Let Us Now Praise The Garbage Feast At The Heart Of The MLB Winter Meetings
5:56 PM EST on December 11, 2020
In an ordinary year, Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings would have spent the first four days of this week unfolding in whorls of speculation and khaki-and-fleece anxiety through a series of refrigerated ballrooms and event spaces at some sprawling resort in the Sun Belt. Little of note has tended to happen at the meetings in recent years, as Rob Arthur noted at Baseball Prospectus, as MLB teams defer offseason improvements deeper into the winter or just all the way out of frame. Or, more to the point, little of note has happened there beyond the exchange of a great many résumés in pursuit of progressively worse front office jobs and the broader work of kicking the can of free-agent speculation another week or so into the future. But this is December and the long months ahead are bereft of baseball even when there’s not a plague on, and so the thing to do is to take what you can get, or get what you can out of what's available, or anyway to think about things that are less upsetting than the many other more-upsetting things on offer.
And this year, as it turned out, very little happened at the virtual Winter Meetings. The White Sox got a mid-rotation starter and a rightfielder who had already cycled out of town after clashing with everyone in the clubhouse; the Angels traded for the Reds' closer; presumably there were a lot of Zoom calls between white men in quarter-zip sweaters and pale blue shirts, but they produced nothing much. Every year at the end of the annual Winter Meetings, MLB’s executives get together for a festive white elephant party. It is similar in some ways to the ones that people enjoyed/“enjoyed” during The Before Times, where guests would bring gift-wrapped items they don’t really want and then trade them amongst each other according to a randomly determined order and their own personal whims. That sort of thing is notably more fun if you are drinking, and really mostly works only if you don’t have any serious hopes for the item in question. Baseball does this not with panettones and gaudy re-gifted socks but with the imperfect or undervalued or misunderstood players cluttering up their farm systems. They call it the Rule 5 Draft, and it is one of the great shames of my life that I always look forward to it.
Good players have been selected in the Rule 5 Draft in the past. But while a few bona fide dudes have changed organizations and flourished through the draft—Johan Santana came to Minnesota through the draft, and Roberto Clemente’s legendary career in Pittsburgh began when the club selected him from the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1954—it is mostly what you’d expect from a draft of veteran minor leaguers who were for various reasons not deemed worthy of a spot on the 40-man roster. Because the draft requires the team to keep the players it selects on the big league roster all season—that is, if they don’t just opt to return the selected players to their previous organization for a small fee—those players tend not to be used much, and to be treated roughly when they're used at all. I wrote in Thursday's newsletter about Andy Sisco, one of the vanishingly scarce Rule 5 picks who excelled right away, and who then never excelled again; I can think of a few other players offhand who were even faintly useful during their Rule 5 season, but when your mind goes instantly to a tall lefty who was good for precisely one big-league season and later got cut by his Mexican League team for eating tacos during the game, it is clear what level of significance we're talking about.
It is also clear what kind of brain we're talking about, and even at a site that's broadly positive regarding what we might call "perverted sports content" the Rule 5 draft only barely qualifies. It is, for one thing, not really sports; this year's iteration was held in a damn Slack channel. For another, it is breathtakingly insignificant. The bigger names available in the draft are all entirely too obscure to know; the most famous, this year, was a pitcher with the delightful name of Riley Pint, whom the Rockies took with the fourth overall pick in 2016. "He had 55 combined walks, hit batsmen, and wild pitches in 17 2/3 innings in 2019," R.J. Anderson noted in his roundup of the Rule 5 Draft's most notable entrants, "or more than one command-related oopsie per recorded out."
Just 18 players were taken this year, none of whom were named Riley Pint; the Orioles, Pirates, and A's will each bring two Rule 5 picks to camp, and 15 teams won't bring any. This is where I would note that the Mets used the even more depraved Triple-A portion of the draft to restock their upper minors with actual upper-minors players, but there's no reason to note that, and so I will not.
As in previous years, the draft mostly worked as a way to redistribute pitching prospects from the organizations that habitually and almost helplessly produce too many of them to those capable of admitting that they do not have any better options in hand than the Dodgers' 24th- or 25th-best pitcher. I didn't really know any of the players selected and the odds suggest that I will not come to know them next season or after that. They're names in a list to me, scouting reports that might as well be entirely fictive, strangers to have hopes for and about, potential energy that has not yet found any kind of shape. They're people, too, with a chance—the opportunity, at the end of this unimaginable winter, to change their lives, or at least change their hats. Every year, it mostly winds up amounting to nothing beyond learning a few new names to remember, and then forget.
The Rule 5 Draft is nothing to get sentimental about, in short, let alone take especially seriously. It is just a thing that signals the end of one phase of baseball's winter and the beginning of another. There are a lot of these phases, and most of them are as meaningless as this one. Each one is also a small step towards the sunshine. There is also the possibility that it's just some fiddling in the dark, but this is how I'm choosing to think about it.