In my earlier article on the new trade deadline rules, I mentioned that trade assignment waivers have been abolished. In this article, I will talk a bit about the game-playing associated with trade assignment waivers and why it’s good for the game that they are gone. I also also discuss two additional types of waivers that are also no longer part of the game. Many of you might be surprised that these types of waivers ever existed. I will also take you on a stroll down memory lane, as there are some very interesting bits of Cardinals history associated with them, including a fan favorite.
Trade Assignment Waivers and their Revocability
Trade assignment waivers have been abolished, and I believe it’s for the good of the game. I described in my last article that for many years, waivers were required for all interleague trades outside certain period of time and all trades after the trade deadline. The rules evolved over time, but the main feature of trade assignment waivers were that the waiver requests were revocable.
In the old days, a club was literally allowed to put its entire roster on waivers just to see how other clubs responded. If another club claimed one of the first club’s stars, the first club could just revoke the waiver request, and then the claiming club would be out of luck. In the days when the National League and American League had separate waiver rules, both leagues changed their minds frequently on whether waiver requests were revocable or not, and if so, under what conditions. For example, in 1920, the National League reaffirmed its rule that waivers could not be withdrawn once asked for. However, that rule applied only to clubs within the National League. Because the original National Agreement signed between the National League and American League in 1903 permitted the withdrawal of waiver requests, withdrawals were permitted for interleague waivers, but not intraleague waivers. The American League at that time allowed the withdrawal of waiver claims, but only if the player did not have 5 years of major league service.
Even getting past the complexities of complex rule changes on an almost annual basis, teams knew that if they claimed a player on waivers, the other club could just revoke the request. In many respects, club executives quit paying attention to the waiver wire because they felt like it was a waste of time to study the wire and make claims for players they wouldn’t realistically be able to obtain.
American League Executives raised a firestorm over something that happened in 1945 with, you guessed it, the New York Yankees. On July 28th of that year, the Yankees sold starting pitcher Hank Borowy to the Chicago Cubs for a reported $97,000. As I described in my last article, the rules required that Borowy be waived out of the American League, giving all American League clubs a chance to claim him first. No clubs put in a claim in on him, however, because he was included with a slew of other players and the executives didn’t bother because they assumed that if they put in a claim, the waiver request would simply have been withdrawn. But Borowy did indeed clear waivers, went 11-2 down the stretch to help lead the Cubs to a pennant by 3 games over the 2nd place Cardinals, and figured in 4 decisions in a 7-game World Series loss to the Detroit Tigers.
Although the Tigers won the World Series anyway, American League executives were furious, and cried out for a change in the waiver process. Not only did the territorial-minded men feel like the Yankees helped the National League at the expense of the American, but they found it ridiculous that the waiver wire was a sham for all practical purposes. With no one bothering to claim players for fear the waiver requests would be withdrawn, most everybody cleared waivers.
These complaints resulted in a rule change in 1947 that limited clubs to placing 7 players on waivers on any given day, a rule that is still in place to this day. A waiver request on an individual player could only be revoked twice per year, and the third request on the player would be irrevocable. In addition, once a club withdrew a waiver request for a player, the club could not place that player back on waivers for 30 days from the date of the withdrawal of the request. That 30-day rule existed until trade assignment waivers were abolished just this season. As far as the number of times a waiver request could be revoked, the rule that was most recently in effect was established as part of the 1985 agreement to settle the 2-day player’s strike that year. It provided that once waivers were withdrawn, the waivers on that player could not be withdrawn again during that same waiver period. For trade assignment waivers, there was only one waiver period. Trade waivers secured after the July 31st trade deadline were in effect until Noon EST on the 7th day prior to the conclusion of the regular season. If a club had placed a player on waivers once during that time, the next waiver request for that player would be irrevocable.
Even with these changes, trade assignment waivers and the trade deadline were considered to be a joke. Front offices would still have to consider the possibility that a waiver request could be withdrawn. Executives and staffers in the Commissioner’s office would also have to sort out all the issues regarding whether a player had been placed on waivers before, if so whether the request had been withdrawn, and if it had been withdrawn, whether it had been withdrawn during the waiver period. In addition to all the complexity, many clubs appeared to follow the “gentleman’s agreement” policy, not making trade assignment waiver claims because they did not want their own trade plans thwarted. As Cards’ General Manager Dal Maxvill told the Post-Dispatch about the trade deadline in 1986:
“That date doesn’t mean anything. Everybody gets players through waivers. I would guess there will be a lot more moves after this date than before it.”
