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Thoughts (and names) for the Rule 5 Draft

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First some thoughts, then some names

Los Angeles Dodgers v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The algebra of baseball rosters is full of arcane rules, and likely none more arcane than the existence of the Rule 5 Draft. Initially intended as a solution to a problem of, “The organization won’t give this worthy potential major leaguer playing time so let someone else do it,” the Rule 5 Draft’s position in today’s age of highly engineered and exacting roster math mostly just consists of “force a reshuffle of the 40-man roster so diehard fans can have something to talk about as the low winter sun sets.” The reality is that in many ways, fluidity is an important part of baseball in the late 2010s, and fluidity means sometimes sending a guy down even his performance doesn’t warrant the demotion. That’s not a luxury teams have with Rule 5 selections, and as such, they’re an awkward fit in the jigsaw puzzle of modern roster construction.

Before you read anything else, think about the type of player you think makes sense to take in the Rule 5 Draft. Maybe you came up with multiple types. Well, compare your type or types to the list below. I sifted through the set of players that did, well, essentially anything of note since 2010, and picked out the ones that were Rule 5 picks. Here’s how I grouped them.

  • Position players - catchers. Every team needs a backup catcher, and backup catchers don’t really have a high bar to clear in terms of usefulness. This kind of makes sense as one place to stash a selection, especially if your team doesn’t expect to compete. The recently-traded Omar Narvaez, scourge of framing metrics, falls into this category.
  • Position players - speedy outfielders. In much the same way that people have been citing Billy Hamilton’s name as, “he runs really fast and fields well, isn’t that worth a roster spot?” ever since he was non-tendered by the Reds, some teams have indeed made good on players of this ilk. Delino DeShields, Jr., Odubel Herrera, and yes, the Flyin’ Hawaiian himself, Shane Victorino, are the notable Rule 5 successes in this category.
  • Position players - infielders with bats (?!). This is one I didn’t really expect before, but apparently it’s a thing. Or, rather, it’s the only somewhat-consistent thread that links together Everth Cabrera, Ryan Flaherty, and Dan Uggla. Why did I need to tie those guys together? Because, aside from the one additional position player below, these are the only remaining position players taken in the Rule 5 that have been productive this decade. The Rule 5! It’s not a great avenue for player acquisition.
  • Position players - Justin Bour. Hey, if you’re the Marlins and are basically okay rolling out a set of off-brand meeple as your 25-man roster, sure, claim a generic bat-only guy and plug him as a starter. What could go wrong? (It’s worth noting that Bour only appears on this list because the Cubs didn’t actually take him back after he was claimed; Bour failed to make Miami’s roster out of Spring Training and only received 83 major league PAs the year after he was taken in the Rule 5 Draft.)

So, for position players, you’ve got seven. And Justin Bour. By my count, there have been nine seasons so far in this decade. So many Rule 5 Drafts, and seven position players. And Justin Bour. Tough stuff. It’s not really any “easier” for pitchers and their ar

  • Pitchers - Twins-related pitchability guy. Yes, it’s weird that this is a category, but it is. For a while, the Twins were trying to zig where everyone else was zagging, continuing to focus on pitchability and pitch-to-contact skills while everyone else was frothing at the mouth over strikeouts. You can kind of look at history and see whether that zagging worked. (It didn’t.) But, anyway, the Twins took Scott Diamond from the Braves, and he managed one decent season while not striking anyone out before basically falling out of baseball. They took Ryan Pressly from the Red Sox a few years later; Pressly eventually got on the strikeout train and eventually became a decent reliever, though he was very much a pitchability guy that had converted to relief at the time he was selected. And then there’s former Braves first round draft choice Sean Gilmartin, who was traded to (not Rule 5 Drafted by) the Twins but then taken from them by the New York Mets, and worked his pitchability/soft-tossing jam as a lefty reliever for... one successful season.
  • Pitchers - really injured guys. The Braves used this strategy to good effect with Dan Winkler, taking a guy coming off Tommy John Surgery and stashing him for so long that even had they not fulfilled his Rule 5 restriction requirements, the Rockies may not have taken him back because they had forgotten who he was by that point (kidding). In similar fashion, Hector Rondon and John Brebbia were two additional very injured players who missed boatloads of time but eventually came back to be productive major leaguers. Notably, both Winkler and Rondon were starters before their injuries and transitioned to relief afterwards.
  • Pitchers - no-control relievers. I actually expected this group to be bigger, but it’s really just Wesley Wright. The other no-control relievers either don’t get taken in the Rule 5, or don’t survive the roster restriction if they do. After all, these guys are everywhere, and if they had control and were decent relievers already, they likely wouldn’t be freely available.
  • Pitchers - really weird stuff. This is just a catchall for the other two pitchers on this list. Joakim Soria was taken in the Rule 5 Draft after just seven outings in a major league organization — he spent most of the year before he was drafted in the Mexican League. Basically, the Royals (the claiming team) could have just signed him out of Mexico if they really wanted to, though I guess the result was to make the Padres feel extra-lame for doing the work of signing him but then not protecting him. Alexi Ogando was a position player that got drafted by the Rangers and converted to pitching. So I guess you can say that a substantial proportion of Rule 5 Draftee contributors were actually positional converts, so that’s fun.

