‘You feel like your life’s over:’ The painful limbo of a baseball DFA

Earlier this offseason, a major-league ballplayer was scrolling through X while awaiting a car repair, a mindless activity to pass the time.

Then, suddenly, one post stopped him in his tracks. It was a reporter’s tweet, and it told him he had just lost his job.

This player — who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the episode without harming his future job prospects — was a fringe member of his team’s 40-man roster. He was just days away from reporting to spring training, where he’d have to impress to earn a roster spot.

He was aware that he was on the roster bubble, and every time his team made an acquisition, there was immediate anxiety that a call would notify him that he’d been designated for assignment. He knew his team had made a free-agent signing official earlier that day, a clear warning sign, but he hadn’t received a phone call from the team or from his agent telling him he was losing his roster spot, as would be standard industry practice.

Instead, the team sent out a press release announcing that he’d been cut from the roster.

“I was kind of expecting a call to let me know before I found out on the internet,” said the player. “My heart kind of dropped because I wasn’t expecting it. It’s like you take a sip, and you’re expecting water, and it’s coke.”

The team says that it made an attempt to reach the player’s agent over the phone, but it didn’t go through since the agent was on a flight. Instead of waiting to be sure the player was made aware — or notifying him directly — the team opted to make the news public.

The player, who had never been DFA’d before, said he was left to look up what he was supposed to do next on MLB.com’s online glossary.

“When it first happens, you’re in your own head,” the player said. “You’re like, ‘Do they think I’m not good enough?’ You start running those kinds of situations. And if someone were to have come along and said, ‘Hey, this is what we thought about why we did it.’ That kind of eases you into the thought process.

“… so yeah, I expected a call.”

The DFA process is cruel by its very nature, to an extent that fans might not realize. This was an extreme example of how it can be disappointing, confusing and isolating for players who have little standing in the game and even less wealth accrued, but every DFA is its own misery for the player going through it. Transactions like these can spell the end of careers, and those involved on all sides stress the importance of communication and humanity to mitigate some of the pain.

“Players might not always like the news,” said one major-league executive for a different team, “but you pride yourself on delivering it in a way where they’re hearing it from you. And they’re not reading about it.”

The purpose of a DFA is to remove a player from the 40-man roster. After that, the team has seven days to trade that player or put him on waivers. If he goes un-traded or unclaimed, the player is either outrighted to the Triple-A roster or released.

The DFA process is often an afterthought for the common baseball fan. It’s the baseball equivalent of getting fired.

“You don’t exist when you’re in DFA limbo,” said Guardians manager Stephen Vogt, who was DFA’d three times during his playing career. “It’s lonely and you start going down rabbit holes of what-ifs, start thinking the whole world is looking at you and in reality, no one’s looking at you. It’s a really tough place to be.”

The process leaves players in purgatory. And it can lead to them being shipped all over the country at a moment’s notice.

Take, for example, pitcher Kyle Tyler. Two years ago, he was DFA’d by the Angels, Red Sox, Padres and Angels again, all in the span of three weeks during spring training.

Each time it’s a gut punch. Going from starting anew with a new organization to being irrelevant there just days later.

“Once I was told that I was DFA’d, it’s almost like I didn’t exist within that organization anymore,” said Tyler, who is in spring training with the Marlins this year on a minor-league contract. “There was no communication with any other coaches, any other front office staff. Nothing.”

Kyle Tyler pitched for the Angels in 2021 and the Padres in 2022. (Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)

Communication is easier during the season; in-season, teams can call a player into an office, notify them, and explain the subsequent steps. The offseason makes for a more fraught process. No matter when it takes place, one agent said, “Nine times out of 10, the player knows before the agent.” A sentiment that most around the game agree with. That said, the team will often also communicate with the player’s agent, especially during the winter.

“At first it’s a little bit of a shock. You never think that it’s going to happen,” said infielder Kevin Padlo, who has been DFA’d six times. “It’s like, ‘What’s next?’ You don’t really know when it happens for the first time what the next steps are.”

Padlo received a call from Tampa Bay Rays GM Erik Neander when he was DFA’d for the first time in 2021. Neander walked him through the process and explained what they believed the likely outcome would be.

Outfielder Bligh Madris had one of his five career DFA’s occur over the holidays in late 2022.

“When (the GM’s) name pops up on your phone, your heart drops a little bit,” said Madris, who is in camp with the Detroit Tigers on a minor-league contract this spring. “You’re hoping they’re calling to check on you, but sometimes it’s the worst thing. They go, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have to make a move. And we decided to designate you for assignment. They ask, ‘Are there any questions for us?’

