If you follow Major League Baseball often enough, you’ll hear this phrase: designated for assignment. But it’s a long, confusing phrase for what seems like a pretty simple process. By putting a player on waivers, you remove that player from the 40-man roster.
So why is “designated for assignment” such a unique term—one that you only seem to hear in baseball? Does it mean that a player is no longer on a team? Can a player who leaves a team be able to join another during the season? Let’s look at what this process means and how it differs from other sports.
What Does Designated for Assignment (DFA) Mean?
Also known as DFA, “designated for assignment” is a procedure in baseball where one team removes a player from the 40-man roster. However, it’s not the same as an out-and-out release thanks to the seven-day limit. Within these seven days, a Major League Baseball team must do one of the following:
- Return the player to the 40-man roster (a step which gives a “designated for assignment” process the incentive of allowing teams to change their mind).
- Place the player on waivers, which allows another team to claim that player, which is different from becoming a free agent.
- Trade the player. This happened in May 2006, for example, when the Texas Rangers traded pitching reliever Brian Shouse to the Milwaukee Brewers within four days of the DFA. Could the Brewers have waited until the player went to waivers so they could pick him up on a waiver claim? Sure, but then they would have risked the other teams—higher in the waiver priority order—getting house first.
- Release the player. More on this in a bit.
- Move the player from a 40-man roster into minor league baseball.
Most often, a player moves to waivers after a DFA, as this allows a team—if the player does clear waivers—to move that player to the minor leagues. However, this can only take place once in player’s career without their permission.
An Example of How this Works
A player is DFA from the Astros, and two teams (Cleveland and the Baltimore Orioles) have interest in that player. DFA means the player gets to waivers, wherein both Cleveland and Baltimore have the option to add that player to their own roster within the waiver timeline.
Essentially, “designated for assignment” gives a team a lot of options after removing a player from their 40-man roster. And these options may mean that they retain control of the player’s contract, potentially bringing them back to the roster at a different point, rather than letting a player go straight to free agency.
What Does it Mean to Option a Baseball Player?
The “option” in this case relates to the minor leagues. According to the Major League Baseball glossary, “An option allows that player to be sent to the Minor Leagues (“optioned”) without first being subjected to waivers.” This removes a player from the 26-man roster but keeps them on the team’s ultimate 40-man roster.
You’ll often hear the phrase that a player was “optioned to the minor leagues.” Or “sent down to the minors.” That means a ball club moves players to the minor leagues, depending on that player’s eligibility.
For players who have yet to acquire five full seasons of service time (also known as years of major league service), there are typically three “options” available for the team—however, a fourth may be available if the player doesn’t have enough service time and the three options have already been used. Once a player is optioned for the minor leagues, a team has to wait at least 10 days before calling them back up, which prevents constant back-and-forth shuffling on major league rosters.
What Happens when an MLB Player is Released?
A “release” differs from a DFA because it cuts a player from a team. In other words, a release is a clearing of the ties between the ball club and the player.
Major league teams often release players in the offseason, for example, simply because there’s less they can do with their contract. By Spring training, however, major league teams need to start organizing which players will earn a roster spot on their club.
The team’s 40-man roster requires a lot of decision-making by the team, as they’re looking at the options they have with every player’s eligibility throughout the season. And teams who are considering making a run at the playoffs or having a successful regular season have to take into account issues like:
- The player’s eligibility for optioning to the minor leagues
- How the player fits on a 40-man roster, not just the 26-man roster
- Whether the player brings something to the table (like adding home runs) or the team simply likes the contract
Conclusion on Designated for Assignment in Baseball
Any baseball fan of their team should understand the DFA rules. DFA means that by releasing one of your players, another team can pick that player up. As a fan, it only helps to know what goes into every small transaction for an organization. Also it allows fans to understand the complexity of running an MLB organization!