Pirates.com: Donnie Veal's Disabled List Placements Were Bogus

A pretty hilarious note from the mothership. Emphasis mine:

[Donald] Veal made only six appearances before the All-Star break and was twice put on the disabled list so the Pirates could take advantage of sending him to the Minors for rehab work

Silly me, I thought the disabled list was for players who were hurt. Neal Huntington himself actually admitted in early June that his decision to place Veal on the DL for a "groin strain" was "an aggressive placement." Dejan Kovacevic of the Post-Gazette has called Veal's DL assignments "dubious." And now we have Jen Langosch claiming that Veal's DL stints were straight-up fraudulent. Well, she doesn't say that exactly, but she does say that injury isn't the reason he went on the DL.

I wrote about the Rule 5 draft at length in early 2008 and it's kind of a pet peeve of mine, so I'd encourage you to check that article out. Some background here, though: basically, Rule 5 picks like Veal are required to stay on their new teams' major league rosters the entire year. The only exception occurs when a player goes on the DL, after which he is allowed to "rehab" for several weeks in the minors. 

I'm not blaming Huntington or the Pirates for any of this. They are simply trying to do their best with the tools available to them, and since other teams also use fake DL trips to protect Rule 5 picks, the Pirates should do it too. But the fact that there is any need for these phantom DL stints to take place proves that the system is broken. At least as I understand it, the Rule 5 draft is intended to prevent teams from hoarding major-league-ready talent in the minors. The Rule 5 draft should redistribute that talent to teams who don't have as much talent in the majors; that's why teams are required to keep Rule 5 picks on their roster the entire year.

In practice, though, teams often don't use Rule 5 picks on players who are genuinely ready, which means they essentially have to hide the player for the entire season. The fake rehabs are one way of doing that, but teams are also required to keep the player on their active roster for 90 days. If they don't, they have to keep him on their active roster the next year until 90 total days have been reached.

The idea of hiding a player on the bench, in the bullpen or in the minors is antithetical to the spirit of the Rule 5 draft, which is supposed to put the best possible players on the field by preventing talent-rich teams from stockpiling too many talented, mature players. Veal himself might be happy as a Rule 5 draftee--I'm sure he got paid a lot more this year than he did in the minors--but for the game of baseball, his experience has been a perverse failure in two ways.

1) It has forced the Pirates to allow Veal, who plainly was not ready to pitch in the big leagues this year, to pitch in the big leagues. He racked up a 7.16 ERA, walked more than a batter an inning, and just generally looked clueless outside of one awesome relief appearance against the Dodgers in late September.

2) It has prevented Veal from developing as a pitcher. This year, between the majors and the minors, Veal pitched 54 2/3 innings. (He'll pick up a few more frames in the Arizona Fall League.) In 2008, he pitched nearly three times that many. Veal plainly has talent, and he just as plainly has serious flaws. It's probably true that he got better quality coaching from Joe Kerrigan in the majors than he would have gotten in the Cubs' minor league system, but how much better can he reasonably be expected to get if he doesn't pitch? 

So maybe Veal benefits here from getting paid, but only in a short-term, Pyrrhic-victory sort of way. If this season interrupted his development to the degree that it will end up preventing him from having a real major league career, then he loses. The Pirates benefit if Veal eventually learns to pitch better. But how does baseball benefit? This season was probably a net negative for Veal's development, and in the meantime the league had to put up with a guy pitching who blatantly shouldn't have been there. Veal pitching 16 innings wasn't a huge deal, but baseball still shouldn't want that to happen.

It's always cool when some obscure guy gets picked in the Rule 5 draft and immediately proves he belongs--Dan Uggla and Joakim Soria come to mind. But those cases are few and far between, and Veal's DL trips just prove the Pirates know what was obvious to the rest of us: that Veal wasn't ready for the majors. Which is dumb, and which isn't the sort of situation the Rule 5 draft is supposed to create. Veal's case was, as far as I can tell, the worst of the 2009 Rule 5 shenanigans. But then again, the only player in it who did much more than just get by was shortstop Everth Cabrera, who hit .255/.342/.361 and ran like the wind for the Padres. And this is the second straight year the Pirates have had a Rule 5'er rotting in their bullpen--last year it was Evan Meek, who was actually allowed into some high-leverage situations before a trade with Tampa effectively removed him from the Rule 5 process.

Some possible solutions:

1) Make the 40-man rosters a bit smaller, say 38 players or so. This would widen the pool of genuinely ready players available in the draft. Unfortunately, I don't think the union would ever go for this.

2) Currently, a team must pay $50,000 to the old team to select its player, and if the player doesn't cut it, he can eventually be offered back to the old team for $25,000. Raise that $50,000 to an amount that wouldn't be completely trivial for a major league team--perhaps about $400,000. Then give $50,000 to the team from which the player is being selected and put the other $350,000 in the revenue sharing pool. (This last bit prevents poor teams from selling off players for cash.) This raises the penalty for getting a Rule 5 pick wrong, meaning flubbing a Rule 5 pick would no longer be the no-lose proposition for a team.

3) This is Azibuck's idea. Allow the new team to pick the player in December, then keep him in the minors until mid-June. After that, he has to stay on the 25-man the rest of the season, or be offered back.

4) Just do away with rehab assignments for Rule 5 players. 

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