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Of all the distinctive terms used in Major League Baseball, “Designated for assignment” must be near the top of the list for the hardest to explain to new fans. When a player is declared this, often stated as “He was DFA’d,” what exactly does it mean?
Designated for assignment refers to a player’s contract, and it means the team will immediately remove that player from its 40-man roster. For MLB fans, it means you will no longer be seeing that player on that team, at least for a decent spell.
Typically MLB teams do this to clear space for another move, or simply to rid a player from the squad entirely.
Once a player is officially DFA’d, a 7-day period begins, where the club must make a decision about the next destination for that player. In other words, it’s a way for baseball teams to put a player in temporary limbo while they try to figure out their roster situation.
During the 7-day period, that player can be sent to one of the team’s minor league affiliates; traded to another team; or placed on waivers, a list of players for other teams to acquire (under certain rules).
Basically, when you see this term attached to a player, that person is being moved off the regular MLB team at least for the time being. Sometimes, though not often, they are returned to their original team.
Baseball Club Options with Players Designated for Assignment
Once a player is DFA’d, the clock starts for the club to pick an option for that player’s immediate future. Those options are:
- Assign the player to one of a minor league team affiliated with the club. (This is not available for all players; see Common Questions at bottom).
- Place the player on the Waiver Wire. This move begins another type of clock ~ where other teams can take the player, under the league’s waiver rules.
2B. If the player on the waiver wire is claimed, his new team must immediately put him on their 40-man roster.
2C. If the player, over a specified period of time, is unclaimed from waivers, he can be assigned to his previous team’s minor league system. Unless: The player has enough service time in the major leagues, or has run out of minor league options (See below), in which case he becomes a free agent who can sign a contract with any team.
- The player could be released from his contract, that is, set entirely free to go play with any other team. In such instances, the club is responsible for paying the player according to the terms of their contract together.
Types of Rosters in Major League Baseball
All this talk assumes fans know what a 40-man roster is ~ and it’s not just the list of players the current MLB team can use for games. That would be the 26-man roster.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2 types of MLB rosters, which are essentially lists of their players who either can be used in games (26-man), or who are in line to play in games in the near future as well (40-man).
26-Man Roster in MLB
The 26-man roster (or 24- or 25-man rosters in seasons past) is for players available to participate in MLB game play. Players not on the 26-man roster, such as those on injured lists, or in the minor leagues, cannot be entered into an MLB game.
So, MLB teams cannot just sign anyone off the street and instantly insert them into a game. Well, maybe not instantaneously, but at least a full day. However, even that would involve some juggling of personnel, as noted in this article.
40-Man Roster in MLB
A club’s 40-man roster is filled by a combination of players on the 26-man roster; along with players on various injured lists (7-, 10-, and 15-day injured lists); on an emergency list for bereavement or a family medical emergency; and some minor league players.
All players on a 26-man roster are also on the 40-man roster. That leaves a club 14 spots to manage all year long ~ and not just during the regular season.
The 40-man roster is important to watch during the offseason, as all those players are protected from other teams “taking” them in what’s called the Rule 5 Draft, held at the end of every year during the MLB’s Winter Meetings.
Notes on the Rule 5 Draft in Major League Baseball
Since 1920, the Rule 5 Draft has given minor league players opportunities with new MLB clubs ~ if their original club did not protect them from this draft by keeping them on the 40-man roster.
The way it works is, clubs with a spot open on their own 40-man roster select players not on 40-man rosters of the other clubs. This ends up like the regular MLB draft, with teams selecting in reverse order of the standings the previous season.
Players are eligible for selection if they are not on their team’s 40-man roster at the time of the draft, and they have either spent 4 seasons in professional baseball after signing at age 19 or older; or spent 5 seasons in pro ball after signing at age 18 or younger.
Even when drafting an eligible player, it’s not over. The new team pays the player’s previous club $100,000, places the player on its 40-man roster, AND then must keep the player on the 26-man roster for the entire next season.
This last requirement makes selecting other team’s unprotected minor league players a true challenge, as they do not yet know if that player will succeed at the major league level. If not, the team pretty much loses a roster spot through season’s end, filled by a player who can hardly contribute.
If the new club takes that player off the 26-man roster, however, it has to offer to return him to his previous team for $50,000.
Perhaps the most famous Rule 5 case was that of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers at age 19 and buried on their Montreal, Canada minor league team, where he got all of 155 at bats.
That didn’t fool Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who that winter selected Clemente in the Rule 5 Draft ~ and then had to keep him on the roster that next season even as he struggled as a young foreign player competing at the game’s highest level.
