The Forgotten Draft

Every year on the final day of the Winter Meetings, the MLB holds the Rule 5 Draft. While casual fans are familiar with the more publicized First-Year Player Draft that is televised on MLB Network and analyzed meticulously by baseball pundits, the Rule 5 Draft takes place behind closed doors with hardly anyone taking notice. The Rule 5 Draft is one of the most overlooked events on the baseball calendar due to its complex set of rules that would cause a headache for most baseball fans. Despite this event being nothing more than an afterthought even the most diehard of baseball fans, it’s impact can have an enormous impact. For this reason, I would like to try my hand at not only simplifying the rules of the Rule 5 Draft but also discuss the growing importance of this oft-forgotten event.

So let’s start with the bare basics.

What is the Rule 5 Draft?

The Rule 5 Draft was originally designed to prevent teams from stockpiling too many young players on their minor league affiliate teams when other teams would be willing to have those players on their Major League Roster. Without the Rule 5 Draft, teams with high payrolls and a full 40 man roster could keep MLB-ready players in the minor leagues, depriving them of an opportunity to reach the big leagues solely because their team is so stocked with talent that there is no room for them on the big league roster.

How Does the Rule 5 Draft Work?

Prior to the Rule 5 Draft, every major league team must choose who they want to place on their 40 man roster. All these players are deemed “protected” from being taken in the Rule 5 Draft. However, every player that is not granted this “protected” status by their team and is left off the 40 man roster becomes eligible to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft.

Once each team has determined which players they want to protect, teams draft in reverse order of the regular season standings. Unlike any other draft in professional sports, most teams will choose to “pass” when it is their turn to pick because they already have a full 40 man roster.

Teams that have empty spaces on their 40 man roster generally draft whichever minor league player that they believe can help their team in the upcoming season. Once a player is selected, the receiving team sends 50,000 dollars to the team from which he was selected. Once this transaction is complete, the acquiring team instantly places their new player on the 40 man roster.

Even then, that team’s new acquisition isn’t fully the property of the club. In order for the acquiring team to maintain control over their newly acquired player, they must keep that player on the 25 man roster for the entirety of the season. If the drafted player does not remain active (not on the DL) on the MLB team’s roster for a minimum of 90 days, he is sent back to the original team for 25,000 dollars. Often times when this happens, the original team still does not want the player, in which case, the player is placed on waivers.

If a player is selected in the Rule 5 Draft and remains on the team throughout the course of the season, that player officially belongs to the acquiring team the following season with no strings attached.

Recent Developments in the Rule 5 Draft:

In days of old, the Rule 5 draft was mostly an afterthought. Acquiring a player in which the team had no flexibility over was thought of as messy and complicated. But in an era where roughly a quarter of MLB teams have no intention of competing in any given season, rebuilding franchises now view the Rule 5 Draft as a new frontier for acquiring talented prospects at a very low cost. With so many teams in rebuilding mode, these clubs might as well stowaway a young, talented, albeit undeveloped player on their bench for a year before resuming their development at the appropriate level.

The most recent example of a team stockpiling prospects through the Rule 5 draft was the 2017 Padres. During the 2016 Rule 5 Draft, the Padres drafted the top three players, signaling to the league that they were serious about adding young talent by whatever means necessary. While it is true the Padres more or less dominated the Rule 5 Draft last season, they were in a unique position in which they could afford to use three roster spots on talented, but undeveloped prospects. With no chance of winning, why not steal away a few prospects from other teams for practically no cost?

Last year, the Padres accepted the fact that they were a few years from competing for a playoff spot, so instead of rolling out washed up veterans, they added Luis Torrens, Allan Cordoba, and Miguel Diaz, all of which had never played a game above High-A. The expectation was that the group would be constantly overmatched, serving as daily symbols of the dismal state of the Padres franchise. To the surprise of many, these three youngsters not only demonstrated maturity everytime they stepped onto the diamond, they also played well enough to not cement themselves as complete laughingstocks.

