There is very little in the way of MLB news these days, so much so that one is almost tempted to modify seasonal classics:
‘Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the league
Not a front office was stirring, no bit of intrigue
The fanbases were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of free agents danced in their heads
But it was not always such a completely dead period. As I outlined earlier today, for a long time the last day to tender contracts to players for the next season (and thereby keep them under reserve) was December 20th. Initially this involved literally mailing out the contracts, and at some point transitioned to the current process whereby teams submit a list to MLB, who compile and submit a central tender list to the union.
Players not tendered contracts, either intentionally or in periodic instances by oversight or neglect, thus became free agents when the calendar changed to December 21st. Inquiring minds (or probably just me) may note the discrepancy that all the tendering activity wrapped up a couple weeks ago and the deadline is now December 2nd.
That’s only been the case since 2010, when it was moved up from December 12th. That date in turn was moved up in 2006 from that original date that prevailed for the first 30 years of franchise history and presumably long before.
One implication for the baseball calendar was that the tender deadline was moved from after the Winter Meetings to before them. For the most part, this doesn’t make much difference and I imagine was done more out of convenience to move it away from the holiday period. But there was one time it did make a difference for a transaction tangentially involving the Blue Jays.
A fixture on the Winter Meetings calendar is the Rule 5 draft, and in 1999 it was held on December 13th. Headlined by Johan Santana going second overall, the first 10 picks passed the Blue Jays until they were involved in three of the last seven. They took outfielder Dewayne Wise from Cincinnati, before losing a pair of pitchers, Brian Smith to Pittsburgh and Jim Mann to the New York Mets.
Smith was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 27th round of the 1994 draft out of UNC, but by 1999 was 27 had unremarkable results in the upper minors. Looking back from today, it seems like a curious pick considering Smith would have to stick in the majors or be offered back, but then the Pirates were not a particularly well-run organization in those days. But the Pirates had him as a guy who threw 90-94 with a power slider (huge stuff at the time) and good control.
That would normally be the end of the story at last until the spring, but the Pirates did something curious: after paying the Jays $50,000 for Smith, one week later they did not tender him a 2000 contract, making him a free agent. But that was only half the pas-de-deux: they immediately re-signed him to a minor league contract.
In so doing, they found a loophole to effectively circumvent the Rule 5 draft restrictions, since Smith not only didn’t have to stick in the majors, but also wasn’t occupying a 40-man spot (which went towards signing Wil Cordero). According to their assistant GM, Pittsburgh’s research found that the Reds had done this a couple times previously, and they checked with MLB’s Player Relations Committee which advised that it was allowed.
So why didn’t more teams do this? As GM Cam Bonifay told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the player has to go along as there would otherwise be risk of losing the player. Presumably, the minor league contract offered to Smith contained more generous terms to entice him to go along and make it worth his while. Even getting the major league minimum (if he did stick), would be a big deal for a career minor leaguer.
Did all the fuss and scheming end up amounting to anything for the Pirates at the Blue Jays expense? Not so much it turns out. Smith had a strong 2000 at Double-A Altoona, a 0.99 ERA in 27.1 innings that earned him a September call-up. In 4.1 innings over three games, allowed five runs for a 10.38 ERA. That cup of coffee was his only MLB experience; he pitched another two years in Pittsburgh’s minor league system.
The more lasting impact maybe a change to the Major League Rules as a result. The article linked above alludes to the possibility of a change in the Rule 5 process to prevent a re-occurrence if someone complained. I found no indication the Blue Jays were in the least bit put out, they were probably happy to have $50,000 for Smith.
With the tender deadline moved before the Rule Draft, this is no longer possible, But that didn’t happen for another 15 years. At some point, MLB introduced or amended Major League Rule 6a (“Selected Players”):
From the date of selection...no player selected in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Selection Meeting shall be released...until the player has received a 15-day trial period during spring training and/or the championship season of the year following the player’s selection
In freezing players selected under Rule 5 to a team’s 40-man roster for the winter, Rule 6 prevents exactly this. I don’t know when it was introduced, but it clearly wasn’t in place in 1999. It strikes as plausible or even probable it was introduced directly in response to what the Pirates did in December 1999.