For the most part, Maxvill was right. The trade deadline was meaningless. If a club wanted to make a trade after the trade deadline, it would use trade assignment waivers as a friendly means to assess interest in the players they placed on waivers. If no claims were made, as was often the case, they simply traded the player to whomever they wanted. If a claim was made, the club requesting waivers would contact the claiming club, and the 2 clubs would attempt to work out a deal, which in many cases would be perfectly suitable to the club requesting waivers. If they couldn’t work something out within about 48 hours, the club could have the request withdrawn, or just let the claiming club assume the player’s contract for the waiver price.
Every once in a while, however, things could get a little ugly, as exemplified by the recent case of reliever Juan Nicasio. In August of 2017, the Pittsburgh Pirates were dropping in the standings, had decided they were out of the playoff race and wanted to move Nicasio to give the higher leverage innings to the relievers they thought could impact their club in 2018. Nicasio was making $3.65 million that year, and set to earn about $600,000 for the rest of the season To move him, the Pirates had to place him on trade assignment waivers because it was after the July 31st trade deadline. A playoff contender (later reported in the Pittsburgh press to be the the Chicago Cubs) put in a claim not because they really wanted him, but because they didn’t want him traded to another playoff contender in the National League. Other teams claimed Nicasio but trade assignment waiver claims were awarded by priority to teams in the same league as the disposing club in reverse order of standings. When that happened, the Pirates had a choice. They could have just let the Cubs assume Nicasio’s contract for the $50,000 waiver price and walk away. But Nicasio was eligible for free agency after that season, and while they wanted to save some money, the Pirates really wanted some players.
When the Pirates contacted the Cubs under the procedure I outlined above, the Cubs said they didn’t really want Nicasio and they wouldn’t offer anything more than what the Pirates considered marginal value if the Pirates were inclined to trade Nicasio to them. Either out of spite, or as the Pirates’ GM explained, not wanting to help a direct competitor, the Pirates withdrew their waiver claim. Once withdrawn, Nicasio could not be put on trade assignment waivers again for 30 days, and even then, that waiver request would be irrevocable. In what was considered to be an unusual move, the Pirates placed Nicasio on outright assignment waivers which were irrevocable and prioritized purely on record without taking the club’s league into account. The Pirates’ front office tried to spin this by saying that they believed he might fall to a potential American League contender. To everyone’s surprise, Nicasio was claimed by the sneaky Phillies, who had the worst record in baseball at the time and were in no need of immediate bullpen help, much less a pitcher who would be eligible for free agency in about a month’s time. But after paying the waiver price and 6 days’ worth of Nicasio’s salary, the Phillies themselves put Nicasio on trade assignment waivers, then flipped him to the Cardinals about a week later in early September, after the deadline to set postseason rosters. In return the Phils got IF Eliezer Alvarez, a Cards’ 40-man roster player, who has turned out to be nothing special, but was considered the 19th best prospect in the Cards’ organization at the time. So not only did the Pirates not get to make a trade for players they wanted to make, but they did not help Nicasio get to an American League contender like they claimed. Instead they watched as Nicasio helped the Cards, one of the Pirates’ competitors in the division, get close to the playoffs. All of this because of trade assignment waiver shenanigans.
You can probably see from everything I have described so far that there is really no need for all this nonsense. It’s not as if baseball front office staffers have nothing better to do than monitor the waiver wire for claims and make a claim, only to have he requesting club say “Psych!” and pull the player back. This doesn’t even take into account the time that the Commissioner’s Office has to spend on these silly games. One can make a case that the trade deadline is too early based on modern conditions, but it is much simpler and cleaner to have one trade deadline that is a real deadline, and it also saves time for executives monitoring the waiver wire, who as I will explain later in my final installment, know that if a player has been placed on waivers he is truly available to be added to the roster. It is best for all that trade assignment waivers are a thing of the past.