Combine all these names together and you’ve got under 20 players. Nine seasons, and under 20 players. Every team gets a Rule 5 Draft pick (they don’t all use them, though). This is all history could come up with. It’s actually kind of telling that a quarter of Rule 5 Draft returnees (Ender Inciarte, Ivan Nova, Randy Wells) is actually pretty comparable, production-wise, to the players across the same period actually taken in the Rule 5 Draft and retained according to the roster restriction.

Why do I bring all of this up? Mostly to point out that as an observer, you shouldn’t take the Rule 5 Draft too seriously. It’s really hard to hit on a player that way. So if the Braves take anyone, or don’t take anyone, or take someone and offer them back to their original team almost immediately, no worries. It was a longshot anyway...

...but that doesn’t mean longshots aren’t fun to discuss. So, in keeping with the categories above (not Twins-related pitchability guys, though, blech), here are my thoughts on potentially-interesting names eligible for selection that you may not have considered.

Note: I don’t usually read anything or concern myself with prospect details much. This is pretty much the only time I’ll do this in any meaningful, broad fashion until this time next year, for the same exercise. All of the below is culled from scouting reports, and does not reflect my own views in any way. I have no idea who most of these players are; if anything below interests you, I highly recommend you take your own stroll across the internet for stuff about whichever players caught your eye.

