First Pitch: Why the Rule 5 Draft is Unfair to International Prospects

I’ve never really had a desire for a job in the game of baseball. Some people get into the writing side of things in order to make that jump to a baseball job, and you see that a lot with prospect writers. I just happened to be living close to the Pirates’ affiliate when Pedro Alvarez was in Lynchburg, started a site to keep track of him and the other prospects at the time, and it became this. It’s pretty much the other route to blogging, where you just write because you enjoy the subject.

That said, there’s one job in baseball I’d love. Every front office has a guy who does nothing but keep track of every rule that could apply in every situation, and advises the team on every transaction with the applicable rules. It’s always been an interesting subject to me, possibly because baseball rules are so complex. If you don’t have them all laid out in front of you, then it could take years to learn all of the small loopholes involved in each decision.

One of my favorite times of year, from a rule standpoint, is the Rule 5 draft. Today is the deadline for teams to protect prospects from the draft. The players eligible are as follows:

**Anyone 18 or younger in their signing year is eligible for their fifth Rule 5 draft. For this year, most prep players and international free agents from 2011 are eligible for the first time.

**Anyone 19 or older in their signing year is eligible for their fourth Rule 5 draft. Again, for this year’s purposes, that would be college players from the 2012 draft, or older high school or international signings.

There are a few stipulations involved there, but the one I want to focus on is from the international side. As far as the rules go, that side of things has to be the most difficult in terms of understanding the ins-and-outs, and it’s also the one that makes the least amount of sense in terms of fairness.

When international players are signed, they are signed to a deal that starts the following season. Any player that signs on July 2nd is ineligible to play in DSL games (or any other leagues) until the following season. If a player signs in May, he could play that same year, since he’d still be a part of the previous year’s signing period.

On the flip side of things, if a high school player is drafted in June, and signs right away, he can go right to the Gulf Coast League and play that season.

Here is where things get confusing. Assuming they’re both 18 or younger, both of these players are eligible for their fifth Rule 5 draft, starting in the year they sign. This makes sense for the high school player, since he plays in that year. It doesn’t make sense for the international player, since he is restricted from starting his career until the following season, yet still has that off-season’s Rule 5 draft counted against him.

The perfect side by side example here is with Josh Bell and Harold Ramirez. Both were signed in 2011, and both need to be protected tomorrow from the upcoming Rule 5 draft, since it would be their fifth draft (2011, 12, 13, 14, 15).

Bell opted to sign late in 2011, so he didn’t get to play. However, the new rules have players signing quicker, and almost every draft pick makes their debut the year they are drafted.

Ramirez, meanwhile, sat out the 2011 DSL season. He played in the Tricky League, which runs along side the DSL games in exhibition form, allowing the new players to get their feet wet in a DSL equivalent of extended Spring Training.

In 2012, Bell went to West Virginia, while Ramirez went to the GCL. The latter was an aggressive push for the Pirates, and one that they haven’t made with many other top international signings. A key thing to point out here is that Bell was two years older than Ramirez, which is why he started at a much higher level.

Bell was injured in 2012, so he returned to West Virginia in 2013. Ramirez still didn’t get a chance to catch him, instead going to Jamestown at the age of 18. That was Bell’s age in his draft year, before playing a pro game. Ramirez has already used three of the five Rule 5 years at this point, hasn’t reached full season ball, and has only played two seasons.

Bell made some strides in 2014, starting in Bradenton and finishing in Altoona. Ramirez spent the entire year in West Virginia, but dealt with injuries that shortened his season.

Unlike Bell, the Pirates didn’t send Ramirez back to West Virginia for another season. Instead, he moved up to Bradenton in 2015, while Bell split between Altoona and Indianapolis.

Now we reach the point where both are Rule 5 eligible. Bell is in Triple-A, and is projected to arrive this year. He’ll use his first option year at the start of the 2016 season, and hopefully won’t need the other two, but they will be there if he struggles beyond the 2016 season.

Ramirez will be making the jump to Double-A. The Pirates gave Bell the equivalent of a full season in Altoona, and he’ll probably get the same in Triple-A. If the Pirates took Ramirez at a level per year, they’d burn his first two option years in the minors. They probably couldn’t afford that type of conservative approach, and instead would have Ramirez in the majors at some point during the second year (2017) with one option year remaining.

I want to take this moment to point out that, at this point, I’m evaluating the path of Ramirez in a vacuum, rather than in the scope of the Pirates’ current outfield situation. That complicates matters much further, and I just want to illustrate what a normal path might be.

So what is the difference between Bell and Ramirez? Bell got hurt in the lower levels, and was able to spend an entire season repeating a level as a result. Ramirez got hurt at the same level, but was pushed on despite 226 plate appearances in West Virginia.

Bell got plenty of time in the upper levels. The Pirates might have to rush Ramirez through those levels a bit faster, since the option years will be burning when he’s in Altoona and Indianapolis.

