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What Fans Don't Understand about Waivers

October 2, 2018

What Fans Don’t Understand About Waivers


              I drifted into a discussion on Twitter about Waiver Wires.  I don’t understand all the ins and outs of the waiver system; actually, many GMs don’t understand them all, either.   In your front office you have one or two people who understand all the ins and outs of the waiver system, and you run any decision you have to make through them.  I have many times heard a GM ask that person "Can we do this?" or "How can we do this within the rules?"  Some GMs know the rules really well because they used to be that guy whose job it was to understand the system, or maybe they used to work for the league office. 

              It started as a simple system.  If you had a player you no longer wanted, you put him on waivers before you released him so that he would have a chance to catch on with some other team that might have a use for him.   A simple system; teams could file claims for the players in reverse order of the standings. 

              Some waivers are irrevocable—that is, once you file them you can’t reclaim the player—but some waivers are revocable.  There are all kinds of different waivers.  Well, at some point lost to history, probably before 1950, somebody realized that they could use the waiver system to gather information about a player they wanted to trade.   Let’s say that in 1958 the Detroit Tigers decide that they don’t want Gail Harris playing first base for them anymore, but they don’t want to just release him, either.   They put him on waivers.   Somebody files a claim for him; let’s say that the Senators file a claim for him.  The Tigers withdraw the waivers, but they call the Senators on the phone and say, "Hey, I see you like Gail Harris; could we work out a deal for him?"   They would work out a deal in which Gail Harris would go to the Senators in exchange for some Double-A second baseman.   Wasn’t Double-A at that time, it was Class B, but you get my point.  The waiver wire system worked—not exactly in the way it was intended, but it still worked. 

So people start using the waiver wire system to work out trades. There’s a trading deadline, which by the way dates back to whenever the Yankees got Joe Dugan, early 1920s.  That was a late-season trade that was perceived as an unfair advantage for the Yankees, who were in a pennant race, so the Commissioner arbitrarily made a rule that you couldn’t make a trade after July 15 or whenever it was. 

Sometimes people want to make trades AFTER the trading deadline, so what do they do?  They use the waiver wires.  It becomes a "double waiver transaction"—or sometimes a waiver transaction with a side piece that is described in some other manner; who knows, I told you I don’t understand all of the ins and outs of this. 

Well, suppose that the Tigers have worked out a late-season deal to trade Gail Harris to the Indians to help the Indians in the pennant race, but those annoying Senators, who are in last place or close to it, intrude on the deal by filing a waiver claim on Harris.  What do you do?

You disguise your real intent—to trade Harris—by putting five or six people on waivers at the same time.  Let’s say the ’58 Tigers put Gail Harris, Reno Bertoia, Coot Veal, Johnny Groth, Ray Boone and Ozzie Virgil all on waivers the same day.  They do that because they’re trying to slip Gail Harris through.  The other guys are a smokescreen; they’re not ACTUALLY going to let anybody have them.  They’re trying to move Harris to Cleveland; they’re using the other guys as a smokescreen to let Harris get through. 

              But in 1958, player salaries weren’t really an issue, or not a major issue.  By the 1990s, players were being paid millions of dollars, and some players weren’t really worth the money.   If you just release a player, you still owe him the money, because baseball contracts are guaranteed, but if somebody picks him up on waivers, then they owe him the money and you’re off the hook.

              So it became more about money.   Let’s say that Gail Harris is being paid $5 million a year; the Tigers put Gail Harris on waivers to see if anybody wants to claim him and pay him the $5 million a year.  The Senators claim him, but the Indians call on the phone and say, "Hey, we like Gail Harris.  Maybe we can work out a deal?"  Now the Senators waiver claim is a nuisance. 

              So the Tigers withdraw the waivers on Harris, Bertoia, Veal, Boone, Groth and Virgil, and decide that they need to create a BETTER smokescreen, a bigger and darker smokescreen.  So three days later, they put Al Kaline on waivers—Kaline, Jim Bunning, Frank Lary, Frank Bolling, Harvey Kuenn, Gail Harris, Reno Bertoia and Coot Veal are all on waivers.  Some of these players are being paid $20 million a year; some of them are being paid $1.5 million a year. 

