Inside MLB’s waiver whirlwind: ‘Nobody really knew or understood what was going on’

There are no carts at San Francisco Golf Club. Golfers walk the 18 holes. They keep their phones stowed in their bag or their locker. And they try their damnedest to avoid the menacing sand traps. So when Matt Moore spotted a course attendant zipping down the fairway on a golf cart, he knew what it meant.

He needed to pause his round — he wound up shooting a 91, thanks to some generous gimmes from teammate Chad Wallach — and make a call to learn the identity of his new team.

For four former members of the Angels, this week has been part-whirlwind, part-circus. On Thursday, Moore, fellow reliever Reynaldo López and starter Lucas Giolito were claimed by the Cleveland Guardians. Outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Harrison Bader, the latter coming from the Yankees, were scooped up by the Cincinnati Reds.

The whirlwind period really began two days prior on Tuesday, when Moore finished shagging fly balls during batting practice and returned to the clubhouse, where Giolito and Renfroe were waiting for him. They asked if Moore saw the news that a quarter of the roster had been placed on waivers. At first, Moore was waiting for a punchline. Once they filled him in, he assumed they had fallen for a fake social media post.

That sparked a scavenger hunt for information about the waivers process. Could any team claim them? (Yes.) What was the likelihood they would be moved? (Pretty high.) Were they all headed to different teams? (No.) Would they be playoff-eligible? (Yes.) When would they know? (1 p.m. ET on Thursday.)

“I don’t know if anybody had really heard of it, honestly,” Renfroe said. “It’s one of those things where it’s not really talked about. It’s never really out in public as far as waivers stuff goes. Nobody really knew or understood what was going on.”

Neither did most of the baseball world. The waivers process has always been an archaic and difficult-to-navigate jumble of rules, most of which changed before the 2019 season. Adding to the confusion was that the Angels were doing something without precedent under the new system: an attempted salary dump timed ahead of Sept.1 so that the teams acquiring players would have them eligible for the playoffs.

Mike Moustakas, a veteran with 13 seasons of big-league experience, offered his Angels teammates some insight into the process, relaying that one team can claim multiple players.

“It was interesting to learn that side of the game,” López said Friday through Cleveland interpreter Agustín Rivero. “Obviously, we didn’t know much of it.”

The group met with Angels manager Phil Nevin and general manager Perry Minasian for an explanation.

“Perry kind of explained it a little bit better for us,” Renfroe said. “Nevin had no idea about it either. It was kind of a weird scenario.”

In August, when the Angels made a furious all-in push to acquire the requisite talent to make the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, Angels owner Arte Moreno exceeded the $233 million luxury tax threshold. But when the team endured an 8-19 month, Moreno was no longer willing to incur the penalty.

Now, Giolito, one of the players the Angels acquired at the deadline, is in line to pitch in Anaheim next weekend. This time, however, it’ll be in a Guardians uniform as Cleveland makes an aptly timed West Coast swing. López said he’s looking forward to the four-game series partly so he can collect the rest of his belongings.

Waivers are not supposed to be public, but word leaked on Tuesday about every Angels player on waivers. For the next two days, every one of them stepped into the batter’s box and onto the pitching rubber knowing they were likely bound for another club in a matter of hours. Moore said he tossed and turned at night wondering what his future held.

“I just tried to go about my day like normal,” Moore said, “tried to be fun and lighthearted with everybody just to not make it seem like things are weird.”

Matt Moore. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA TODAY)

“I had to play two games knowing that basically you’re probably going to be gone,” Renfroe said. “Tough scenario.”

The Angels flew to San Francisco from Philadelphia on Wednesday evening. They landed at about 10 p.m. PT and a group of 30 or so enjoyed a late dinner at Brazillian steakhouse Fogo de Chao. On Thursday morning, as Moore headed to the links, Renfroe sat at the team hotel and waited for his phone to ring. His bags were in the lobby. He just needed a destination.

Moore halted his round and called Nevin, who told him a pair of his Angels teammates would be joining him. Moore and López took a red-eye to Cleveland, where they landed Friday morning. Giolito was set to arrive Friday evening. Renfroe had a 2:30 p.m. flight out of San Francisco and got to his hotel in Cincinnati around 1 a.m. Roughly eight hours later, he was in the lineup for the Reds in the first game of a doubleheader against the Cubs, starting in right field and batting cleanup.

“It was a crazy week,” López said.

As soon as the Angels’ waiver flooding became common knowledge, the Guardians zeroed in on their three pitching targets. They weren’t alone. The Reds also put in claims on all three Angels pitchers, as well as the outfielders. It would all come down to who held priority in waivers, with the teams with the worst record getting first dibs.

Until a league representative called Guardians officials, following frenzied refreshing of the MLB system, they had no idea whether they would be awarded the claims on any or all three of the pitchers. They thought the Padres might claim someone — they didn’t — and given that the only cost for acquiring a player in this scenario was cash, they couldn’t rule out a surprise team ahead of them in the waiver order joining the action.

Guardians manager Terry Francona arrived at Progressive Field at 12:30 p.m. ET on Thursday.

“They said, ‘We’ll know at 1:00 who, if any (one), we got,’” Francona said. “By five after, they’re like, ‘We got ‘em all.’”

This system has been in place since 2019, when the league eliminated the August waiver trade period. Teams used to be able to place players on revocable waivers. They could negotiate a trade with the claiming team, or retain the player. One executive noted there used to be hundreds of players on waivers every day in August, since doing so required no commitment toward dealing that player.

How this unfolded, though — especially in such public fashion — is unprecedented.

Five weeks ago, the Angels shipped two of their top prospects to the White Sox for Giolito and López. Now, the Guardians will employ both players, plus Moore, for nearly the same length of time, and all it cost the club was about $3 million.

“I never in a million years thought it would be three guys,” Francona said.

— The Athletic‘s Sam Blum contributed to this report

(Top photo of Giolito: Dale Zanine / USA TODAY)

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