Fixing the Waiver System

On July 31st, in need of a roster spot for newly acquired Alberto Callaspo, the A’s designated Adam Rosales for assignment. Two days later, he was claimed on waivers by the Texas Rangers, as they were scrambling for depth with the uncertainty surrounding Nelson Cruz‘s suspension and appeal situation. After a brief weekend on the Rangers roster, Texas DFA’d Rosales on August 5th, and he was re-claimed on waivers by the A’s on August 8th, since they didn’t want to lose him in the first place. However, they still didn’t really have room for him on their big league roster, and when they needed a roster spot to promote Sonny Gray to pitch on Saturday, they DFA’d Rosales once again. Yesterday, he was re-claimed on waivers by the Rangers.

In two weeks, that’s two stints with the A’s and now two with the Rangers, who aren’t guaranteeing that they’ll keep him around this time either. Both teams like the positional flexibility and depth that Rosales provides, and would like to stash him in Triple-A so that they’ll have him around in case a need arises, but because Rosales is out of options, the only way to get him to Triple-A is to pass him through waivers. And Rosales is just good enough to tempt teams into claiming him so that they can then try and pass him through waivers themselves, while not being quite good enough for teams to commit to carrying him for longer periods of time.

Maybe this doesn’t all seem like a big deal, given that Adam Rosales has been getting paid the entire time, and is still on a big league roster. From that perspective, the system is working just fine, giving a Major League opportunity to a guy on the fringes of the talent pool. However, Rosales is a human being, and the practical implications of the DFA merry-go-round mean that he’s spent the last few weeks separated from his family and his belongings. There has to be a better way than this.

This isn’t the first time the waiver system has come under fire this year. Back in April, Ken Rosenthal noted that opposing GMs were unhappy with the Toronto Blue Jays “claim everyone” approach to waivers, and that the issue of changing the waiver system had come up at the GM meetings and was likely to do so again. Earlier in the season, Casper Wells went on a similar DFA whirlwind, when the Mariners cut him loose before opening day, and he went from Toronto to Oakland to Chicago in a month, getting a grand total of six plate appearances during that time.

While the rule is theoretically in place to provide a big league opportunity to a player who would otherwise find himself in the minors, I doubt Wells and Rosales actually see this kind of ping-pong roster maneuvering as helpful to their careers. It can’t be that hard to come up with a system that both provides opportunity for fringe players like Wells and Rosales without forcing them into long term limbo while GMs play a game of roster chicken just to see if they can pick up some free depth.

After all, teams already have rules in place that deal with similar types of players in other situations. The Rule 5 draft is basically an opportunity for teams to take mediocre prospects from opposing farm systems and give them a shot at the big leagues, with the caveat that they have to stay on the big league roster — or DL, which is why every rule 5 guy in history has “gotten injured” during their rule 5 season — for the entire season. That way, teams actually have to commit to carrying the player for a good chunk of the season, adding in some real cost for the club to weigh against the benefit of adding talent for just a small amount of cash; $50,000, in the case of each rule 5 selection.

In fact, the easiest waiver change might be to just borrow from how rule 5 players are handled. Currently, once a player is selected in the rule 5 draft, he must remain on the selecting team’s roster until or unless they decide that he’s not worth a spot anymore. Once they make that decision, then the player is passed through waivers, where 28 other teams have a chance to make the same commitment to keep him on their big league roster for the rest of the year. If those teams pass, then the original team gets the opportunity to buy back the player for $25,000, and most importantly, the chance to simply assign him back to their minor league system without passing him through waivers again.

Basically, the system is setup to give the player a big league opportunity, but there is no mechanism in place for a team to select a rule 5 player for the sole purpose of stockpiling depth in the minor leagues. They either keep him on their big league roster or give him back. The only team who can send him to the minors is the franchise that originally had him to begin with. With waivers, I can see an argument that the commitment process should be shorter, but it wouldn’t be that hard to put something similar in place.

Perhaps you use a 30 day minimum for waiver claims instead of the whole season. That way, teams can still use waivers to plug holes that arise due to injuries or underperformance, but it would eliminate the ploy of claiming a guy just to try and see if you can get him through waivers yourself. Under this scenario, a claimed player would have some job security, and could ship his stuff to the new city with the knowledge that he’ll be there for at least a few weeks. If a team wanted to borrow a player for less than 30 days, they’d have to offer him back to the original team with the caveat that he could then be sent to the minors.

That’s just one idea, of course. When I broached the idea of changing these rules on Twitter yesterday, several people responded with ideas of their own. A popular one was simply to grant automatic free agency to any player who is DFA’d more than one time in a season. Upon 2nd DFA, he simply would be released from his contract and free to sign with any team of his choosing. This way, the player could then choose whether to take a more secure minor league job with a franchise he’s comfortable with, or perhaps accept a short term major league contract knowing he might get released again in a short time. Either way, the choice would be his.

If granting free agency is too extreme of a measure, another suggestion was to also allow a player to opt-out of the waiver system by simply agreeing to be sent to the minors without passing through waivers, even if they were out of options. In Rosales’ cases, perhaps he’d rather be playing in Sacramento with the knoweldge that the A’s would call him back up when rosters expand in September than spend a few weeks bouncing between the A’s and Rangers, even if it means a month of lower pay in the PCL. This is probably the option most open to corruption, as teams could theoretically entice players into opting out of the waiver system when other teams would happily keep them for extended periods of time, but if the player would rather be in Triple-A in one organization than in the majors in another, there is an argument to be made that such a wish should be given weight, given that the waiver system is designed to be a player-friendly system.

Regardless of the specific changes, it’s probably time to change the waiver system. The current system has too many exploitable flaws that aren’t really good for anyone. Maybe this seems like a minor issue, but for players like Adam Rosales right now, it probably doesn’t feel like a minor issue.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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