirements transfer to the new club. If a player is not claimed, the club can offer the player back to the club he was drafted from and the former club can reclaim him for $25,000 and the player is automatically outrighted off the team’s 40-man roster. If none of these things happen, the player’s Rule 5 requirements are lifted and he may be removed from the 40-man roster, designated for assignment, or released.

Before we get started, I should point out that following the 2006 season, under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, there were a few changes that were made to the Rule 5 draft. The most notable of which was the change in the amount of years after a player signed his first pro contract before he was eligible for the draft itself. Prior to 2006, players were eligible for the draft a year earlier than they currently are (I.E.: A player 18 or younger was eligible after 4 rule 5 Drafts). I should, also, note that each player that I will outline in this article was taken before this rule change went into effect. However, the chance of still selecting a player the caliber of those that I will mention in the article remains. Got all that? Maybe? Good.

Now, a lot of people say that Roberto Clemente was the greatest Rule 5 draftee in MLB history. While they may be “technically” right, the draft was quite different in 1954 than its current iteration. Until the Rule 4 draft was implemented in 1965, in order to prevent the richest clubs from signing all the best amateur players and stashing them in the minor leagues, players who met certain requirements were exposed to the other clubs via the waiver wire. This was known as the Bonus Rule that was implemented from 1947-1950, and revived and revised by Branch Rickey in 1952. After 3 seasons in Puerto Rico, Clemente was offered a contract by the Dodgers to join their triple-A affiliate in Montreal. Clemente signed and moved to Montreal, where he was primarily a bench player. After he was left unprotected by the Dodgers, the Pirates selected Clemente and he went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Whether or not you decide to include Clemente in the “Rule 5 Draftee” discussion is entirely up to you.

While Clemente was the only “Rule 5 draftee” to make the Hall of Fame, there have been many players who have enjoyed long and fruitful careers in the Majors after being selected. This list includes a few current and former players that I will briefly highlight here:

 

Jose Bautista:

While Jose Bautista didn’t experience success with the team that drafted him in the Rule 5 draft, he does represent the potential greatness of any player that may be drafted on Thursday. Bautista was drafted in the 20th round of the 2000 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was ranked (by Baseball America) as the team’s 14th-best prospect after the 2001 season, and their seventh-best prospect following the 2002 season. Pittsburgh left Bautista unprotected after the 2003 season, and he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in that year’s Rule 5 draft. After appearing in 16 games for the Orioles in 2004 (posting a .273/.333/.273 slash line in 11 ABs), Bautista was claimed off waivers by the Tampa Bay Rays on June 3, and was then purchased by the Kansas City Royals on the 28th. A little over a month later, Bautista was traded to the Mets, for Justin Huber, and then, on the same day, he was traded back to the Pirates in the Kris Benson trade. This made Bautista the first and only player to be on five different MLB teams’ rosters in one season.

After appearing in 377 games for the Pirates over the next 4 seasons, Bautista lost his starting job in 2008 to Andy LaRoche, and was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for a player to be named later. Bautista started off the 2009 season with a .317/.404/.463 slash line in April, before his production cratered. Then-first base coach Dwayne Murphy had been working with Bautista on trying to use his tremendous pull power to his advantage since he was acquired. Bautista had always displayed great power to his pull side (Baseball America ranked him as the best power hitter in the Pirates system after the 2005 season), but he always struggled with timing. Murphy worked with Bautista on a timing mechanism, which eventually became his signature high leg kick. Bautista finally put it all together at the end of the 2009 season, hitting 10 HRs in the month of September. The rest, as they say, is history. Beginning in 2010, Bautista has posted OPS+ seasons of  164, 182, 138, 132, 158 while making the All Star game each year. Bautista has led the AL in home runs twice and finished in the top-6 in MVP voting three times over that span.

 

George Bell:

Keeping with the Blue Jays theme, we move next to George Bell. Bell was signed as an amateur free agent by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1978 draft and was subsequently drafted by the Blue Jays in the 1980 Rule 5 Draft. Bell struggled in the 1981 season, posting a .233/.256/.350 slash line, and spent most of the next two seasons in the minors. Beginning in 1984, however, Bell began a string of 4 seasons in which he averaged 33 homers, 96 runs, and 106 RBI. This culminated with him winning the AL MVP in 1987, when he hit .308/.352/.605 and hit 47 homers. He also knocked in an AL-leading 134 runs. Always known as more of a hitter than a terrific fielder, Bell led the AL in assists as a LF from 1985-1987. Before a knee injury cut his career short in 1993, Bell amassed 265 career homers, over 1,000 RBI and a batting average of .278. While his relationship with the fans was tenuous, to say the least, the fact remains that George Bell put together a fairly respectable career after being a Rule 5 draftee.

