Baseball isn't often thought of as a game of chance, but Marlins rookie Dan Uggla sure feels lucky to have gotten another one courtesy of last year's Rule 5 Draft.
"So many people get overlooked in this game and there's so much competition," said Uggla, who was selected out of the Diamondbacks organization by the Marlins last December. "That's what the Rule 5 Draft is for. Someone else sees you, they can draft you and give you a chance."
Uggla got more than just a chance, of course. It's not often someone fresh from the Rule 5 Draft gets a spot in the everyday lineup the following year. Uggla took advantage and became the first Rule 5er to make the All-Star team in his first season and finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
"I definitely feel fortunate to fall in the situation I did," said Uggla, who hit .282 with 27 homers and 90 RBIs for Florida. "A lot of time you get stuck on the bench or don't get many at-bats. Still, you go from an organization that wouldn't put you on the 40-man [roster] to a team in the big leagues. You're going to get a shot to play every once in a while. Luckily for me, I was given the opportunity to play every day."
Uggla clearly has a strong understanding of the Rule 5 Draft. In fact, he was familiar with all phases of the slightly obscure Minor League draft because he thought he might get drafted in 2004. For those a little less well-versed than Uggla, here's a primer.
The Rule 5 Draft, which has taken place at the Winter Meetings for as long as anyone can remember (and will take place on Thursday in Orlando) not only gives Minor League players a shot at making a big league club, if drafted, but gives teams a chance to find young diamonds in the rough for a bargain price.
Sounds simple, doesn't it? Of course, reading the actual rule is more confusing than it's worth. And the rules recently changed, to boot. Thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, all organizations have an extra year before deciding whether to protect a player. Here's the abridged version of the new rule:
A player who is 18 when he's signed can spend five seasons (up from four) in an organization before he has to be protected. Anyone who is 19 or older must be protected after four years (up from three). Once past that length of service, a prospect must be placed on the 40-man roster if his organization wants to keep him from being eligible for the Rule 5 draft.
The draft has three phases. The Major League phase is the one in which Uggla was taken. Any Minor Leaguer who fits the above qualifications is game, at any level. In the Minor League phases, only players left unprotected -- and there are protected lists at each level to consider for these rounds -- can be selected.
While the rules regarding elgibility have changed, the costs have not. At the Major League level, there's a $50,000 price tag to select a player and the team must create space on its 40-man roster to take a player at this level. The fee is $12,000 for the Double-A segment and $4,000 for the Class A draft.
Got it? OK, now here's the main wrinkle. A player taken in the Major League phase of the draft must stay on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to the original club for half the initial fee.
In the past, players have been "hidden" on rosters as mop-up men in the bullpen or pinch-runners/defensive replacements off the bench. Even Johan Santana, the be-all, end-all of Rule 5 picks, was stashed in the Twins bullpen for a time. Every once in a while, as in Uggla's case, they find a little more playing time. But there's a certain risk-reward teams have to weigh before opening a valuable Major League roster spot to someone who probably isn't going to help the team that first season.
Every team gets a list of draft-eligible players from the Commissioner's Office shortly after 40-man rosters are set. Then they go to work to try to find players who might be worth taking that Rule 5 risk.
"It's just another avenue we can pursue players to add to our pool," said Jim Rantz, farm director for the Minnesota Twins, who have had success with Rule 5 picks like Santana and, a few years earlier, Shane Mack. "We send that list to every scout and every field person that works for us. That raises some eyebrows when a field person sees it -- if a player was in his league (that jumps out). It does happen."
The players available aren't exactly the cream of the crop. Blue chippers are invariably protected. Of course, one team's lost cause is another's diamond in the rough.
If all the work pays off, the dividend can be recent selectees like Santana (1999), Jay Gibbons (2000) and Uggla. Santana is the holy grail of Rule 5 picks. After easing into the Twins rotation over a few years, he joined it full-time in 2004 and won the Cy Young Award. He had another Cy Young-caliber season in 2005, finishing third in the voting, then "bounced back" to take home Cy again in 2006 after winning the pitching Triple Crown.
Gibbons hasn't blossomed into a star like Santana, but he drove in 100 runs in 2003 and has three 20-plus home run seasons since being selected by the Orioles.
And then there's Uggla. With just one big league season under his belt, it may be premature to label him as one of the best Rule 5 picks in recent memory. But seldom, if ever, has a Rule 5 pick had that kind of immediate impact. The Marlins initially may have been unsure of what kind of contribution Uggla would make, perhaps seeing him as a utility man, but now they have a double-play combination -- Uggla teamed with NL Rookie of the Year Hanley Ramirez -- they can pencil in the lineup for the next several seasons.
For that reason, teams undoubtedly will not only say they're looking for the next Johan Santana in future Rule 5 Drafts, they'll be searching for the next Dan Uggla as well.
"Is that the way they look at it now?" Uggla asked. "That feels good. I'm glad I can show that good things can come out of a Rule 5 draft pick. Maybe it'll get some organizations to give some other guys some chances they weren't going to get in the organizations they were in."