Speedy Fourth/Fifth Outfielders

  • Jose Azocar (Tigers). Azocar actually made the top 10 in Detroit’s system in Eric Longenhagen’s post-2016 rankings, albeit with a 40 FV. He’s probably pretty livable defensively and has a great arm (70/70 PV/FV from Longenhagen) but yeah, he’s not gonna hit a lick for you.
  • Michael Beltre (Reds). I’m going to quote one line out of context from Fangraphs’ recent writeup of Beltre, where he was given a 35+ FV grade and the 29th spot in the Cincy system: “he has raw power, great feel for the strike zone, and is a plus runner, with well-regarded makeup.” Sounds great, right? The words “physical dynamo” also appeared in the blurb. But, the reality is that Beltre just hits. everything. into. the. ground. Ugh. In no partial season at any level has he even managed to turn fewer than half of his batted balls into grounders. If for some reason the Braves think that they can get him on-the-fly major league instruction that fixes this in one fell swoop, awesome. If not, well, don’t bother.
  • Oscar Gonzalez (Indians). There’s no real point to this as he’s not even the type of fourth outfielder that can cover center in a pinch. But he has massive, extreme raw power. He could run into like... three homers off the bench. Is that worth it? Probably not.
  • Brayan Hernandez (Marlins). Seems to have a reasonable calling card as a center fielder; received a 50 FV hit tool grade. Not sure more really needs to be said, but be aware that he hasn’t even played in A-ball yet. Most likely a nope.
  • Derek Hill (Tigers). Hill is faster but not as arm strength-endowed as organizational cohort Azocar. As a speed-and-defense guy, you could maybe do worse. But you could also probably do better in not-the-Rule-5.
  • Sandro Fabian (Giants). The good news is that Fabian has a 60 FV hit tool grade. The bad news is that he kind of fits into this category less than the other players, as he’s not super-speedy or super-defensively-apt. He also hyper-scuffled in High-A in 2018, so, yeah, no one’s taking him. But he fits the “lots of tools, not great at baseball right now” mold of a lot of other players in this section.
  • Pedro Gonzalez (Rangers). Reports on Gonzalez are kind of split, because some discuss him as he is right now (fast enough, center field-y enough), and some describe him in terms of his power projection, where he will presumably lose speed and range as he physically matures. But right now, he could be used as a generic fifth outfielder. Given that he finished 2018 in A-ball, though, I wouldn’t worry too much about the split reports.
  • Anthony Jimenez (Mariners). I know a lot of the options in this section have been underwhelming, and Jimenez is probably more underwhelming still, as he’s both a corner type and didn’t hit well at High-A last year, even though he was 23. Welp.
  • Ian Miller (Mariners). Miller is a more realistic target than many players in this post, solely because he already reached Triple-A. He also learned to take a walk there last year upon repeating the level, without messing up the other parts of his batting line. However, he’s a pure slap hitter, so a decent batting line is out of the question unless he runs a .400 BABIP. He’s very fast and steals a lot of bases, so in some ways he’s a generic fifth outfielder, though the poor bat makes him both an unlikely and unexciting choice.
  • Forrest Wall (Blue Jays). Wall has a 45 FV from Longenhagen and a 2019 ETA, which gives him a leg up on many of these choices. He used to be a second baseman, but lacked the arm for the position, so now he’s been asked to go get ‘em in the outfield (where the arm will still be an issue sometimes). Wall’s been described as having an “advanced” plate approach but it hasn’t quite shown up yet, so this is one case where someone would be taking him in the hopes that 2019, at the major league level, is where things click for Wall offensively.
  • Marcus Wilson (Diamondbacks). He’s probably not going to hit. Most guys aren’t going to hit. If they could hit, they’d be protected. Wilson had A-ball figured out, but struggled in High-A. If you’re reading this and going, “Haha they’re never going to pick and keep someone that hasn’t even figured out how to hit High-A pitching,” you’re probably right. But like the other guys in this section, if you’d sign Billy Hamilton for real money, this is a worse Billy Hamilton. For free. Whom you can shove back into the minors after a year.
  • Wadye Ynfante (Cardinals). Hasn’t even played in A-ball, so, nah. But that name! Also, this quote from Fangraphs: “His complete inability to hit could be fixable.” Well, that’s good news for Mr. Ynfante.