 

Shane Victorino

Shane Victorino holds the dubious distinction of having been drafted in the Rule 5 draft not once, but twice. After being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and spending 1999-2002 in their minor league system, Victorino was drafted in the Rule 5 draft by the San Diego Padres. After hitting only .151 in 36 games, however, Victorino was offered back to the Dodgers and spent the rest of the 2003 season, as well as the 2004 season, in the minors. He split time between Double-A Jacksonville and Triple-A Las Vegas. In those two minor league seasons, Victorino hit .292 with 22 homers, 92 RBI and 32 stolen bases, in 207 games. Victorino was then drafted by the Phillies in the 2004 Rule 5 draft, but he was offered back to the Dodgers after 19 ABs in 21 games of the 2005 season. After the Dodgers refused to take Victorino back, he was sent to the minors again, where he hit .310 with a .912 OPS in 126 games at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Victorino made the club out of Spring Training in 2006, and the “Flyin’ Hawaiian” hasn’t looked back, winning the World Series in Philadelphia in 2008 and Boston in 2013. With a career .277 average and .771 OPS, Victorino has also won four Gold Gloves, made two All-Star teams, and is one of only two players to have two career postseason grand slams. With over $52 million in career earnings, and another $13 million due for the 2015 season, I’d say that Victorino has done pretty well for himself.

 

Johan Santana

I’d be remiss if I didn’t profile at least one pitcher, so we will end with Santana. Johan Santana was signed by the Houston Astros, as an international free agent in 1994. Originally a two-way player, Santana believed himself to be a better center fielder than a pitcher and almost left the Astros’ academy in Valencia, Venezuela when it was suggested to him that he should stick to pitching. Good idea he stayed. After spending the 1994-1999 seasons in various minor league affiliates of the Astros, Santana was left unprotected and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the 1999 Rule 5 draft. However, the Twins had worked out a deal with the Marlins beforehand that would have them trading their respective Rule 5 picks, with an additional $50,000 going to the Twins to cover the cost of the pick. Santana was a swing man throughout the 2000 season and posted a 2-3 record with a 6.48 ERA over 30 games, five of them starts.

After appearing in 15 games the following season, Santana was sent to the minors to begin the 2002 season. It was there that Santana credits minor league pitching coach Bobby Cuellar for teaching him his signature circle-change, even making Santana throw at least one changeup to every batter in every minor-league appearance. After two months in the minors, Santana was called back up to the Major League club and posted an 8-6 record, with a save, and a 2.98 ERA in 27 games (14 starts) with a rate of 11.38 strikeouts per nine innings. Santana also led MLB in wild pitches that season, with 15. Santana began the 2003 season in the long relief/swing man role, before eventually transitioning to the starting rotation toward the end of the season, winning his last eight decisions and starting the first game of the 2003 ALDS versus the Yankees.

Since then, Santana has won two AL Cy Young awards (2004, 2006), won 20 games in 2004 and won the AL pitching Triple Crown in 2006. Santana has won three ERA championships, made four All-Star teams and even won the AL Gold Glove in 2007. Following the 2007 season, Santana was traded, and signed a monstrous six-year, $137-million contract with the New York Mets. He pitched the franchise’s first no-hitter on June 1, 2012. Over his 12-year career, Santana boasts a 139-78 career record, with a 3.20 ERA and 1,988 career strikeouts in 2025.2 innings. His career 136 ERA+ is tied for 19th-best all time with Hall of Fame pitcher Bruce Sutter.

 

So, as you can see, there is so much more to the Rule 5 draft than just picking up spare parts for a ball club. This is another area where a team’s front office can find diamonds in the rough and pluck them from relative obscurity to help elevate their club to, perhaps, the playoffs and beyond. Will there be great players like this available in every Rule 5 draft? Probably not. But the fact remains that a club with a great scouting department, patience, and the willingness to take a chance on a player could be richly rewarded on Thursday. The action starts at noon EST, kids. Will your team take a chance to pluck greatness from the abyss?

 

 

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