              As another American League team, you know that the Tigers are not ACTUALLY going to let you claim Al Kaline or Jim Bunning, but you know that there might be somebody on the list that they are actually trying to move.   You know there is somebody there, but you don’t know who it is.  Maybe they are trying to trade Jim Bunning to the Yankees; you don’t know.  Maybe Frank Bolling has become a head case and the manager hates him; you don’t know.   You collect as much information as you CAN collect about the other teams, but there’s a lot of stuff going on that you don’t know about. 

              Sometimes it isn’t a Gail Harris situation; sometimes you want to send a player back to the minors for a little while, but he’s out of options.  You’ve talked to the player and he has agreed to go back to the minors for a month or something to work on whatever he needs to work on, but he’s out of options.  You put him on the waiver wire; if nobody claims him, then you can assign him to your AAA team, and re-purchase his contract when he has worked out his issues. 

              So the waiver wire becomes a jumble of all kinds of different players.  There are:

1)      Players that you actually would like to get rid of,

2)      Players that you have put on the waiver wire to see who claims them or who calls you to express an interest in the players, "testing the waters" as they say,

3)      Players you would like to send to the minor leagues,

4)      Players who have value but you would rather have the money, players who are worth $4 million a year and being paid $6 million a year,

5)      Star players who the other team has secretly worked out a deal for that you don’t know about and you would file a claim just to block the deal if you did, and

6)      Players who are simply on the waiver wire to confuse you.


As another team, you don’t know which is which.  You’re not SUPPOSED to know which is which; that’s the whole point of the game, to confuse you so that the other team can do a dodge around the rules. 

The waiver wire thus becomes this giant flashing switchboard, with names lighting up and going off all the time.  In August there are 100 players every week on the waiver wire; maybe it’s not 100, I don’t know.  Maybe it’s 300. 

You don’t IGNORE the waiver wire; you have to play the game.  Every team has a list of players they like; if this guy shows up on the waiver wire, we file a claim.  If somebody really intriguing pops up on the waiver wire, we have a quick internal discussion:  should we file a claim for that player?  If somebody pops up on the waiver wire that we think the Yankees are trying to trade for, we MAY file a claim on the player just to block the trade.   

90% of the names on the waiver wire, you just pretty much ignore.   The other 10%, you have an internal discussion or minor consideration of, but 90% of those you don’t file a claim on.   The remaining 1%, you file a claim on, but 90% of those you don’t get, either because somebody else claims the player or because the waivers are withdrawn after you claim the player.    So for every 1,000 players on the waiver wire, you might get one.   Now that I think about it, that’s actually way too many; it’s actually more like one in 10,000 or 15,000 or something.  

You CANNOT routinely file waiver claims for players you sort-of like, for several reasons.  You have a 40-man roster—and you LIKE everybody on that 40-man roster.   You want to keep them all, or they wouldn’t be on your 40-man roster.  If you file a waiver claim and you get the guy, you have to release somebody else.  If you file 5 waiver claims a day, you’re going to wind up pushing players OFF the 40-man roster who are more valuable than the guys you have added to the roster.

Also, players cost money.   Lots of money.  If you carelessly file waiver claims, other teams are going to stick you with over-priced surplus players.   Filing a waiver claim is a serious thing that you have to be very careful about.   It’s not a casual decision—but, because there are hundreds of players a week ON the waiver wire, it’s a serious decision that has to be made very quickly.  The only way you can possibly do it is to start with a default "No", and then, and only occasionally, move eventually to a "Yes." 

But the thing is, the waiver wire is confidential, and, believe it or not, we follow the rules, and it stays confidential.  Occasionally a name leaks, but 99% of the names on the waiver wire, more than 99% of them, you never hear about.   They’re just bullshit; they’re not ACTUALLY going to be released on change teams.  That’s why I had to use the 1958 Tigers for illustration; if I used actual names I would be violating the rules. 

This came up because my friend was criticizing the Rockies for not claiming Daniel Murphy off the waiver wires.   Well, OK, but fans (and many sportswriters) imagine that the name "Daniel Murphy" is the only one on the waiver wire that day, so the Rockies thought about it and asked "Do we want Daniel Murphy" and decided "No, we don’t want Daniel Murphy."  It’s not like that; it’s just a light that flashed and the Cubs hit the button at the right moment.   Good for them, but it’s unlikely that the Rockies ever gave a moment’s thought to Daniel Murphy; he was probably just a name on a list that also had Al Kaline and Jim Bunning and Frank Lary and Frank Bolling and Harvey Kuenn, or their 2018 equivalents.  His name didn’t ring any bells.   The Cubs almost certainly had Murphy on a list of guys that they were waiting to see if they showed up on the waiver wire, and they got him because the smokescreen worked, and nobody else realized what was going on. 