Don’t get me wrong, one look at Miguel Diaz’s 7.14 ERA or Allen Cordoba’s .208 batting average and it is pretty clear that these guys are in need of much more seasoning in the minors before they finally reach the show legitimately, but with none of the three players exceeding 202 at-bats or 41.2 innings, their subpar performances ultimately had a negligible impact on the Padres seasonal win total (not that it would have been very good anyway).

(And for those who argue how unfair it was to put these guys in the national spotlight,  despite them being completely overmatched, I suggest you research the difference between a full year minimum salary in the MLB compared to the scraps that minor league players receive.)  

In the end, this creative tactic by the Padres front office allowed them to poach three talented prospects at almost no cost whatsoever.

I am fully aware of how tangential that example became, but when small market teams employ creative strategies, it is a small step towards parity, which benefits the game as a whole. Not to mention, it adds intrigue to a draft that even the most devoted baseball fans are either unaware of or completely ignored altogether.  

With a brief summary of the rules that govern the most forgotten draft in professional sports, we shift our attention to this year’s crop of Rule 5 draftees and evaluate their chances of sticking with their new teams the entire season.

Keep in mind that trying to project Rule 5 picks is a futile effort as there are multitude external factors that operate outside of the individual player’s control.

A few of the factors that contribute to whether a Rule 5 pick will remain with his team are listed below:

  1. Teams that are committed to their rebuilds are much more likely to hold onto their Rule 5 picks regardless of their performance.
  2. Teams that enter the season with the intention of rebuilding, but outperform expectations, may be forced to contend (2017 Minnesota Twins & Milwaukee Brewers). This increases the likelihood that the will release the Rule 5 Draftee to clear a roster spot for an upgrade at that position.
  3. The draftee must remain on the 25 man roster for the entirety of the season without being placed on the disabled list for a minimum of 90 days. Injuries are for the most part out of these guys control.

Even on baseball-centric channels like the MLB Network, the Rule 5 Draft gets practically zero attention. Year-after-year, the Rule 5 Draft is overlooked and disregarded by the casual fan, presumably because most people deem the event as unimportant. Due to this attitude towards the Rule 5 Draft, I think it is necessary to take a quick glance at some of the players who were once deemed not good enough to make a 40 man roster, only for a savvy GM to pick them off the trash heap.

Notable Rule 5 Picks:

  1. Roberto Clemente – 94.5
  2. Johan Santana – 45.3 WAR
  3. Hack Wilson – 38.8
  4. Jose Bautista – 33.1
  5. Josh Hamilton* – 27.8 WAR
  6. Dan Uggla – 23.4 WAR
  7. R.A. Dickey – 18.6 WAR
  8. Joakim Soria – 11.5 WAR
  9. Odubel Herrera – 10.5 WAR
  10. Darren O’Day – 7.9 WAR

Total WAR = 311.4
WAR Per Player = 31.14 (This figure is skewed significantly by Roberto Clemente)

I hope I have done an adequate job of explaining how the Rule 5 Draft works and how impactful it can be in some years. While I highly doubt there will be any Roberto Clemente’s in the 2018 class of Rule 5 Draft picks, there are a number of very talented young players who will get the opportunity to become big league regulars in 2018 thanks in large part to the Rule 5 Draft.

  1. Victor Reyes – OF (DET)

Reyes inherits the perfect situation to earn playing time in Detroit this season. Not only are the Tigers projected to have one of the worst collective outfield WARs in baseball this year, which should provide him so at-bats and opportunities in the field, but they also have no chance of competing in the American League Central. As the Tigers outfield is currently constructed, the triumvirate of Leonys Martin, Mikie Mahtook, and Nicholas Castellanos are projected to combine for 2.8 WAR combined. Not to mention the fact that Castellanos is set to make his first full season in the outfield after Detroit finally moved him off of third base, where he perennially ranked as one of the worst defenders in the game at the position.

