The most controversial trade at this year’s August 31 waiver-deal deadline was the Indians’ swap of Julian Merryweather for the injured Bringer of Rain, Josh Donaldson. It’s not hard to see the appeal for Cleveland: at the cost of a 27-year-old hurler who missed the year with Tommy John surgery, the team picked up a third sacker who produced no fewer than five wins each year between 2013 and -17. And yet, the deal has been met by no small amount of consternation from the Indians’ American League postseason competitors, with the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees all complaining to MLB that the trade was against the rules. Their argument is twofold: not only that the Indians shouldn’t have been allowed to deal for Donaldson, but that they (the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees) didn’t outbid the Indians because they thought such a deal would be against the rules.
It makes sense, that the Indians’ competitors for the AL pennant would be taken aback. Donaldson isn’t a small acquisition; as Dan Szymborski noted, Donaldson is likely still close to an elite hitter when healthy, even after his injury-plagued 2018. So let’s take a look at whether the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox have a case.
To begin, consider these comments from Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith:
Teams can't place players on August waivers unless they're demonstrably in game shape (either on active roster or playing to full capacity in rehab games)#BlueJays can't have placed Josh Donaldson on waivers yet since he doesn't meet that requirement yet
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) August 26, 2018
Technically possible #BlueJays trade Donaldson this month if he gets into rehab games soon, but it appears unlikely that they'll be able to do so
— Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith) August 26, 2018
Nicholson-Smith reported on August 25th that Donaldson was still too injured to get into rehab games. The very next day, the Blue Jays announced Donaldson would start a rehab assignment, and he reported for that assignment on August 28. Keep in mind that Donaldson had been placed on the disabled list on June 1 and hadn’t played since May. He was then dealt on August 31, after playing in parts of two rehab games (on August 28 and 30) with Toronto’s High-A affiliate in Dunedin.
To understand the relevance of these events, we have to delve into Baseball’s Rulebook. Nope, not this one. Remember, there are two MLB Rulebooks. We’re looking at this Rulebook instead. This is the cool one that addresses the specifics of what the CBA generally covers, things like how trade waivers work or what forms to use or how the paternity list works. Waivers are governed by Rule 10, and Rule 10 is clear about a couple of things. First, you can trade a player on waivers who is on a rehab assignment, but you can’t place a player on waivers and then start a rehab assignment. Rule 10 contains a handy chart to help us out:
Rule 10 also states that you can’t obtain trade waivers for a player on the disabled list who hasn’t yet begun a rehab assignment. It says so here:
And here, too:
It would appear, from this evidence, that the Blue Jays are in the clear here. They dealt Donaldson after he was already on a rehab assignment, which the rules say is permitted. But Rule 10 would also require the Indians to place Donaldson on their active roster within 72 hours, and that’s not what they did. Instead, they placed him immediately on the disabled list, where he stayed until September 10. That’s a lot longer than 72 hours. Notably, Rule 9(f), read in conjunction with Rule 10, would have allowed Cleveland to place Donaldson on the disabled list only if he suffered a new injury. That’s because, by placing Donaldson on waivers, the Blue Jays guaranteed that he was “capable of performing at the player’s accustomed level” and therefore ready to be activated within 72 hours. Unfortunately, the Indians placed Donaldson on the disabled list with the same calf injury he had been rehabilitating with the Blue Jays.
That seems to leave us with a few interpretations of the circumstances surrounding the Donaldson trade, all of which appear to involve some manner of infraction. If the Blue Jays started Donaldson on a rehab assignment before he was ready, they violated Rule 10. If Donaldson was healthy but the Indians didn’t want to activate him without giving him some additional rehab time, they abused the disabled list and violated Rules 9 and 10. If Donaldson wasn’t healthy and both teams knew, then they basically worked together to circumvent the waiver rules. Either way, I honestly don’t see how the Donaldson-for-Merryweather swap didn’t violate the waiver rules given the timeline we have.
On the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the trade should have been nixed. For one thing, Rule 10 is pretty vague when it comes to penalties for violations.
That pretty clearly says that the Blue Jays and Indians shouldn’t have made the Donaldson trade. There’s no indication, however, that the corresponding punishment ought to be the rescission of the Donaldson trade. And that makes sense. For example, if the Blue Jays placed Donaldson on a rehab assignment, and the Indians accepted a face-value guarantee from Toronto per Rule 10, it would make the most sense for the trade to be voidable (that is, can be undone) at the election of the injured party — in this case, the Indians. And if Cleveland declined to void the trade, perhaps in this scenario because Merryweather was a light price to pay for even just one postseason run with a potential seven-win player, it may well have played out in much the way we saw. We’ve seen this kind of thing happen before, most recently with the trade of Drew Pomeranz to Boston that led to A.J. Preller’s suspension.
On the other hand, that kind of scenario doesn’t necessarily track with what we saw happen. MLBTradeRumors noted that, prior to the August 31 deadline, MLB had issued a “buyer beware” warning to teams regarding a potential deal for Donaldson because of his injury. Cleveland, in other words, had advance warning and chose to make the deal anyway, which doesn’t exactly make them an innocent victim. And if the Indians knew about the injury going in, it’s unclear why the league would have permitted them to place Donaldson back on the disabled list with the same injury — unless, of course, MLB simply decided not to enforce the Rules as written in this instance. There are many reasons why they might have done that. I’d imagine, though, that we’re not privy to what the good reasons are.
Still, we don’t have the entire story. It’s possible that, after season’s end, we’ll hear of discipline for one or both front offices related to this transaction. In the meantime, though, we’re left with a super infield in Cleveland: one that will, by season’s end, contain three different players with seven-win seasons on their resumes. And we’re left with three other American League contenders having missed out on one of those seven-win players because they played by the rules. If Donaldson gets hot and carries the Indians on a deep postseason run, it leaves us with a lot of unneeded questions regarding the Indians’ legitimacy. And, perhaps most unsettling of all, we now have a lot of unanswered questions regarding what circumstances will lead MLB to selectively enforce its rules.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.