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Former MLB executive explains how Rule 5 draft trades really work

Good to know considering that these obscure moves have impacted the Marlins more than most other franchises.

Zach Pop #56 of the Miami Marlins delivers a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies at loanDepot park on May 24, 2021 Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Trying to win on the margins, the Marlins take the Rule 5 draft seriously. Every winter since the franchise’s ownership change, they have selected at least one player during the draft’s major league phase while finding creative ways to avoid losing potentially useful players from their own farm system.

In many respects, Miami’s 2020 postseason berth was an achievement worth celebrating. One of the drawbacks of their on-field success, however, was a drop in the Rule 5 draft order. A front office accustomed to picking in the top half of the draft had to settle for the No. 16 overall spot. That’s a crucial difference—in a typical year, only a handful of draftees prove to be replacement level or better big leaguers. For that reason, playoff teams usually decline to even participate in the major league phase (anybody worth taking a flyer on is already off the board).

The Marlins used that No. 16 pick on Paul Campbell (left unprotected by the Rays). Then, they “traded up” to add a second bullpen arm, Zach Pop, after he went sixth overall to the Diamondbacks earlier in the day. The Marlins had to include a player to be named later in the deal—right-hander Tyler Jones—but what we saw in 2021 suggests it was well worth it. Pop had a solid rookie season and could be poised to handle more high-leverage situations moving forward.

From Pop’s perspective, December 10, 2020 was “a wild day” considering he didn’t know whether he’d be drafted at all. But for the executives of these teams, this was likely the culmination of a process that began far in advance.

Kevin Goldstein, host of the Chin Music podcast on FanGraphs, answered a listener email about this niche topic on last week’s episode (at the 81-minute mark). He was directly involved in the Rule 5 draft during his tenure in the Astros front office, completing several draft-day trades himself. As an example, he cited Houston’s decision to draft Patrick Schuster atop the Rule 5 in 2013 and immediately flip him to the Padres for Anthony Bass.

In each instance, “the deal was done before the pick was made,” Goldstein says. “None of it happens after: it’s all happening beforehand.”

So now you know!

This offseason’s edition of the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft was held as originally scheduled on December 8, 2021. The Marlins were very active. The major league phase—postponed due to the lockout’s restrictions on 40-man roster moves—is expected to occur shortly after the league’s new collective bargaining agreement is agreed upon. After limping to a 67-95 record last year, the Fish find themselves sixth in the draft order.