A calculus class taught in Sanskrit by Mushmouth of “Fat Albert” fame — that’s the only thing in the world harder to understand than baseball’s transactions rules. True scientific fact!
Sure, the rules baseball has set up to govern trades, roster construction, waiver moves and the like smack of too much bureaucracy — snaking lines at the DMV, forms signed in triplicate and all that. In reality, though, these rules serve a necessary purpose, and, despite usually being couched in lawyerly prose, they’re fairly easy to understand.
Still, questions and confusion persist. So what follows, in the FAQ format that’s so popular with the kids these days, is a walking tour of baseball’s transaction rules. Forthwith, for the people …
The trade deadline is July 31, but I’ve heard sketchy tales of trades happening after July 31. What gives?
Basically, there are two trade deadlines during the season. The first, which is July 31, is known as the nonwaiver deadline. Players traded before the July 31 deadline can be dealt without qualification or additional hurdle — i.e., they don’t have to pass through waivers first.
After July 31, however, players must pass through waivers before being traded. After Aug. 31, players who are traded (after passing through waivers, of course) cannot be on any postseason roster. By extension, players traded before Aug. 31 are eligible for postseason play. Because of the waiver thing, most big trades tend do go down before the July 31 deadline, but August also has seen its share of blockbusters.
What are these "waivers" of which you speak?
It’s useful to think of waivers as "permission to make a player go away." If a team wishes to release, trade or demote a player already on the 40-man roster, then other teams must give the go-ahead. The waiver process is that "go-ahead."
For instance, if Team A wants to trade a player to Team B after the July 31 nonwaiver deadline, that player must first be offered to each team in reverse order of the standings. The claiming order begins with Team A’s league, worst record to best, and then continues through the opposite league, worst record to best. In other words, the team with the best record in Team A’s league has dibs before the worst team in the other league. These are called "trade assignment waivers."
So long as all the clubs in front of Team B pass on the player, that player can be traded without interference. If, however, a team claims the player before he falls to Team B, then Team A — the team who wanted to trade him in the first place — has a decision to make. They can pull the player off waivers and not trade him (that’s why this particular waiver flavor is referred to as being "revocable") or they can work out a deal with the team that claimed him.
If no deal can be worked out with the new team, then Team A can, in essence, pull off a "force trade." That means the team that claimed the player must assume his contract and kick in $20,000 to his original team (that would be Team A). This has happened often, including August 2010 when San Francisco claimed outfielder Cody Ross, the eventual NLCS MVP, from cost-cutting Florida.
There also are three other kinds of waivers. Teams will place a player on unconditional release waivers before they cut him. Irrevocable outright waivers come into play when a team wants to remove a player from the 40-man roster but keep him within the minor-league system. If, however, another team claims him, then he’s gone. Finally, optional waivers cover players with options (more to come on the subject of options) who are being dispatched back to the minors three years or more after debuting in the majors. Like trade assignment waivers, optional waivers are revocable.
So, how does free agency work?
If a player has six or more years of major-league service and has no contract for the upcoming season, then he’s a free agent. In baseball, being a free agent means you’re free to sell your services to any team you wish.
But that’s not all there is to the process. Teams losing a highly regarded free agent can be compensated in the form of draft picks. That will happen less often under the new collective bargaining agreement, which went into effect with the 2012 season.
Before, players were classified as Type A or Type B free agents based on statistical comparisons to other players at the same position. The level of draft pick compensation — first round, second round, etc. — hinged on their Type A or Type B status. Now, the system is simpler. For one thing, only players who spend the entire season with one team will have compensation attached to them.
All eligible players will become free agents after the World Series is over. A quiet period of five days will follow, during which only the player’s most recent team will be able to negotiate with him.
