Explaining The Rule 5 Draft

Image credit: Justin Bour (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated for 2020.

What is the Rule 5 Draft?

The simplest way to explain the Rule 5 draft is it’s a way for teams to snap up players who are buried on other team’s rosters, providing them with a clearer path to the major leagues. It originated back when baseball was “organized” in 1903, with a previous version stretches back to the 1890s. At the time, every team in the majors or minors was its own entity. There was a worry that players would be limited from moving up to higher leagues because minor league teams would hoard their best players.

The draft—the amateur draft was still more than 60 years away, so it was simply known as the draft—was developed to give a way for teams to pluck players stuck on lower-level teams.

The rules for eligibility have been tweaked many times over the years, but at its core the Rule 5 draft still tries to do the same thing. If one team is unwilling to put a player on its 40-man roster and another team is willing to carry that player on its active roster all season, then the player could be given the opportunity.

That sounds pretty simple. Is that it?

That’s the simple answer, and for many baseball fans that’s enough. But if you want a more detailed explanation of the draft, here it is.

Any player on a team’s 40-man roster is protected from the Rule 5 draft and can’t be picked.

See the best players selected over the history of the Rule 5 Draft

Additionally, any players who have not been professionals long enough are also ineligible for the Rule 5 draft. For any pro who signed their initial contract as an 18-year-old or younger, that player becomes eligible for the Rule 5 draft after their fifth professional season. Any player who initially signed at 19 or older is eligible after their fourth professional season.

The wording is precise for a reason. If a player’s first contract is signed and they are then assigned to a team whose season has already ended, then that player’s first counting season does not begin until the following season. The demise of the Venezuelan Summer League, which ended in early August, has meant that there are less of these loophole players. One example is catcher Ronaldo Hernandez, one of the Rays top prospects, did not have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft because he signed in early August 2014 after the Rays VSL team’s season ended.

Once a player has been picked, the team picking the player pays a $100,000 draft fee to the player’s original team. That player is then added to the new team’s 40-man roster (the team must have an open roster spot to be eligible to pick a player).

The selected player must be kept on the major league roster for the entire upcoming season. They can be placed on the injured list if they have a legitimate injury (there have been grievances filed and won over phantom Rule 5 injuries), but they can’t be optioned to the minors. Instead, if a team decides to clear the Rule 5 pick from their active roster, they have to be placed on waivers. Any other team can claim the player and by doing so that team assumes the Rule 5 roster responsibilities. If no one claims the player, he is dropped from the 40-man roster. He is offered back to his original team who can chose to take him back (and pay back $50,000 of the $100,000 selection fee) and send him to the minors or keep the money and let the player go to his new team. In that case, the player can be sent to the minors by his new team. Sometimes, teams will trade another player to the Rule 5 player’s original team so they can keep the player they selected, but still send him to the minors.

Rule 5 picks can be traded and some are, usually for cash. Those trades don’t become public until after the draft, so just because a team picks a player doesn’t mean it’ll keep the player. Theoretically, a team could trade a Rule 5 pick during the season, but that almost never happens. For one, it would be hard to properly value a player who carries such roster restrictions.

There is also a minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Any player who is on the 38-player Triple-A roster is protected from being picked in the minor league Rule 5 draft.

There are no eligibility rules that have to be maintained in the minor league phase. The player is drafted, the player’s old organization is paid $24,500 and immediately the player becomes a member of his new organization. Almost all of the players picked in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft are viewed as useful organizational players for their new team, but occasionally a player does find his way to the majors with his new organization. Top players picked in the minor league Rule 5 draft include Alexi Ogando, Justin Bour, Omar Narvaez and Alejandro De Aza.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, a former minor league second baseman for the Rockies, gets picked often in the minor league Rule 5 draft. He’s been invited to spring training to speak to the team that selected him and wear the uniform. He got an at-bat for the Yankees last season in spring training. It’s becoming a Rule 5 tradition for him to be picked and he’s eligible again this year.

When is the Rule 5 draft?

The 2020 Rule 5 draft will be held Thursday, Dec. 10 at noon ET/9 a.m. PT. The draft is typically conducted in a hotel ballroom on the final day of the Winter Meetings. This year, with the Winter Meetings being conducted virtually, the draft will be held online only.

What’s the draft order?

Teams must have an open roster spot on the 40-man MLB roster to select a player in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft or the 38-player Triple-A roster for the minor league phase. The draft order is otherwise the same as next year’s MLB draft order.

Rule 5 Order
1. Pittsburgh Pirates
2. Texas Rangers
3. Detroit Tigers
4. Boston Red Sox
5. Baltimore Orioles
6. Arizona Diamondbacks
7. Kansas City Royals
8. Colorado Rockies
9. Los Angeles Angels
10. New York Mets
11. Washington Nationals
12. Seattle Mariners
13. Philadelphia Phillies
14. San Francisco Giants
15. Milwaukee Brewers
16. Houston Astros
17. Miami Marlins
18. Cincinnati Reds
19. St. Louis Cardinals
20. Toronto Blue Jays
21. New York Yankees
22. Chicago Cubs
23. Chicago White Sox
24. Cleveland Indians
25. Atlanta Braves
26. Oakland A’s
27. Minnesota Twins
28. San Diego Padres
29. Tampa Bay Rays
30. Los Angeles Dodgers


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