Eventually the Puerto Rican hero came around, and became one of the best outfielders of all time.
Why Does ‘Designated for Assignment’ in Baseball Have to be So Complicated?
This all may seem confusing, but this system of using players in MLB game play, and also having extra players in case of injuries or emergencies, has evolved with the game. It’s a necessary structure that MLB clubs agree to abide by, for a lot of reasons, avoiding mayhem among them.
When a new fan sees these types of terms, usually in the agate type or side notes in sports sections, or sometimes added to the end of game news reports, they should consider just how hard it is to field a professional baseball team on a near-daily basis.
Baseball might look leisurely to play, but in reality the players exert parts of their body quite extensively ~ in some instances beyond what they are capable of naturally. A summary of a baseball player’s body that could force him off the field at any time:
- Arms. This includes shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers ~ all essential for baseball players to compete at all. The shoulders and elbows, in particular, are punished by the act of throwing a 5-ounce ball repeatedly over extended periods of time.
- Legs. Baseball is not a game of constant motion like the other major team sports. There is a lot of very instant starting, and quick stopping, which puts a lot of pressure on the tendons, ligaments, and joints of the legs. Knees and ankles give baseball players trouble, due to the starting-stopping, plus a lot of twisting involved in hitting and throwing.
- Core. This includes the abdomen, hips, and upper thighs. Probably more than the other major team sports, baseball is very tough on the middle of the body, mainly due to all the twisting. Batting, in particular, requires a tremendous twist of the torso to get the bat through the hitting zone, which can impact many muscle groups, as well as the spine.
- Back. Baseball players are susceptible to back injuries, mainly due to either overextending, or under-stretching. Often it’s a combination of both.
Add to all that the mental aspect of living life (e.g. having a wife and family) while away from home for weeks at a time, and the constant stress of having to perform well to remain in the game (and make more money). All the games, practices, stress, travel, loneliness, and more, can take a toll on any ballplayer.
In summary, any of these body (and mind) areas can take a baseball player out of service, maybe just for a few days, or a few weeks, or even many months. You can tell how often players get hurt by the MLB’s types of injured lists: the 7-day, 15-day, and 60-day injured list.
Roster Management in Baseball
All this gets us to the people responsible for getting the best players possible on the field during any MLB game. It’s not as simple as sending out the same 9 guys day in and day out. Pitchers in particular cannot pitch every single day, so extra pitchers must be brought along.
Some players might hurt a body part, but not in a major way, so all they need is a bit of rest. In these instances, pro baseball teams need a bench full of replacement players waiting to get in the game.
There’s also some competitive strategy involved. Baseball clubs can make changes to their roster daily, so if they foresee a problem upcoming, they can make roster changes to address it. Examples:
- Lengthy road trips. A club seeing a long stretch of games away from home might carry an extra pitcher just for that period. When they return home, they might send that extra pitcher back to the high minor leagues.
- Opposition strengths and weaknesses. The MLB regular-season schedule can be quirky, and sometimes teams play the same squads, or groups of them (e.g. from the same division), repeatedly over a short period. Maybe a club manager sees a group of upcoming games where every team has a lot of left-handed pitchers. Then, he may choose to swap out left-handed hitters, and add in more righties, just for that period of time.
In other words, the managers (and general managers) of MLB teams are constantly tinkering with their rosters, for a lot of reasons. Terms like DFA exist to add structure to all of this, in an attempt to ensure fairness for all the clubs, and avoid anarchy.
In summary, the designated for assignment system exists so MLB teams can add a newly acquired player onto their roster ~ through a free agent signing, a trade, a waiver wire grab, or to pull a player up from a minor league team; or to address players bouncing between the injured lists.
Whenever a player is getting healthy enough to return, fans usually get quite excited. But understand, for every player returning to play, another is forced to leave.
Question: What is the difference between being designated for assign and being “optioned”?
Answer: Remaining on the 40-man roster, or not. To be optioned means a player on the 40-man roster is moved to an “optional assignment” with one of the club’s minor league affiliates. An “option” is good for an entire season; and players only get so many options before clubs can no longer send them to a minor league team for roster management purposes. With DFA, if a player has an option remaining, that is something the club could choose to do in the 7-day “decision” period.
Q.: Why do teams only get 7 days to decide what to do with DFA’d players?
A.: It’s according to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which is the operating structure of the MLB between clubs and players. This period is adjusted periodically upon agreement of a majority of owners and the players. For instance, in the CBA of 2012-16, the period was 10 days.