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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A sport’s purgatory that can be revisited over and over with team after team



Cleveland Guardians manager Stephen Vogt (Wikipedia)

By Sam Blum / The Athletic


This offseason, an MLB ballplayer was checking his social media when a post stopped him in his tracks. It was a reporter’s post, and it told him he had just lost his job.


This player, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the episode without harming his future job prospects, was a fringe member of his team’s 40-man roster. He was just days away from reporting to spring training.


He was aware that he was on the roster bubble, and every time his team made an acquisition, there was anxiety that he would be designated for assignment. He knew his team had made a free agent signing that day, but he had not received a call from the team or his agent telling him he was losing his roster spot.


Instead, the team sent out a news release announcing that he had been cut from the roster.


The team said it made an attempt to reach the player’s agent, but it did not go through because the agent was on a flight. The player, who had never been designated for assignment before, said he was left to look up what he was supposed to do next on MLB.com’s online glossary.


“When it first happens, you’re in your own head,” the player said. “You’re like, ‘Do they think I’m not good enough?’ You start running those kinds of situations. And if someone were to have come along and said, ‘Hey, this is what we thought about why we did it.’ That kind of eases you into the thought process.”


The DFA process is cruel to an extent fans may not realize. Each one is its own misery for the player going through it. Those involved emphasize the importance of communication and humanity to mitigate the pain.


“Players might not always like the news,” said one MLB executive for a different team, “but you pride yourself on delivering it in a way where they’re hearing it from you.”


The purpose of a DFA is to remove a player from the 40-man roster. After that, the team has seven days to trade that player or put him on waivers. If he goes untraded or unclaimed, the player is outrighted to the Class AAA roster or released.


The process is often an afterthought for the common baseball fan, but it is the sport’s equivalent of being fired.


“You don’t exist when you’re in DFA limbo,” said Cleveland Guardians manager Stephen Vogt, who was designated for assignment three times in his playing career. “It’s lonely and you start going down rabbit holes of what-ifs, start thinking the whole world is looking at you, and in reality, no one’s looking at you. It’s a really tough place to be.”


The process leaves players in purgatory. And it can lead to them being shipped all over the country at a moment’s notice.


Take, for example, pitcher Kyle Tyler. Two years ago, he was DFA’d by the Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres and Angels again, all in three weeks during spring training. Each time, it was a gut punch: going from starting anew with an organization to being irrelevant there days later.


“Once I was told that I was DFA’d, it’s almost like I didn’t exist within that organization anymore,” said Tyler, who is in spring training with the Miami Marlins this year on a minor league contract. “There was no communication with any other coaches, any other front office staff. Nothing.”


Communication is easier during the season, when teams can call a player into an office, notify him and explain the subsequent steps. The offseason makes for a more fraught process.


“At first, it’s a little bit of a shock. You never think that it’s going to happen,” said infielder Kevin Padlo, who has been DFA’d six times. “It’s like, what’s next? You don’t really know when it happens for the first time what the next steps are.”


Padlo got a call from Tampa Bay Rays general manager Erik Neander when he was DFA’d for the first time in 2021. Neander walked him through the process and explained what they believed the likely outcome would be.


Outfielder Bligh Madris had one of his five career DFAs occur over the holidays in late 2022.


When the general manager’s name pops up on your phone, your heart drops a little bit, said Madris, who is in camp with the Detroit Tigers on a minor league contract this spring. “You really don’t know what to say,” he said. “Then you get off the phone and two hours later you have a bunch of questions. You kind of go numb for a little bit. I’m not going to lie to you. I’ve been numb a few times.”


What can compound the anxiety is uncertainty about how long it will take. Ideally, the team will communicate whether they will attempt to trade the player, and, if not, how long before he is placed on waivers.


If that answer is not obvious right away, then the agent and team typically communicate. But good communication only ices the burn. There’s no healing it.


As part of the 2022 collective bargaining agreement, MLB and the players union agreed to change rules on player options. Teams were using that transaction to shuttle players back and forth from the majors to the minors with increasing frequency.


The union responded by negotiating a policy that capped the number of option uses in one season at five. There are, however, no policies to limit players from being in DFA purgatory over and over. There also are no rules regarding streamlined communication. And no guarantees for players to gain access to team facilities as they await resolution.


Although players still receive pay and accrue service time during the wait, there are seemingly some loopholes that could be closed or changed in the next contract negotiations.

“Each year provides an opportunity to appreciate how existing rules are being treated and whether, and to what extent, there are adjustments that may need to be made,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the players union.


This offseason, infielder Diego Castillo was DFA’d by the Arizona Diamondbacks, claimed by the New York Mets, then claimed by the New York Yankees, then claimed by the Philadelphia Phillies, then claimed by the Baltimore Orioles. He was finally designated for assignment by the Orioles and went unclaimed, and was outrighted.


Although the misery of the DFA process mostly applies to fringe players, many well-known names have been designated as well. Albert Pujols was let go by the Angels. Liam Hendricks had the same fate with the Kansas City Royals. Nelson Cruz, who has 464 career homers, was cut by the Texas Rangers and the Padres.


When great players are dealt this fate, it is major news. But it happens every day to lesser names.


Vogt is now a manager. When one of his players is DFA’d, Vogt will probably deliver the news, bringing the empathy and understanding of someone who has been through it himself. Even in misery, some optimism exists.


“In some ways, it’s the best thing that could have ever happened for you because it’s a fresh start somewhere else,” Vogt said.

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