Air It Out Relievers

  • Trevor Clifton (Cubs). Clifton got a lot of notice in 2016, when he made a walk rate improvement at High-A and continued throwing 96 while doing so. Since then, his command/control and velocity have both backslid. He was eligible and untaken in last year’s Rule 5, so he’s not very likely to go again this time. But he’s another of the dime-a-dozen “use as a reliever now and maybe send back for further starter seasoning later” types. Back in 2017, Fangraphs gave him 50 PV / 55 FV on both his fastball and curveball, so how much damage could he really do as a mop-up reliever? (Answer: a lot. Don’t trust relievers.)
  • Juan De Paula (Giants). De Paula’s been in three organizations in four seasons, and has put up good numbers as a starter in the (very) low minors. Someone could see if they’ll immediately translate to a bullpen impact, but that seems very risky given that he’s had all of five innings in full-season ball.
  • Junior Fernandez (Cardinals). 60 PV fastball and a 55 PV / 60 FV changeup is an interesting mix for a potential Rule 5 Draftee, and the righty transitioned to full-time relieving last year. He had a massive, horrifying walk rate spike in AA, but he also didn’t pitch much all year due to injuries, so it’s unclear whether it’s a huge risk. Longenhagen and McDaniel noted earlier this offseason that Fernandez could see the St. Louis bullpen quickly because it’s a matter of time before he gets hurt again and/or his blazing fastball declines; the same likely holds for other teams as well. If he still has walk rate troubles, you can offer him back, no harm, no foul.
  • Riley Ferrell (Astros). Before the 2018 season, Eric Longenhagen noted that Ferrell profiled as a traditional set-up man. You could do way worse with a pick. He has a plus fastball and an average-y slider. but had massive command problems last year and doesn’t have the best injury history. This is actually probably a reasonable selection, rather than a self-indulgent “haha minor leaguers are weird” like the rest of this post. If he dials in the walks even a bit, he could probably wreak havoc on hitters.
  • Ofreidy Gomez (Royals). Mostly, I just think he has a cool name. But, in keeping with this section, he throws 93-97, and that’s as a starter. That could increase a few ticks... but having not pitched above High-A and being very raw (he doesn’t get many strikeouts despite the heat and the low levels), doesn’t seem like a great choice.
  • Tyler Jay (Twins). The former sixth overall pick has had a ton of injuries in his minor league career, but was finally healthy enough for a full relief season in 2018, and it went... okay in 2018. He has a plus curve that he could stand to throw more, so maybe he becomes a weird curveball-first reliever if some team takes him in the Rule 5 Draft.
  • Elvis Luciano (Royals). Look, no one is going to take Luciano, if only because he’s 18 years old. He’s actually only been pitching professionally for two years, so I’m not quite sure how or why he’s even eligible to be taken. It may be a clerical error, in which case, refer to the first sentence: no one is going to take Luciano. But, it’d be funny if they did. Luciano, part of the return along with Braves legend Gabe Speier for Jon Jay in mid-2018, was described by Eric Longenhagen as “an interesting, long-term flier who reasonably projects as a back-end starter.” That’s not generally the type of guy you want to stash in a bullpen... but he throws pretty hard (90-94) and could throw harder in relief.
  • Erling Moreno (Cubs). Moreno has a lot of things working against him: he hasn’t even been to High-A yet, and his 2018 wasn’t great. He also isn’t a command/control artist, but then again, who is? In his minor league career, Moreno has done okay because he throws a hard sinker that gets hit into the ground more often than not. Are sinkers passe these days? Probably! But can he buck the trend and offer a decent relief alternative with that pitch? Probably not, but you never know...
  • Jordan Romano (Blue Jays). An okay 25-year-old starter at AA for Toronto last year. Pretty much a generic choice here; if the strikeouts tick up and the walks tick down from shifting to a relief role, he could be a passable middle reliever.
  • Art Warren (Mariners). Probably a ROOGY with a crazy fastball (nearly triple digits) that also has slider potential. Was the Mariners’ ninth-best prospect per Fangraphs before the 2018 season began, but missed much of the year due to injury. There’s probably not much benefit to specifically retaining Warren for a whole year over other options, but he’s also a “free” bullpen guy if you can stomach the fact that you might need to immediately mail him back to the Pacific Northwest if he starts walking the world.

Generic Catcher Men

  • Jhonny Pereda (Cubs). Look, the Braves aren’t going to take a catcher. But someone else could. And if they’re wild enough to take a catcher that hasn’t played in AA yet, Pereda could be that guy. He actually improved from A-ball to High-A, which you don’t see much. And he supposedly has a cannon.
  • Ali Sanchez (Mets). Again, there’s no need for another backup catcher in Atlanta. And Sanchez, like Pereda, finished last year at High-A. The framing is the question to which I have no answer, but he gets high marks for everything-but-throwing. A team with a now-rare primary catcher could take a gamble on having a cheap backup for years. Roberto Perez also can’t hit at all and has a steady backup gig going, though he also frames well. If Sanchez also shows proficiency at stealing strikes, he could be the next Perez. Or not. He’s only 21 and hasn’t played in Double-A yet, it’s all up in the air.

