That's when the two big numbers become 40 and 5 -- as in 40-man roster and Rule 5 Draft eligibility.
As is often the case, some players that have had consistently outstanding seasons lose out in the numbers game when their organizations are top-heavy with similar types of players. This year, one of the best examples is Cleveland Indians first-base prospect Jordan Brown.
It's hard to argue with the numbers Brown has posted and the accolades he's collected in his three-plus pro seasons. A fourth-round Draft pick out of the University of Arizona in 2005, Brown played a handful of games that summer at short-season Mahoning Valley while shifting from his college position of first base to left field.
Skipping past Class A Lake County in the spring of 2006 to make his full-season debut at Class A Advanced Kinston, Brown hit .290 with 15 home runs and a league-high 87 RBIs to earn Carolina League MVP honors. He led the circuit in total bases and ranked in the top five in slugging, runs scored, hits and batting as well as being one of the toughest hitters in the league to strike out.
At Double-A Akron in 2007, he earned his second MVP award in as many years after winning the Eastern League batting title with a .333 mark, adding 11 homers, 76 RBIs and 11 stolen bases. Back at first base, he led the league with 161 hits, finished third in on-base percentage (.421), added 36 doubles and was also named the league's Rookie of the Year.
He posted those numbers despite battling a sore knee -- which eventually resulted in offseason arthroscopic surgery -- the second half of the summer. The knee still bothered him at Triple-A Buffalo in early 2008, costing him close to a month on the DL, but he still posted a .281 average (.322 in August) with seven homers, 30 doubles and 51 RBIs.
But when it came time for the Indians to fill out their 40-man roster, the 24-year-old two-time league MVP was not on it.
He admits he was pretty shocked when he learned from his agent that he hadn't made the final cut. "I was kind of paralyzed at first, and when I called my wife to tell her there was just a few seconds of silence," he said. "I hadn't really thought about who was ahead of me and who was behind me [in the system], or the business side of it. I just felt like I was a good player who knew my strengths and my limitations."
But indeed, as the Indians explained, he was caught in a numbers game that featured players such as first baseman/DH Ryan Garko and first baseman Michael Aubrey, the club's top pick in 2003. In addition, catcher Victor Martinez has been seeing some time at first, which could increase. All are on Cleveland's 40-man roster.
Brown also has not-yet-eligible but highly touted prospects behind him such as first baseman Beau Mills, the club's first-round pick in 2007, third baseman Wes Hodges, the Indians' second-round pick in 2006 (who many think could wind up at first base) and newly acquired outfielder/first baseman Matt LaPorta, who was acquired from Milwaukee in July's CC Sabathia deal.
Brown had met LaPorta in the Cape Cod League, and when the Indians acquired him, his main thought was, "Cool, I'll get to play with this great guy again." Despite the fact that both are first baseman/left fielder types, their games are quite different. LaPorta projects as a serious power threat while Brown, who believes his power numbers will continue to develop, is more of a line-drive hitter with a high average and low strikeout rate.
After talking to several people in the Indians' front office, Brown can see how this situation came to be. "It's a depth issue, and they hope that as a first baseman [of whom there are often many available] I won't get taken [in the Rule 5 Draft]," he said. "They realized it was a risk and I respect their decision -- they have handled everything they do with class."
Overall, Brown said, players entering their eligibility year are aware of the circumstances. "For me, I think it hit about two weeks before the protection date," Brown said. "Because that's when people start talking about it and asking you about it."
Brown didn't really dwell on the subject or think that much about how many spots might be open on the Indians' roster. He knew he had played hard and played well, to which his two MVP awards can attest, and figured it would earn him a roster spot.
"Crazily enough I was thinking I didn't have to think about it," he laughed. "I don't know if that was me being arrogant or just thinking I was a capable player."
Once Brown got over the initial shock, he went back into his logical work-ethic mindset.
"I thought about what would happen if I did get 'Rule fived' or I didn't get 'Rule fived' and either way, I'm going to have to go out there and prove what I can do to get to the big leagues," he said. "Either way, it's production that gets you there."
Fully recovered from his knee trouble, with a new workout regimen that should keep tendinitis at bay, he's feeling better than he has in a long time and is already looking forward to getting back on the field this spring.
He's just not sure yet where that will be. He'll find out on Thursday, when he figures he'll watch the draft online at MLB.com.
Whatever the result, Brown is ready for it. But like any player who has moved steadily through the ranks with success, the 24-year-old hopes that February finds him reporting to big league Spring Training somewhere.
"I'm ready for an opportunity," he said. "And I would welcome the chance to play in the big leagues."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less