Additional Waiver Types that Have Been Abolished
This was a type of waivers that only existed for about 20 years or so between the mid 1960s and the 1986 season. As I will describe in my concluding article in this series, if a team wants to assign a player outright to the minor leagues (i.e. send the player to the minors without the right of recall) and thereby take the player off the 40-man roster, the player has to clear outright assignment waivers. For a long time, the rule was that if a club outrighted a player, it could not re-acquire that player until the next Rule 5 draft took place the next December and the player went undrafted. The reverse waiver rule allowed the club to re-acquire the player before the next Rule 5 draft, but the player had to clear waivers first. A player in that situation was said to be “frozen” on the minor-league roster, usually in AAA. The player might clear waivers at first, go to the minors, have a great season and then be at risk of being claimed for the waiver price if the team tried to get the player back. The situation could also change and teams could have different needs than they did at the time the player cleared waivers and was outrighted initially.
Teams would often make a trade to avoid this happening, as the Cardinals did in 1976 when Mike Easler, a late bloomer who went on to play 10 more years, was frozen on the AAA Tulsa roster. The Cardinals only ever lost one player to this rule, and that was in mid-September 1983 when the Montreal Expos claimed OF Gene Roof on reverse waivers. The rule also was the main reason behind the Cards’ naming Tito Landrum on August 31st, 1983 as the player to be named later in the June deadline deal with the Orioles for Floyd Rayford. At the time the Cards outrighted him when he was out of options in April 1983, no one wanted him for anything other than a minor league deal. But when he went down to AAA Louisville and slashed .292/.352/.527, the Cards were worried that he would be claimed if they tried to purchase his contract again. The Orioles decided they could use him for the pennant race, took him in trade, and he went on to hit a solo HR in the 10th inning of the deciding game 4 of the ALCS to lead the Orioles to the World Series.
The reverse waiver rule was also a principal reason why the Cardinals were able to get Jose Oquendo in a trade with the Mets just before the 1985 season started. Oquendo was actually the starting shortstop for the Mets during the 1983 season even before he turned 20 years old that year. But Mets’ manager Davey Johnson was publicly quoted as saying he preferred offensive shortstops to defensive ones, Oquendo had fallen out of favor and Johnson preferred to play Rafael Santana and Ron Gardenhire. By the time the 1985 spring training rolled around, Oquendo was already out of options, and he was only 21 years old, set to turn 22 that July 4th. The Cardinals, worried that they would be unable to re-sign Ozzie Smith, started stockpiling shortstops, trading for Ivan DeJesus and selecting Argenis Salazar from the Expos in the now-extinct player compensation pool draft (a pick they got for losing Bruce Sutter to the Braves in free agency).
The Mets waited until a week before the start of the 1985 season to make a decision on what to do with Oquendo. They thought Oquendo might initially clear waivers that close to the season, but knew he would be frozen in AAA Tidewater and had enough experience that he could be claimed for the waiver price later on as teams’ needs changed if they tried to bring him back. The Cards, meanwhile, wanted Oquendo in AAA as insurance. Today if club A trades a player on its 40-man roster to club B, club B has to add that player to its 40-man roster immediately. But back then, the rules allowed club B to assign the player to its AAA roster, even if the player was out of options, for one season, as long as it added the player to its 40-man roster before the next Rule 5 draft. Partially because of the reverse waiver rule, the Mets traded Oquendo to the Cards for the aforementioned Salazar and a minor league pitching prospect named John Young. Oquendo would become the secret weapon that we all know and love and would spend the next 30-plus years in the organization. The Mets’ GM would later say that if it weren’t for the reverse waiver rule, the Cardinals never would have obtained Oquendo.
Both rules were abolished in 1986. Clubs can now freely re-acquire players they have outrighted, as the Cardinals did with Chasen Shreve this season, without waiting until the next Rule 5 draft or first putting the player on waivers prior to the re-acquisition. Reverse waivers were designed to promote player movement, but were replaced with the rule requiring the immediate add of traded players to the 40-man roster of the acquiring club.
Optional Assignment Waivers
This is another type of waiver claim that most people don’t know existed, but was only abolished with the 2017-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement. I will address the option rules another time in another article, but even when this type of waivers existed, the overwhelming majority of optional assignments did not require waivers.
However, even if a player was not out options, clubs had to pass a player through optional assignment waivers if they wanted to option a player more than 3 calendar years after the player first appeared on a major league roster. This is not to be confused with the 3 “option years” a player has before he is out of options.