By the end of the quiet period, the team must decide whether it will tender the player a “qualifying offer” — a guaranteed one-year contract equal to the average salary of the 125 highest-paid players from the previous season. For the 2012-2013 offseason, the figure will be between $12 million and $13 million — a high enough number that a relatively small group of players will receive the offer. (Almost no relief pitchers will earn that much, meaning more free-agent-eligible relievers will be traded in-season under this CBA.)
If a player is tendered the qualifying offer, he will have seven days to decline or accept. If he declines, his soon-to-be former club will receive two draft picks if and when he signs elsewhere. Let’s say Team A loses a free agent to Team B. Team A will receive Team B’s first-round selection the following year (unless it is one of the top 10 picks, in which case Team B’s next pick is substituted), along with a pick in the sandwich round, between the first and second.
And how does salary arbitration work?
When a veteran player and a team can’t agree upon a salary for the upcoming season, they take their dispute before an arbitration panel. Each side submits a salary figure and argues its case, and then the arbitrators must pick one or the other — there’s no splitting the difference or dreaming up a third number that strikes the panel as fair. This setup prompts teams and players to submit good-faith, realistic salary figures. After all, low-balling the player or asking ownership for an absurdly high number will only result in the other side winning.
Generally speaking, players who have between three and six years of major-league experience are eligible for salary arbitration. However, there’s also a notable exception called the "Super 2" player. This is a player who has between two and three years of service time, spent at least 86 days on the active roster during the previous season and ranks within the top 22 percent of players with similar service time. Super 2s, who tend to be some of the best young players in the game, are also eligible for salary arbitration.
The practical effect of salary arbitration has been to drastically increase the salaries of young players. As a consequence, you often see teams go to unusual lengths to "delay the service-time clock." For instance, Padres last season held off on promoting Anthony Rizzo for so long in part because they wanted to push back his eligibility for arbitration. In playing such games, a team can save millions of dollars.
What’s with all these varying roster sizes?
Major League roster rules might seem confusing at first blush, but they really aren’t. The active roster is limited to 25 players from Opening Day until Sept. 1. From Sept. 1 until Opening Day, the roster limit is 40 players.
There is one exception, new this year: Rosters will expand to 26 players for certain regular or split doubleheaders during the year.
On the other hand, from Opening Day through Sept. 1, the 40-man roster contains, at all times, 15 players who are not on the 25-man active roster. These 15 players are either on the 7-day concussion disabled list, the 15-day disabled list or are in the minors on options (that is, after a player is first added to the 40-man roster, he can be "optioned" from the minors to the majors — and vice versa — without his consent during any three separate seasons, so long as those seasons fall within the first five years he’s in the majors).
Those 15 extra players allow teams some flexibility when faced with injury, slumping players with options, or a long stretch without off days (and thus the need for a larger pitching staff).
Players on the 60-day disabled list do not count against the 40-man roster limit.
What about the Rule 5 Draft?
One puzzling bit of transactional arcana is the Rule 5 Draft, which goes down every December at the Winter Meetings. (This is not to be confused with the Rule 5 Draft’s more famous, better-looking brother, the Rule 4 Draft, or, more commonly, the First-Year Player Draft. That’s the June cattle call in which players from high schools, colleges, junior colleges, and — in rare instances — independent leagues are chosen.)
After a player is drafted, his team has four or five years (depending on the player’s age at the time he was chosen) to add him to the 40-man major-league roster. Players that aren’t added to the 40-man within this time are eligible to be drafted in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft. But here’s the rub: Any team selecting a player in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft must keep that player on the 25-man active roster for the balance of the next season, and they must also give the player’s former team $50,000.
The exceptions to the roster rule: If the player is injured he can be placed on the DL and retained (so long as he’s logged 90 days of major-league service), and if a trade for his full rights is worked out with his former organization he can be reassigned to the minors. . Some recent notable major-league Rule 5 draftees include Johan Santana, Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino, Dan Uggla and Joakim Soria. And don’t forget former AL MVP George Bell, a winter draft of Toronto from Philadelphia.