Infielders with a (sort of) bat

  • Drew Jackson (Dodgers). Jackson is 25 already, which makes him somewhat older than a lot of other guys on this list. But, also unlike a lot of other guys in this array of names, he’s actually played at Double-A and succeeded, with a 121 wRC+ in 410 PAs. Since he’s a Dodger, you know he swing changed — he was putting up sub-.100 ISOs as a Mariner (he was acquired from Seattle in a minor trade of non-major leaguers) and has hit 24 homers in 838 PAs since. He’s fast, an adequate defender, and has a cannon for an arm — the only question is whether the swing change is for real and he has offensive room to grow.
  • Richie Martin (Athletics). Martin repeated AA in 2018 and hit pretty well, though it was largely BABIP-fueled. However, the trinity of positive improvements (walk rate, strikeout rate, ISO) can’t really be discounted. He’s been described by Longenhagen as a “glove first utility man,” but that was before his mini-breakout in 2018.
  • Leonardo Rivas (Angels). Rivas isn’t really much of a prospect, and in this case, having a “sort of bat” is kind of overstating it. In the end, he’s a 40 FV player who can potentially stick at short, and is quite fast. But there’s one fascinating thing about him: he basically exists to annoy the opposing pitcher. In reality, the baseball paradigm with regards to walks is that pitchers will, to the extent they are able, not hesitate to throw strikes to guys who can’t turn them into extra-base hits. Rivas fits that description: he only has nine homers across four seasons of minor league play, and most recently posted a sub-.100 ISO in A-ball. But, his walk rate is generally double digits, and often closer to 20% than 10%. How does he do this? Well, Longenhagen described it as “an amazing eye for the strike zone and grinds out long, arduous at-bats that frustrate pitchers who see the wee Rivas enter the batter’s box and expect to blow him away.” Will major league pitchers actually be able to blow him away? Yeah, probably. That’s a big jump, from A-ball to MLB. But imagine having a utility infielder who is actually a good fielder, and whom you can throw in there to annoy the opposing pitcher and hopefully draw a walk. Sounds a lot better than many “utility infielders” that can’t defend or hit particularly well, no? Anyway, it’s a longshot, but assuming Rivas keeps his pitcher-irritant quality going forward, he’d be fun to target as his other skills further develop.
  • Christopher Torres (Marlins). Switch-hits, can play short, has hit at an above-average clip throughout the minors so far. But, has only advanced through A-ball so far, and has missed a lot of time so he’s actually gotten less exposure than some other 20-year-olds. He both walks and strikes out a lot, which is somewhat uncharacteristic for a utility infielder who makes a living by slapping the ball around.

Very injured pitchers

  • Gage Hinsz (Pirates). Hinsz didn’t pitch at all in 2017, and may make more sense as a reliever going forward. In addition to the injury recovery risk, he’s also very raw, as he’s from Montana and kind of has a Brandon Nimmo-esque didn’t-play-baseball-in-the-same-types-of-high-school-leagues-before-being-drafted thing going on. The Braves could probably stash Hinsz as he rehabs or gets his bearings back, but the Rule 5 trick is that eventually, he’ll need to be on a major league roster. Maybe his brand of ball (which comes with decent control, apparently) will work better when he’s healthy and in short stints. Maybe not.

Just kidding it’s a pitchability guy

  • Tom Eshelman (Phillies). We couldn’t get through this list without one old Twins-esque pitchability guy, right? Per Fangraphs, here are Eshelman’s grades (PV/FV): Fastball 40/40, Curveball 40/40, Changeup 45/50, Cutter 55/55, Command 60/70. There was a point in baseball history (and I’m not just talking about the Twins) where Eshelman’s extreme aversion to walks and ability to just go up there and toss 90-92 mph stuff over the plate would have been valued. That’s not today’s game. But if someone wants to do Throwback Thursday for some big chunk of the 2019 season, they could take Eshelman and have him throw spot starter or middle relief duty for a year. He didn’t pitch well at all when repeating AAA last year, but his 5.84 ERA and 4.80 FIP are misleading in that his 4.27 xFIP fits a lot better with his overall progression through the minors.

The Justin Bour/Alexi Ogando category

  • Dermis Garcia (Yankees). Garcia is super-weird. He’s not much of a prospect, because despite 60 FV game power and 80 FV raw power grades, he has a gross 40 FV hit tool, doesn’t run well, and fields a corner infield position just okay. But, one thing caught my eye about Garcia: he’s apparently being converted into a two-way player because of his arm strength. Garcia was a big international signing by the Yankees ($3.2 million), so if you can somehow use him as both a bench bat with pop and a raw, mop-up reliever... well, you probably don’t do that, because you’re not crazy. But is someone crazy enough to take the Dermis Garcia show on the road at the major league level? We’re gonna find out.
  • Jake Gatewood (Brewers). Dude has a 80 FV raw power grade. Also, he was a shortstop that moved to 1B. Thanks to the bombs, he’s held his own at AA so far. There’s no real fit for him in Atlanta, but pointing out 80 raw power is a worthwhile endeavor.
  • Christian Santana (Dodgers). Big raw power, might stick at third. There’s no real reason why he makes for a sensible pick unless the Braves just really want someone to occasionally run into one from the right side