The reason most people don’t know this type of waivers existed despite it being abolished only 2 seasons ago, is that nobody really made this type of waiver claim. If there ever was a gentlemen’s agreement with respect to trade assignment waivers, that policy was magnified greatly with optional assignment waivers. No club wanted to be prevented from optioning a player to the minors that had options remaining, so clubs just didn’t make claims. If a claim was made, the waiver request could be withdrawn, but I have never heard of one instance where the Cards either made such a claim, were prevented from optioning a player due to such a claim, or lost a player to such a claim.
This type of waivers existed for a very short time when major league baseball tried to stop large bonuses from being paid to new players. During the years 1947-1950, 1952-1957 and 1959-1965, there were various sets of rules in place that in the early years required a new player signed for a bonus of a certain amount or above to be placed on the major league roster immediately. After the earlier rules were discarded, the first-year player draft was instituted for the winter meetings of December 1959. It functioned like a special separate type of Rule 5 draft, except that it applied to players that had only one season of minor-league experience, regardless of the size of the bonus. Players with only one year of minor-league experience had to be added to the 40-man roster before the next Rule 5 draft or be subject to a separate draft for only $15,000, much lower than the normal $25,000 Rule 5 draft price. If you ever wondered why Tim McCarver was added to the Cardinals 40-man roster in 1959 as a 17-year old and actually got major league playing time that season, that’s the reason.
To make this rule even more punishing, for the 1963 season, another rule was instituted which prevented teams, with one exception, from optioning a player to the minor leagues that they had added to the 40-man roster to protect that player from the first-year player draft, or risk losing them on waivers. The waivers were irrevocable, and by this time, the waiver price for this type of claim was only $8,000, a sum that was typically far less than the bonus paid to a protected player in that situation. The club claiming the player on this type of waivers could then option the player, while the club that initially signed him could not.
For the 1964 season, the Cardinals had 3 “first-year players” that they had just added to the 40-man roster: CF Don Young, IF Ed Spiezio and P Dave Bakenhaster. One of the three players could be optioned to the minors as a “designated player,” but he would be charged against the team’s active roster during the season, so the club would essentially be playing a player short the entire year, including during the World Series. The designated player was Ed Spiezio, former Card Scott Spiezio’s father. Dave Bakenhaster went north with the Cardinals, but he languished in the bullpen, only pitching in 2 games total through late July. The two players finally swapped places, with Spiezio coming up to the Cardinals. If the Cardinals hadn’t sent Spiezio up to the majors when Bakenhaster was sent down, the team could have lost both players on waivers. The Cardinals tried to option 18-year old Don Young before the season, but the Cubs claimed him on waivers the day before the 1964 season started.
The Cards also lost utility man Ed Pacheco and P Dave Dowling the same way in 1965, when the club had 5 “first-year players” on the 40-man they had to worry about. From the 1957 through 1967 seasons, clubs were allowed to open the season with a 28-man roster, then had had to knock it down to 25 players by the 31st game of the season. 3B Art Deras was the Cards’ “designated player” that year, and he was optioned the minors before the season. The rule changed that year to benevolently not count the designated player against the club’s active roster as it had in years past. The club decided they couldn’t carry Pacheco on the roster to start the year, and he was claimed by the Astros on waivers before the season started.
In addition to Dowling, the Cards also had first-year pitchers Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles that they took north from spring training. When the Cards tried to option Dowling to get down to 25 players in mid-May, the Cubs snatched him up on waivers. As it turned out the Cardinals made the right choice, as Dowling only pitched 2 total career major league games, Carlton would go on to become a Hall-of-Famer, and Briles would be a key contributor to 2 Cardinal pennant-winning teams.
The first amateur draft was instituted in June of 1965 and the first-year player draft, and the waivers that went with it, were mercifully abolished. Many careers were certainly ruined by this rule, as teams were forced to carry promising prospects on the 40-man and 25-man rosters years before they would normally be ready, which resulted in players rotting on major-league benches and not getting the minor league seasoning that they needed. In addition, executives and managers could not employ the rosters that they preferred and veterans were cut that otherwise would most certainly have been kept, resulting in these young players being resented through no fault of their own.
I hope you all have enjoyed this little detour down a corner of baseball history. Perhaps you will agree with me that these types of now-extinct waivers are best left to history. Stay tuned for my final installment on this rules series, as I will demystify the waiver process, and explain all you need to know about the 2 types of waivers that still exist in the game. As I will show, waivers are not all that complicated anymore now that the several types of waivers I discussed in this article have been eliminated.