Things have slowed down since, with just a dozen Minor Leaguers taken in each of the past two drafts. Will the 2006 draft continue the "down-sizing" or is a return to the robust days of the recent past in order?
"I think it's going to be an anti-climactic ending to the Winter Meetings," said Tampa Bay Devil Rays scouting director R.J. Harrison. "I don't think there's going to be a lot of action."
Based on record, the Devil Rays would have the No. 1 pick in the draft on Thursday morning, but it seems unlikely they will be as active during the Major League phase as they have over the past few years. To be able to make a pick, an organization needs to have room on the 40-man roster. The Rays are currently at 40, so they would have to take someone off to make room, something Harrison doesn't think will happen.
We used to be pretty active in the Rule 5, but I don't see it," Harrison said. "I can't imagine looking at the list and looking at the names...with the new rules, there's not a lot of intrigue there for me."
It's those new rules -- as established by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement signed recently -- that has really shrunken the pool of eligible players. The new CBA changes when a player becomes eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Under the old agreement, a player signed at age 19 or older had to be put on the 40-man roster three years after signing or risk losing them in the December Rule 5 Draft. It was four years for signees 18 and younger. In the new CBA, everyone gets an extra year.
By next year, the system will have caught up and the eligible player pool should be back to where it usually is. But in this one-year lag, almost every player who would've been eligible for the draft (or, conversely, protection on the 40-man roster) now won't be until 2007.
"I don't think we would've been real active unless there was someone we couldn't pass up," Harrison said. "We don't need to go out and get someone else's marginal prospects.It's a less viable or attractive pool to try to get a guy out of."
Harrison isn't alone in his thinking. Royals scouting director Daric Ladnier is in the same boat with the No. 2 pick and his roster full at No. 40 (The teams with the top four picks are all at 40 -- see box). The Royals haven't hesitated to pull the trigger in past drafts, taking Fabio Castro No. 1 last year and trading him and selecting Andy Sisco the year before. This year, though Ladnier wouldn't completely rule it out, it appears Kansas City will merely be spectators during the Major League phase. Like Harrison, he can't imagine too many people wading into this year's shallow pool.
"Right now, there aren't a lot of names out there that would make you want to risk releasing a player to take," Ladnier said about having to make a roster move to make room for a Rule 5 selection. "The Major League phase may be one of the shortest in the history of the draft.
"The pool changed because of the new rules. That's what it all comes down to. It's the same talent pool as last year. The ones we liked were the ones who were drafted. There are some intriguing names, but there aren't a lot that are sticking out."
The change in eligibility rules hasn't affected preparation too much. Most organizations still ask for recommendations from all of their pro scouts, who go over the lists and send in reports on players they've seen over the course of the year. Then the organization compiles all the notes and comes up with a plan. When the new CBA came across, the only thing that happened is that a large segment of players were crossed off the list, shelved for another year.
The changes have had a greater impact on the other side of that coin, however. Each year, teams have to struggle with which Minor Leaguers to protect and which to risk exposing to the Rule 5 draft. Invariably, at least a few good players are available or if they're protected, other decent prospects are taken off the 40-man to make room for them. Either way, there are almost always some names that jump off the list of eligible players.
Not so this go-round. Every team bought an extra year, so teams with deep farm systems -- like the Rays -- can breathe a sigh of relief at least until 2007. For example, Tampa got to delay decisions involving guys like Fernando Perez, who turned heads in the AFL this year, and Andrew Sonnanstine, who had an excellent year in Double-A. Both would've had to be protected now in the past.
"Going into this thing, we figured we'd have some tough decisions to make," Harrison said. "Everyone is in the same boat. Everyone had two to three guys who would've forced them to make tough decisions and then pushed some more attrative guys onto Triple-A rosters."
This may make for an uneventful Major League phase of the draft, but the Minor League phases should be similar to those in years past. Besides, given the choice, as much as guys like Harrison would love a lengthy Major League phase, they're happily trading it in for the cushion of that extra year.
"I'd rather have the extra year with our guys than have it the way it used to be," Harrison said. "I think it's an advantage. It's not as much fun for me as a baseball fan, but having those guys for an extra year, it's better from the development side."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.