Bell will enter the majors with two option years remaining. Ramirez will probably enter with one remaining. Because of this, Ramirez is much more likely to wind up in a situation where he’s out of options in the majors, and unable to go down to the minors if he struggles. And considering he would end up with 1.5 years in Double-A and Triple-A in this scenario, while Bell would have 2.5 years at those levels, it makes it a bit more likely that he would be the one who struggles and reaches that point where he’s out of options.

Two players were signed in the same year, under the same rules, but one player is rushed much more than the other, and has much less room for error when he makes the jump to the majors. This isn’t just Bell and Ramirez. It’s every prep player and every international amateur free agent.

One big reason for the difference here is the age. The international player is two years younger than the prep player when both sign, meaning the international player has to go a much longer way in the minors. But it also doesn’t help that the international player can’t play the first year, but still gets that Rule 5 draft counted against him.

And now we get to another strange rule. If the international player signs at the end of the DSL season, he still wouldn’t play a game in that current year, but would have his Rule 5 clock start the following year. This happened with Luis Heredia. He was signed in 2010, meaning he normally would have been eligible for last year’s Rule 5 draft. But he was officially signed a few days after the 2010 DSL season ended, despite reports that he agreed to a deal the week before the season ended. The signing date is all that matters here, and by Heredia signing just after the end of the DSL season, rather than just before the end, he became eligible for the Rule 5 draft a year later.

That’s a process that makes no sense. Heredia would have been eligible in 2014 if he signed a few days earlier, but gets his Rule 5 year pushed back by waiting an extra week. Either way, he wouldn’t have been eligible to play in 2010.

Most top international prospects are signing on July 2nd, so you’re not getting that DSL season loophole with the majority of these guys. The guys who sign at the end of the season don’t have their Rule 5 count started that same year because it was impossible for them to play in that season. But if the July 2nd guys are ineligible to play that season, then what’s the difference?

Ideally, this is something that MLB would fix. It’s a very minor issue among all of their issues, mostly because a lot of people don’t even know about it, and don’t understand how it works. In the case of Ramirez, if he was just eligible one year later, he would have probably been able to spend a full year in Altoona, and a year and a half in Indianapolis before making the jump to the majors with one option year remaining (after the season where he made his debut). That extra year could be crucial. It might have been used earlier, giving him more time in the lower levels after his injuries.

This issue sets up a problem for international players. Their development has to be rushed a bit more, and they end up with fewer chances in the majors if they initially struggle. There’s a distinction already between college and high school kids in the draft, and the international guys follow those same guidelines. The international guys should be separated from that rule, and given extra time until they are Rule 5 eligible, so as not to rush them. It might be confusing to have separate rules for when international players are eligible for the draft. But it’s no more confusing than the current system with international players, and it would be much more fair.

**The Pirates Have a Lot of Talented Players to Protect in the Rule 5 Draft. Here is a rundown of the players the Pirates need to protect tomorrow, and who will be eligible for the draft in December.

**What Do the Triple-A Pitchers Need to Work on Before a Promotion to Pittsburgh? Taking a look at what each of the potential Indianapolis pitchers would need to improve upon before their jump to the majors.

**Pirates Hire Mike Mangan as Assistant Scouting Director. The Pirates work to replenish their front office and coaching staff, which has taken a hit this off-season.

**AFL: Eppler and Williams Look Solid in Fall Season Finale. The AFL season wraps up with two strong pitching performances.

**Pirates and Cardinals Will Open Up 2016 Season. Nice to see the Pirates playing the first game of the year.

**Winter Leagues: Alen Hanson Capitalizes on Recent Playing Time Off Bench. I’ve felt that Hanson’s best way into the majors should be off the bench in a utility role, or a platoon with someone else. I think his work off the bench this off-season is more about the talent in the league, but it’s good to see him having success in that role.


  • The International kids currently have the opportunity to negotiate with all 30 teams in MLB, that is something not afforded to American kids that are drafted. I believe the true issue is the fact that International signees can sign at the age of 16, I can say with 100% certainty that not a single 16 year old kid is physically and mentally ready to play professional baseball. In the best of cases it is a struggle for 18 year olds. There is the 1/10th of 1% that make it look easy, but I bet if you asked, they would tell you that at some point they struggled.
    I guess what I am saying is that I have less of a problem with the time frame from signing to Rule 5, as much as I have an issue with 16 year olds being allowed to sign professional baseball contracts.

  • You make good points, but with the developmental rush on Intl players you describe, would that not force the best MLB teams to protect only their top Intl players? If that would result in talented kids still being left unprotected, is that a competitive equalizer of sorts for lesser talented teams willing to take a gamble?

  • What is the reason for international players to be signed so young? If it’s just because the “can be,” whereas some legal hangup prevents it in the US, the easiest fix might actually just be to make them ineligible to sign until they’re 18.

