Every MLB offseason, as baseball fans track the movements of big-name free agents and ponder a plethora of trade possibilities for their favorite teams, one annual rite of winter frequently goes unnoticed: the Rule 5 draft.
Typically, the Rule 5 draft isn't exactly a source of earth-shaking, nationally buzzed-about baseball news. The draft usually occurs on the last day of baseball's winter meetings, after the most high-profile transactions have taken place and just before general managers and front office staff head out of town. The Rule 5 draft allows teams to select a minor league player from another organization who isn't on that team's 40-man roster, paying a $50,000 fee in exchange. The selecting team then must keep that player on its active 25-man roster for the entire next season or else offer him back to his original team.
Most of the time, Rule 5 picks don't amount to much. After all, there's usually a reason such players couldn't find their way onto a 40-man roster -- they often have serious flaws in their game or are too raw to help a major league team. Often times, the selecting team sends the player back to his former organization not long after picking him. But every once in a while, a Rule 5 gamble hits it big, and a team is rewarded handsomely for its willingness to show patience on an unproven talent.
Since the Orioles made their first Rule 5 selections in 1953, they've selected a total of 49 players through 2013 -- 28 position players and 21 pitchers. Of those, 26 have appeared in at least one game for the Birds, providing a combined value of 68.1 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
Along the way, the Orioles have found a few particularly useful players in the Rule 5 draft. Let's take a look at the top five.
No. 5: Jay Gibbons (Selected Dec. 10, 2000 from the Toronto Blue Jays)
Gibbons' lasting legacy among Orioles fans probably isn't a favorable one. In December 2007, he admitted to the use of human growth hormone and received a 15-game suspension from MLB, but his punishment from the Orioles was harsher -- they released him and the two years, $12 million left on his contract, ending his seven-year O's career.
Despite his ignominious end, Gibbons was a useful offensive contributor during some of the franchise's leanest years. He cranked 121 home runs as an Oriole -- 17th most in O's history -- and drove in 405 runs, ranking 20th. He had three seasons of more than 20 home runs and collected a 100-RBI campaign in 2003. Gibbons didn't bring much in the way of defense -- playing a sub-par first base and corner outfield -- and struggled with injuries throughout his career, but his offensive contributions helped him provide solid value as a Rule 5 pick.
No. 4: Bob Boyd (Selected Nov. 27, 1955 from the St. Louis Cardinals)
Nearly half a century before Gibbons' selection, the O's snapped up a valuable asset with an extensive backstory, selecting Boyd from the Cardinals with their third-ever Rule 5 pick in 1955. Boyd, a World War II veteran, was a former Negro Leagues player who became the first African American player to sign with the Chicago White Sox. He was 31 years old when he made his major league debut and 36 when the Orioles selected him.
Boyd's age didn't stop him from helping the Orioles during their fledgling years in Baltimore. Boyd, a first baseman, played with the club from 1956-1960 and batted .309 or better during each of his first three years, becoming the first qualified Oriole to crack the .300 mark in a season. His best season was 1957, when he batted .318/.388/.408/.796 during 141 games and finished 16th in the American League Most Valuable Player voting. Boyd earned the nickname "Rope" for his line-drive swing and was a pure hitter to the end, batting .317 during his final season for the Orioles at age 40.
No. 3: Moe Drabowsky (Selected Nov. 29, 1965 from the St. Louis Cardinals)
The Orioles again pilfered the Cardinals 10 years after taking Boyd, selecting Drabowsky, a right-handed reliever, in 1965. The Polish-born Drabowsky was a bullpen star for the first World Series-winning Orioles team, posting a 2.81 ERA in 96 innings in 1966, including a 6.2-inning, 11-strikeout relief performance during Game 1 of the World Series. In 1970, the Birds reacquired him for the stretch run on their way to their second World Series title, making Drabowsky one of 12 Orioles to play for multiple O's championship teams.
But Drabowsky was perhaps better known for his quirky personality. A noted prankster, Drabowsky made a reputation of toying with teammates and opponents alike, such as spiking the opposing clubhouse's air conditioning system with sneezing powder. He once called the opposing team's bullpen phone pretending to be the manager, ordering them to warm up a reliever. He set commissioner Bowie Kuhn's shoe on fire during the 1970 World Series. And he loved snakes -- in particular, bringing them into the Orioles' clubhouse and hiding them in teammates' lockers.
No. 2: Elrod Hendricks (Selected Nov. 28, 1967 from the California Angels)
A member of the Orioles Hall of Fame and one of the most recognizable faces in franchise history, Hendricks joined the Birds for the first time in the 1967 Rule 5 draft. From that point on, he spent 37 seasons in an O's uniform as either a player or coach, setting a franchise record.
Hendricks' playing career was notable for his contributions to several AL East-winning Orioles clubs. He split catching duties with Andy Etchebarren during his first stint with the team and earned praise for his receiving skills as well as his capable bat. He homered during Game 1 of the Birds' 1970 World Series win against the Cincinnati Reds, going 6-for-16 during the postseason that year. Though Hendricks bounced to the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees for brief stints during the 1970s, he found his way back to the O's organization each time. As his playing career came to a close, he became the Birds' bullpen coach in 1978 and held the position until 2005, a 28-year tenure that marked the longest coaching stint in O's history.
No. 1: Paul Blair (Selected Nov. 26, 1962 from the New York Mets)
Usually, the biggest successes a team will find in the Rule 5 draft are role players or complementary pieces, like Gibbons, Boyd, Drabowsky and Hendricks. But once in a blue moon, the Rule 5 draft will pay out a jackpot, giving a team a franchise cornerstone. That's just what happened in 1962 when the O's nabbed Blair, then an 18-year-old infielder/outfielder who had played one season for the Mets' low-minors California League affiliate, batting .228.
The Orioles selected Blair during a short-lived offshoot of the Rule 5 draft called the first-year player draft, which allowed teams to select any non-roster player with at least one year of minor league experience (under current Rule 5 rules, no player with less than four years of minor league experience is eligible to be drafted). The Birds took full advantage of both the temporary rule change and the Mets' hasty dismissal of Blair's potential.
Blair made his major league debut in 1964, and the rest was history -- 1,700 games during 13 seasons for the Orioles, two World Series rings, two All-Star appearances, eight Gold Glove awards and a well-earned reputation as one of the most spectacular defensive center fielders in baseball history. He was inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame in 1984. According to Baseball Reference, Blair was the seventh most-valuable Oriole in franchise history with a 39.7 career WAR for the Birds. That makes him more valuable than all other Orioles Rule 5 picks put together.
Outfielder Chuck Diering, one of the Orioles' two selections during their first Rule 5 draft in 1953, was the Birds' regular center fielder for their first two seasons in Baltimore in 1954 and 1955. The O's plucked him from a Pacific Coast League team called the San Francisco Seals, who at that time weren't affiliated with any major league club. … Two current Orioles, infielder Ryan Flaherty (selected in 2011) and lefty reliever T.J. McFarland (2012), are recent Rule 5 success stories. Flaherty (1.6 WAR) and McFarland (0.8 WAR) have provided more value to the Birds than all but six other Rule 5 picks in O's history … And in the "One That Got Away" department, the Orioles selected infielder Jose Bautista in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, but gave up on him after 16 games in 2004. Bautista then bounced to four other teams before emerging as one of baseball's biggest sluggers with the Toronto Blue Jays.