DALLAS -- It's an event shrouded in secrecy, one that barely registers on the radars on those outside of the baseball industry. But there's no question that Thursday's Rule 5 Draft can be a useful tool in finding hidden gems of talent from other Minor League systems.
Those unfamiliar with the draft can read up on it, but rest assured those with each organization responsible for the planning, protecting and possible selecting are well-versed in the somewhat obscure process.
The first step comes in deciding who within each organization is roster-spot worthy. As is well known, there are only 40 spots on the Major League roster; anyone an organization doesn't want to lose in the Major League phase of the draft has to be on that list. So it goes without saying the process to decide who gets protected and who doesn't is on the thorough side.
Once protected lists -- organizations must protect players at the Triple- and Double-A levels as well to keep them from being nabbed during the Minor League phases -- are set, every organization gets a master list of eligible players. This year, that list runs more than 2,000 names deep. Then there's a scramble to cut that down to a manageable group of players a team might be interested in selecting.
"You basically get two weeks to get your list ready," St. Louis Cardinals Manager of Baseball Information and Assistant to Player Development Jeff Vuch said. "Most teams must do something fairly similar [to what we do]."
That process is kind of a long cross-referencing exercise. The original list is scoured for guys who are more susceptible for Rule 5 selection. Anyone who's eligible who received a positive scouting report then gets put on a "short" list for more research to be done.
The first cut, at least by the Cardinals, is looking at the level a player most recently was at. The large majority of guys at the lower levels are never seriously considered.
"On an A roster or Double-A roster, we're eliminating 97 percent of those guys," Vuch said. "Typically, guys that are left there are left there for a reason. On a Double-A roster, there might be 10-12 guys who are somewhat intriguing. So you do more research on those guys, [trying to find out] if there was a reason this guy was left on the Double-A roster."
Some of that process has become automated. In the limited time an organization has to derive a list, there isn't time to make individual calls on all players who even make thaat first cut. While the overall list gets sent out to scouts, managers, coaches who have seen the eligible players first-hand to make sure there wasn't anyone missed, the Cardinals at least have a computerized step taken when scouts file reports on all players. If a scout has an interest in acquiring a player in the future, either via trade, free agency or Rule 5, they check a "Yes" box. The "No's" get discarded from further Rule 5 discussion.
Then comes the serious whittling. The Cardinals have been willing to make selections in the Major League phase in the past, most recently with Hector Luna, but there are several variables that come into play before they decide to take the plunge.
"It's got to be a guy who not only has positive scouting reports from the most recent season, but also has to be a guy who would be able to fit in at the big league level," Vuch said. "We'll put together a list of candidates. We wouldn't take a guy just to take a guy, but if it makes sense, we'd certainly do it."
The flip side, of course, is trying to avoid getting hurt too badly in terms of losing Minor League talent. No organization can be 100 percent certain of what will happen, because it's impossible to ascertain what other teams may think of your system's eligible talent, but being able to avoid being completely taken by surprise is the ideal situation.
"Last year, we had a sense Tyler Johnson would be taken from us," Vuch said. "It wasn't a case when we fell out of our chair when he was taken.
"A lot of times we lost guys who were on the Double-A roster, because we left a spot or two open on the Triple-A roster if we wanted to take a guy, but we've been lucky that we haven't had too many guys that came back to burn us."
The Rule 5 Draft does seem to have a cyclical quality to it. Two years ago, a total of 20 players were taken in the Major League phase; last year, just 12 Minor Leaguers were selected. Is it a matter of the talent pool or simply how the organizations' 40-man rosters stack up in a given year?
"It's a little bit of both," Vuch said. "I think teams generally are hoping not to lose players. Sometimes, there are guys you think, 'I'd take $50,000 for him.' Typically, though, it's kind of cyclical.
"Some years, the teams who have roster spots don't have the players who would be desirable. Some years, guys with no roster spots available have a lot of desirable talent. In a case like that, there's not a lot that can be done to prevent [guys from being taken]."
It's hard to tell at this point what 2005 Rule 5 Draft will look like. But be sure Vuch and the Cards, as well as the other 29 organizations, will be as prepared as humanly possible for whatever direction it takes.