    As to the unfairness, it is unfair because it’s different, but I’m not entirely convinced it’s worse for the players, at least so long as minor league money is so bad. Getting to the Majors younger may be a benefit. But on the other side, as you point out, Tim, the lack of development could make it tougher for them to stick at the Major League level, and then they could be out of a job entirely.

    It would be interesting to see a study on how the finances compare between American prep signees and international signees to see which way the economics skew, if either, and in exactly which ways they differ (for example, maybe they make the same average earnings, but there’s bigger deviation for international players or something like that).

  • I think that the fact that since International players sign at an earlier age also is a disadvantage. Take Osuna for example who was signed at 16 years of age. Realistically, he really will not be able to “compete” against others almost 2 years older then him at best. Since I believe you cannot sign anyone in the US until they have graduated High School, they have filled in a lot more then a 16 year old. So in essence, the 16 year old loses 2 years just to hit an age that is equal to the US signings. Based on that, I would suggest that the International draftee’s start there clock at the time they hit the age of 18, and not on what year they signed.

  • I think this also implies why Ramirez is a good trade candidate. It will likely be hard for us to manage his option years in a way that is optimal for his development.

    • I am big Ramirez fan, so any talk of him getting traded annoy me a bit. But now I get it, it will make sense to trade him. This is somewhat related but one thing we forget is that international players do not have access to baseball league like here in the states. No HS baseball, no traveling leagues, none of the advantages that a 18’yr old pre players has, in many ways DSL is HS baseball for them, so to count those years is not fair, but that’s life!

      • Not sure exactly what you mean here, but the average Latin American kid gets thousands and thousands more reps than even the most coddled upper-middle class American whose parents caddy them around the travel league/showcase circuit. Those LA kids literally eat/sleep/breathe baseball.

        • I don’t know where you get that info, but to give you an example, the draft practically kill the influx of puertorican players, instead of 16 olds getting drafted and groom now they were 18 year olds that didn’t have those two years of development, now you are seeing guys Correa thanks in part to the baseball academy that act in part as HS ball

          • Wait, what?

          • Thats not really all that accurate. While they dont have a true “HS” like league where they play, they absolutely do play in leagues nearly year round at really young ages. I think a better argument would maybe be that they dont get access to as high quality leagues, but even then its a somewhat subjective and lacking argument. The baseball academys and current MLB players having camps during their offseason isnt really a reaction to lack of playing time, but rounding up some of the high quality young players and potentially giving them a spotlight. Showing up to an academy at age 16 allows teams a better chance to see certain players while players get a shot to make a ton if a team goes “hey we wanna give you $300,000”.

            Biggest issue i see isnt in lack of playing time for these kids, its what Tim has pointed out. The rules as they currently stand can lead to LA kids getting rushed a bit development wise once they are here for really no valid reason. And with some of these kids being really young when arriving, losing development time due to just poor rules can be a big hurt.

            • From what I’ve read, nutrition and living conditions are the biggest improvements between where so many of these kids grow up and where they end up in the States. And that shouldn’t be discounted, it just doesn’t sound like Ramirez was missing many meals…

              • Certainly a huge factor, the 3-5 guys we had on my college team that came over from LA certainly never complained about the absolute crap that was served in the cafeteria.

                Afew guys getting a bit thicker doesnt shock me, particularly early on in their careers/American playing days.

  • Good article–thanks! It does seem unfair and should be fixed. But I wonder if the players themselves would want it fixed–as IC Bob says, they probably like the aggressive pushes and surely believe they’re ready for the next level. And the MLB minimum salary, should they be drafted in the Rule 5 Draft, could make a huge impact on their lives.

    But it does make me wonder how many careers have been compromised due to the system. The Pirates just need to find more 18-year-olds like Marte where they have the advantage of being a little older and therefore better able to handle aggressive promotions. 🙂

  • I think its more unfair to the team then the player. Players don’t mind strong pushes up the latter. For the player its better to get to the bigs where they are making MLB money then to sit in the minors. If a team has to send them back they can be claimed by another team that may have an opening and have the ability to allow them to learn on the job. Sounds to me like the system should be changed because it screws the team who has developed the player but I doubt any international player minds the set up.

  • Alou was traded for Zane Smith. I think you are referring to Wes Chamberlin. That was some sort of paperwork filing gaffe. If I remember correctly. Doughty was the GM at the time. And I think there were other players involved. Some Pirates, some from other teams.

  • Interesting article Tim. I suppose to judge how truly unfair this matter is for International players, we would need to know the success rate of International signees that make it to a ML roster compared to prep players drafted and signed.

    Is this rule the reason Pirates lost Alou in early 90’s?

    • Alou was traded for Zane Smith. I think you are referring to Wes Chamberlin. That was some sort of paperwork filing gaffe. If I remember correctly. Doughty was the GM at the time. And I think there were other players involved. Some Pira

      • Right the Phillies claimed Chamberlain and we were able to swing a ‘face-saving’ trade by getting ‘Marshmello’ Martinez who played 1B