Pittsburgh Pirates: Considering a Change to the Rule 5 Draft

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images) /

The current incarnation of the Rule 5 Draft has been around since the mid-1960’s, but does it need a rework? What could be changed? How would it impact the Pittsburgh Pirates and the rest of MLB?

The Rule 5 Draft is an easy way for a team to find a diamond in the rough. A team can pick any player, not on any 40-man roster, was signed at 18-years-old or younger and has 5 years in the minor leagues, or was signed at 19-years-old or older and has 4 years in the minors. Their age is based on June 5th of their signing year. The only risk is losing $100,000 (which would go to the team the player was picked from).

The original purpose of this draft was to keep teams from hoarding minor league players and never giving them a chance to play in the Major Leagues. It was originally created in 1947 to combat a strategy created by one of the most famous front office personnel runners in baseball history, and former Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Branch Rickey. Rickey, who created the modern-day minor league system, would sign handfuls of top prospects to keep in the minor league system. To prevent teams from getting into huge bidding wars over these minor league players, MLB created the Bonus Rule, the very first incarnation of the Rule 5 draft. The original rule was that a team who signed a player to a bonus of at least $4K had to stay on a major league roster for 2 seasons, or would be available for selection.

The first-year player draft in 1965 helped form what we know as the current Rule 5 draft. But does the Rule 5 Draft need another rework? When you look at how teams form their major league rosters today, it’s very similar to how Branch Rickey built up the Cardinals and even the Pirates. Acquiring a ton of top prospects and developing them into productive major league players. Pretty similar to what the Pirates and Ben Cherington are doing right now.

But you also have to remember that the original Rule 5 Draft was created before the amateur player draft. While it was reworked once the Rule 4 Draft (the amateur draft) was introduced, the amateur player draft has become even more important today than in any other year. Tanking has become the meta baseball in building a team.

Not only that, but with the loss of the 2020 minor league season, the current form of the Rule 5 draft could mess up some team’s rebuilds. This includes the Pirates. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. The Pirates have a ton of prospects and one of the most promising systems in all of baseball. But many of their prospects are going to be Rule 5 eligible.

Travis Swaggerty, Diego Castillo, Omar Cruz, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski, and Mason Martin are all guys that will be Rule 5 eligible, but you could easily make a case for the Pittsburgh Pirates to open up a 40-man roster spot for them. They’ll probably see the major leagues at one point or another in 2022.

But then you look at some of the other top prospects the Pittsburgh Pirates have who will be Rule 5 eligible. Liover Peguero, Abrahan Gutierrez, Tahnaj Thomas, Lolo Sanchez, Cal Mitchell, and Eddy Yean could be exposed to the draft. Among them, Mitchell is the oldest at just 22.7 years old. Is it fair that the Pirates could lose some high-ceiling players like Peguero, Thomas, Sanchez, and Yean, all of whom haven’t even played at Double-A yet, to the Rule 5 draft? In my opinion, no.

International players are also getting younger and younger. The Pittsburgh Pirates signed one of the more notable international free agents this past offseason in Shalin Polanco. Polanco will be available for the Rule 5 draft in 2025 when he’s 21-years-old. That’s very, very young to add a guy to the 40-man roster. Of course, he could develop very fast and become a highly regarded prospect and in the upper minors by then, possibly even pushing for a promotion to the majors. But not every player is going to be a Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., or Ronald Acuna Jr., coming up at age-21 or younger and lighting the world on fire.

So what would be a solution to this problem? Well, one thing they could do is base it off age rather than just years of experience alone. The original purpose was to prevent teams from hoarding players in the minor leagues. Another one of the original purposes was to give minor league players a chance at Major League playing time they otherwise wouldn’t have with the team they are currently with.

Are the Pittsburgh Pirates really hoarding Liover Peguero, or keeping him from getting a shot in the Major Leagues by not adding him to the 40-man roster? Keep in mind the highest level he has played at so far has been High-A and 2022 will be his age-21 season.

Instead, maybe it should be players who are at least 24-years-old and five or more years of minor league experience and not protected on the 40-man roster would be eligible. That way, the Pittsburgh Pirates, along with any other team, wouldn’t have to worry about adding a 20-22-year-old top prospect who hasn’t even played at Double-A yet, to the 40-man roster.

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The current form of the Rule 5 Draft was made in the mid-1960s. The way prospects are developed and the way the game is played today is way different compared to when the current incarnation of the Rule 5 Draft was created. I don’t think the Rule 5 draft should be completely done away with. I think it’s fair to say that some minor leaguers will never get a shot with the current club they are with and are just treading water at Triple-A, so another team giving them a chance without risking anything isn’t a bad idea. With CBA negotiations on the horizon, there is a possibility they do re-analyze the Rule 5 Draft.