But the Rockies won 91 games and tied for the division lead.  That’s not a BAD front office; that’s a GOOD front office.  They don’t deserve criticism for some button they didn’t push; they deserve credit for the good decisions that they DID make.  In my view, the criticism of them for failing to leap on Daniel Murphy when his name was on a list is just stupid. 

It’s a broken system.  It needs to be fixed; it’s actually pretty easy to fix.  You can fix it by

1)      Limiting the number of players that any team can put on the waiver list in the course of a season, and/or

2)      Requiring a $5,000 payment to a player if you list him on the waiver wire. 

But it’s like a lot of stuff in baseball; it’s a broken system that we have not fixed because we have inherited all these rules from 100 years ago—the waiver system is more than 100 years old—and we’re afraid to mess with it.  We’d rather play the game that we know, rather than make a system that works the way it was intended to work.  


COMMENTS (19 Comments, most recent shown first)

@Maris. Well, first off, I think part and parcel here is that there would be a phone call to see if Senators will give up something of interest, and then there would be a trade. As far as round two on waivers, I think, as Bill said, there are flurries...dozens, hundreds...of players on waivers in these time periods. The Senators might find someone they like better in the interim....or spend their time elsewhere, since they know there is no deal to be made.

If you throw out 10 claims and get them, you have to cut 10 guys off your 40 man can't pull back a claim, right?
3:27 PM Oct 5th
It is contagious! Next thing you do you will be making orange pie!
12:55 PM Oct 4th
(I meant didn't include any other apples, but oranges will do)
11:08 AM Oct 4th
If that's it, then the problem would have been that Bill's examples weren't along that kind of line. His indicated better smokescreen didn't include any other "oranges," only caviar. :-)
11:07 AM Oct 4th
I think the point is that if Tigers say "hey, anyone want an Harris shaped apple?" Senators being first in line, would say "sure! I will have an apple"

I have no idea how that got mixed up...
9:05 AM Oct 4th
Trying to sound smarter than MarisFan61, and undoubtedly fail and sound like a fool instead:

I think the point is that if Tigers say "hey, anyone want an Harris shaped apple?" Senators being first in line, would say "sure! I will have an orange"

But if Tigers say "hey, does anyone want an apple, an orange, a banana, a watermelon, a box of lego, a ferrari, or the brooklyne bridge?", and if Senators are looking for a serviceable 1st baseman (or fruit in this case) rather than Gail Harris (which is a great wikipedia rabbit hole to jump), they might pick banana instead and Tigers would be a toolbag and say "HA! Too bad you guessed wrong, you can't have the banana! And by the way, the guy two spots behind you knew it was apple I was trying to give out and got it!"

Now, if Senators has some intel to know for sure apple is the one Tigers willing to give out, they can be the toolbag and say "If I can't have this Harris shaped apple, nobody can!", then either Tigers can cancel the waiver and give up, or work something out with Senators instead of Indians.​
9:04 AM Oct 4th
I can't even express how unreasonably disappointed I was about that "double waiver transaction" was not referred to as "double waiver transaction" instead...
Now that's a run-on sentence I can be proud of.
8:47 AM Oct 4th
Folks, if nobody can answer my quandary, you do realize it means none of you are any less stupid than I am.... :-)
1:55 AM Oct 4th
There needs to be a limit how many times a year an individual player can be put on wavers. Or increase the $5000 payment exponentially each time.

Call it the Arcia/Wells rule.

1:39 PM Oct 3rd
"If you want to make a trade after the trading deadline: tough. It's supposed to be a deadline."

I agree with this. In European soccer there are clear "transfer windows" in each country, two per season. The season runs from mid-August to May.

Most countries allows transfers from early/late June through mid/late August. Then again in January. Those are the only times you are allowed to buy and sell players (they don't trade the way we do).

This seems reasonable. Figure your team out by the end of July and use kids from the farm system for any unexpected gaps that pop up.
9:56 AM Oct 3rd
So, claiming a guy who's on waivers was sort of the original "swipe right." :-)

But seriously folks.....