“At that moment you’re just kind of blank. You really don’t know what to say. Then you get off the phone and two hours later you have a bunch of questions. You kind of go numb for a little bit. I’m not gonna lie to you. I’ve been numb a few times.”

What can compound the anxiety is uncertainty about how long it will take. In an ideal scenario, the team will communicate whether or not they will attempt to trade the player, and, if not, how long before they’re placed on waivers.

If that answer isn’t obvious right away, then the agent and team typically communicate. But good communication only ices the burn. There’s no healing it.

“Sometimes they get angry, but more often than not, you can tell their heads are spinning,” the major-league executive said. “You can see in their eyes. You like these guys, they’re good people. You just try to put their mind at ease. Because the reality is that nothing you say is going to make it easy on them.”

As part of the 2022 Collective Bargaining Agreement, MLB and the Players Association agreed to change rules on player options. Teams were utilizing that transaction to shuttle players back and forth from the majors to the minors with increasing frequency.

The union responded by negotiating a policy that capped the number of option uses in one season at five. There are, however, no policies to limit players from being in DFA purgatory over and over again. There also are no rules regarding streamlined communication. And no guarantees for players to access team facilities as they await resolution.

While players still receive pay and accrue service time during the wait, there are seemingly some loopholes that could be closed or changed in the next CBA negotiation.

“Each year provides an opportunity to appreciate how existing rules are being treated and whether, and to what extent, there are adjustments that may need to be made,” said MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark. “Being DFA’d, being picked up, being DFA’d, being picked up, being DFA’d, being picked up — there are challenges associated with it … that have always resonated.

“We’ll have to determine how often it’s happening, where it’s happening, and perhaps why it’s happening. And from there, if we need to make adjustments … we’ll look to address them next time.”

AP24060805350182 scaled

MLBPA head Tony Clark says his union is monitoring the DFA process to make sure it isn’t becoming too onerous. (Jose Luis Magana, File / Associated Press)

Clark noted that scenarios like what Tyler dealt with are “rare,” but they’re monitoring such situations to gauge if they are happening more often. This offseason, infielder Diego Castillo was DFA’d by the Diamondbacks, claimed by the Mets, then claimed by the Yankees, then claimed by the Phillies, then claimed by the Orioles. He was finally DFA’d by the Orioles and went unclaimed, and was outrighted.

Most DFAs amount to dead time for players. For pitchers, it can mean not throwing at all for a week. Tyler said he often heaved plyo balls against his wall. Padlo, who is in spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers this year on a minor-league deal, got the news of his most recent DFA in an Atlanta hotel room after spending just one day with the Angels last season. Sometimes the teams will allow players to use facilities at certain hours, but that’s not a given.

There’s no blueprint for what a player does next, other than wait. And perhaps there will be a way to address that moving forward.

“The only way you can provide stability is by actually providing the stability,” said Tigers manager A.J. Hinch. “I’ve seen these guys get bounced around on waivers from team to team, especially this time of year. I feel for their preparation and the chaos that’s created.”

And yet sometimes players find out their roster fates on social media.

“Both players and agents understand that it’s part of business,” said one agent. “But a little more communication would be appreciated. I’ve been through it before with a team that was communicative. It’s not the easiest conversation to have, but it’s a necessary one. It makes the process so much easier and there aren’t hard feelings after the fact.”

While the misery of the DFA process mostly applies to fringe players, many well-known names have been DFA’d. Albert Pujols was let go by the Angels. Liam Hendricks had the same fate with the Royals. Nelson Cruz, he of 464 career homers, was cut by the Rangers and Padres.

When great players are dealt this fate, it’s major news. But it happens every single day to lesser names.

Vogt is now a manager. When one of his players gets DFA’d, he’ll likely deliver the news, bringing the empathy and understanding of someone who has been through it himself to the exchange.

“You understand what people have gone through to fight,” Vogt said. “You get one shot at this career.”

Vogt has been through the most painful of moments. Getting DFA’d in the middle of a 13-hour car ride to Durham to start the season. Taking batting practice as his wife Alyssa flipped him baseballs because there were suddenly no coaches available to do so.

These are the uncertain moments that a DFA creates that no one sees, and thus, no one understands.

“You feel like the world’s crashing on you,” Vogt said. “You feel like your life’s over.”

But even in that misery exists some optimism.

“In some ways, it’s the best thing that could have ever happened for you, because it’s a fresh start somewhere else,” Vogt said.

(With contributions from The Athletic’s Zack Meisel and Cody Stavenhagen)

(Top photo of Padlo in Dodgers spring training: Norm Hall / Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top