Examining the Nick Burdi Situation

Nick Burdi is kind of like a unicorn. Sometimes a Rule 5 draftee will need part of a second season to meet the 90-day required stay on the active roster to shed the tag—but three plus seasons? I am not going to try and look it up—nor would I even know where to start—but I think it’s safe to assume he’s at least one of a select few to fall into this category.

Maybe. When Adam Berry reported on Sunday night that Burdi would be Designated for Assignment, his story implied that Burdi had fulfilled that requirement this past season. I’m not sure I agree, so I wanted to explore that and several other branches of this scenario, of which I personally find fascinating.

However, in saying that, I don’t want it to be lost just how awful this is for Burdi. I don’t get too personally attached to sports, but it does always hit me hard when a player who is succeeding or obviously could succeed is befallen by a major injury or injuries. So yes, that is the most important part of this story, but unfortunately, the practical matter is important as well.

Maybe. By the time this runs, Burdi’s DFA limbo could have ended and the details clarified. Also, it’s certainly possible that Burdi never pitches again in the majors, much less for the Pittsburgh Pirates. With that in mind, maybe I’m putting too much thought and effort into thinking about this, but “too much thought” is my middle name. So, follow along as we dive deep into a tangled web of lies and deceit—or CBA and rulebook minutiae, if you don’t need the hyperbole to find this exciting.

Coming into this season, Burdi still had the Rule 5 tag on him—this much we are sure of. I had it calculated at 34 days remaining before the 2019 season even ended, so I was very happy to hear Kevan Graves back that up during a Spring Training game before the world ended. So, the first and most important question is, what happened to make one think that he either did or didn’t accrue 34 days this season?

Burdi was placed on the 45-day IL on August 5th, which would have given him 13 more days on the active roster, obviously falling well short of 34. In case there’s any confusion, Rule 6(c) of the Official Professional Baseball Rules Book states that “[i]f the selected player is not carried on the Active List of the selecting Major League Club for 90 days of the season following the selection, the restrictions in Rule 6(a) shall continue to apply until the player has been on the Active List for an aggregate of 90 days during a championship season or seasons.” Of course, the Active List is only considered days on the 25-man roster—40 in September—in 2018 and 2019, or 28 in 2020, which is why his extensive time on the injured list doesn’t count.

The next logical question—and one I’ve been asked and what I’m presume someone like Berry is assuming—is how his days were counted in 2020. As you’re probably aware, service time was increased by a multiplier this season after an agreement between the league and the Players Association; however, Rule 5 stipulations weren’t as clear. All the 2020 Operations Manual said is that the 90-day requirement would be “[r]educed proportionally to the number of days in the revised 2020 championship season.” As Baseball America reported, that ended up being 50 days over the 2020 season. I’m not sure what their definition of “proportionally” is, but 50 days is 74.6% of 67, while 90 is 55.6% of 162. If the argument is that Burdi’s 13 days equals 36 actual days (13 times the 2.78 multiplier used to calculate service), I’m not sure I’m buying that. One, as was already shown, the manual doesn’t appear to specify that the multiplier is used in the scenario of calculating Rule 5 days. Two, 50 days is 139 under the same process, so the idea of scaling them proportionally or applying the same process just doesn’t seem to track. If anyone would actually come out and clarify this my argument could be considered moot, but until that happens, I’m operating under the assumption that Burdi still failed to meet the requirements in 2020.

So, the next step obviously operates under the assumption that he would need to carry that over into 2021; however, the Pirates designating him means that the next stage in the Rule 5 life cycle needs examined. Remember Rule 6(c) from above? Well, it mentions the “restrictions in Rule 6(a),” which are where we need to look next.

Rule 6(a) states the following restrictions when assigning a selected player:

[N]o player selected in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Selection Meeting shall be released or directed to perform for or otherwise transferred to any Minor League Club until:

(1) 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;

(2) Outright Assignment waivers have first been granted on the player’s contract in accordance with Rule 10 (Major League Waivers) (see, e.g., Rule 10(d)(3) (Restrictions on Waiver Requests)); and

(3) outright assignment of the player has then been offered to and rejected by the Major or Minor League Club from which the player’s contract was selected.

Restriction 1 isn’t important, so we’ve reached Restriction 2 regarding Burdi. While it doesn’t specify which part of Rule 10 it’s talking about, my assumption is that Restriction 2 is referring to the portion that states “[o]utright assignment waivers are obtained only after each Major League Club has been given the opportunity to accept the assignment of that player contract, and none has filed a claim requesting assignment of that contract.” Since he was Designated for Assignment, every team has the right to either claim or acquire his contract, and assuming that doesn’t happen, Restriction 2 is fulfilled and Restriction 3 comes next—offering him back to his original team.

The Pirates acquired Burdi from the Philadelphia Phillies after they selected him from the Minnesota Twins in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft; therefore, the Twins would have the right to accept an outright assignment of his contract as the “Club from which the player’s contract was selected”, having to pay only $50,000 as consideration—half of the cost paid by the Phillies for the original selection. The Twins could choose not to accept the assignment, finally untethering Burdi from his Rule 5 obligations, or the two teams could work out a deal to keep Burdi in Pittsburgh’s organization, in theory.

A major complicating factor though is Burdi’s service time. As a player with 3.000 years of service, Burdi has the right to reject an outright assignment and elect free agency. As Article XX(D)(1) of the CBA states, “[a]ny Player who has at least 3 years of Major League service, or who qualified as a ‘Super Two’ Player under Article VI(E)(1)(b) as of the conclusion of the prior championship season, and whose contract is assigned outright to a Minor League club may elect, in lieu of accepting such assignment, to become a free agent.” Rule 6(b) does touch on players who have “the right to elect free agency after an outright assignment”, so there seems to be some kind of contingency available. Nestled at the end of a long paragraph that talks a lot about providing proper paperwork is this proviso—“The selecting Club shall communicate immediately to the Commissioner or the Commissioner’s designee the player’s decision whether to accept the return outright assignment, and the Commissioner or the Commissioner’s designee shall communicate such decision promptly to the Club from which the player’s contract was selected.” Basically, to me, this reads that while the Twins have the right to accept Burdi’s outright assignment, Burdi also has the right to decline it, which seems to supersede the Twin’s right in this case. If this is the case, Burdi would have the right to become a free agent, able to sign with any team that wanted him.

If another team—or even the Pirates—decided to sign him after his free agency election, what happens to his Rule 5 qualifications? In Article XX(D)(3)—Effect of Free Agency Election—it is written that “[a] Player who becomes a free agent under this Article XX(D) shall immediately be eligible to negotiate and contract with any Club without any restrictions or qualifications.” The emphasis is mine, as it is saying no restrictions would be following Burdi when he signs with a new team. Could this literally be interpreted as Rule 5 restrictions from Rule 6(a), or is it a more general statement? I think it would be easy to read this as Burdi not having to finish his final 21 days, and that thought process probably makes sense. If he does make it to free agency following this path, it means no team was assigned his contract after his assignment designation, meaning no team had to take on his Rule 5 status. If the Twins accepted his assignment, he would have lost his designation, and if they reject it then “all obligations of the selecting Major League Club to the Major or Minor League Club from which the player was selected shall be fulfilled,” meaning he’s no longer a “selected player.”

What will happen to Nick Burdi? Hopefully all the confusion and purely estimated conjecture—heavy emphasis on conjecture—from above will be clarified in the next few days, but if nothing else, he’s sure to serve as a test case for years to come.