There's probably a lot that almost all of us learned from this article. I sure did. But one thing I don't get....

Taking the example of Gail Harris -- the Tigers put him on waivers, some team that isn't at the bottom of the standings wants him and would be willing to give you something in a trade, but the nuisance Senators claim him, so you pull him off waivers, as well as all the other players you had put on waivers as a smokescreen.
Then, as the article explains, what you do is "create a BETTER smokescreen."

But I don't see why that would work. Assuming that the nuisance Senators really do want Harris (and let's assume that), why wouldn't you figure that they'd just claim him again, and in fact why wouldn't they claim him again, immediately, and keep claiming him no matter what kind of smokescreen you put up?

To use a phrase that Bill used in another context (I use them all the time; I'm not creative enough to keep coming up on my own with phrases that I love that much), "unless they are complete idiots" the Senators wouldn't be distracted from picking up Harris from your team's waiver list by the presence of Al Kaline, Harvey Kuenn, Ty Cobb, and Bobby Veach, if they really wanted Harris.

I'm sure there's some good answer, but I don't think it's evident from the article, although of course it's possible I'm just missing it.....
1:54 AM Oct 3rd
Trailing the Joe Dugan trade, Lefty O'Dould was sent over after the season to complete the deal, then he wandered around the minors and the league before winning two batting titles in his 30s, one batting .398.

Seems like there is an article in there somewhere. Wandered the desert for years before eventual glory. The Brett Kavanaugh of his generation....
11:23 PM Oct 2nd
For Dan- Options limit the number of years you can drop a player from the 25 man roster. Every year you send a player on the 40-man roster to the minors counts as one option.
8:24 PM Oct 2nd
The trading deadline goes back before the Yankees got Joe Dugan, and before the Giants got someone or other in late July 1921 (I think Irish Meusel). In 1922 the trading deadline was Aug. 1, and after the Dugan trade it was changed to June 15.

My solution to fix the waiver problem- make all waivers irrevocable. You don't put someone on waivers unless you are willing to sell them for the waiver price. If you want to make a trade after the trading deadline: tough. It's supposed to be a deadline.
8:21 PM Oct 2nd
The moment I first realized that waivers didn't mean exactly what I thought was when Manny (not meaning Machado) was put on them.
4:57 PM Oct 2nd
A little research indicates that the Dugan trade (in July, 1922) as well as the McQuillan trade of the same month were probably the reasons for the trade deadline. Both trades involved a 2nd division Boston club trading a player to a NY based club contending for the pennant, one in each League. From what I have read, the loudest screams of collusion to each trade came from St. Louis, whose Browns and Cardinals were contending to win their first pennants (unsuccessfully, of course, the Cards had to wait 4 years and the Browns 22 before they won those first pennants). Honestly Joe Dugan didn't really help the Yankees that much offensively, he never was much of a hitter. He probably was a defensive upgrade over 36 year old Frank Baker (who might have got hurt in June, 1922, because he only PH after that) and the journeyman who was playing 3rd after Baker stopped playing it until the trade. The other player the Yankees got in that trade, Elmer Smith, was a decent hitting OFer prior to the trade, but the Yankees used him only to PH and he did Nothing for them. McQuillan, whom the Giants got from the Braves, was an OK starter for the Giants the remainder of the year and did win a WS game, but I wouldn't say that deal was egregious either. Ironically, both trades occurred before July 31, so neither of them would have been waiver wire deals under today's rules anyway.
4:40 PM Oct 2nd
It's unbelievable that those Tigers didn't win more championships with players like Gail Harris, Reno Bertoia, Coot Veal, Johnny Groth, Ray Boone and Ozzie Virgil.....
3:50 PM Oct 2nd
And why is it supposed the Rockies want Murphy anyway? He's a good player. but he's not going to take over 1st, 2nd or 3rd for us, he is going to cast a whole lot, and we're going to have to drop somebody young we like to make room... and we'd probably rather have him out of Washington than block him from the Cubs...
3:32 PM Oct 2nd
In the article you noted, "sometimes you want to send a player back to the minors for a little while, but he’s out of options." What are "options" are they limits on the number of times you can move a player off the 40 man major league roster?
2:16 PM Oct 2nd
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