Not only does Victor Reyes have the perfect, low-pressure opportunity to make a name for himself in the Detroit outfield, he also possesses the skills to make it happen. Coming into last season, Reyes was ranked 23rd overall on the D’Backs top prospects list as a true center fielder who can hit from both sides of the plate. His plus speed has allowed him to steal double-digit stolen bases in each of his four minor league seasons. This speed will be critical if he is to roam the spacious outfield at Comerica Ballpark.

The concern with Reyes is the same worry that befalls most Rule 5 Draft picks: he lacks experience. Having only played 126 games above HIgh-A, he is still very raw, but with major league coaches working to groom him all spring and into the season, we could see Reyes mature quickly into a solid fourth outfielder for the Tigers this season.

  1. Nick Burdi – RHP (PIT)

Burdi had a superb season at Double-A in 2017, posting a .53 ERA across 17 innings while striking out 20 batters and walking just four. Prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2017, Burdi was regarded as one of the best closer prospects in the game. Only time will tell how Burdi is able to recover from TJ, but if he is able to regain his previous form, the Pirates will be getting a right-hander that has been clocked in the triple-digits and can also feature a double-plus slider.

If there are no hiccups in Burdi’s recovery, and that’s a big if, the Pirates will have an electric late-inning arm that could one day form a dynamic duo with Felipe Rivero at the back end of the Pirates bullpen.

  1. Brad Keller – RHP (KC)

Keller was originally selected in the 8th round of the 2013 draft out of Flowery Branch High School in Georgia. As one of the youngest players in his draft class, he pitched beyond his years, eventually reaching High-A when he was just 20 years old. in 24 starts for High-A Visalia, he posted a 4.47 ERA in 24 starts, while striking out just 99 batters across 135 innings pitched. These numbers appear underwhelming on the surface, but a mid-4.00 ERA in the extremely hitter-friendly California League is actually quite respectable. Keller’s first true bump in the road occurred last season after being promoted to Double-A Jackson where he posted a discouraging 4.68 ERA, while giving up 142 hits and 57 walks in just 130.2 innings pitched. Minor league numbers aside, Keller has an imposing presence on the mound, pitches quickly, and aggressively attacks the strike zone. Keller has above-average athleticism for a pitcher with a 6’5” 230 lb. frame, but his lack of strikeout stuff limits his upside to that of a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Luckily for Keller, the Royals depleted roster could provide him with an opportunity to establish himself either at the backend of the Royals rotation or more likely as a long reliever in 2017. With smooth and repeatable mechanics, it would be surprising to see Keller completely blow up at the next level, but at the same time, he is far from anything resembling an ace.

  1.   Carlos Tocci – OF (CHW)

The White Sox signed the then 16-year-old Carlos Tocci out of Venezuela in 2011. For four consecutive seasons following the signing, the organization ranked him in the top 10 among Phillies prospects, peaking as high as #5 in the system in 2015. Despite these favorable rankings, Tocci’s minor league stat sheet tells the story of a guy whose performance has lagged behind his pedigree since entering the minor leagues.

Tocci’s best tool is his plus speed, which along with a plus-plus arm, give him the profile of a future defense-first centerfielder. Unfortunately, that quickness has failed to translate to the basepaths as Tocci’s career stolen base rate is just 58%. Still just 22 years old, perhaps with more experience, he can develop the instincts and baseball savvy to become a better base runner and base stealer in the years to come.

The weakest part of Tocci’s game is his complete lack of power at the plate. Across almost 2,500 minor league at-bats, he has hit just twelve long balls. His game will always be built around speed and defense, but until he can develop the tools to maximize those abilities, he will continue to be a player whose value rests in his defensive ability.

With all that said, the White Sox outfield is so barren that Tocci will get ample opportunity to develop the weaker parts of his game at the Major League level. The White Sox current depth chart lists Adam Engel in centerfield, which means if Tocci can make some adjustments during Spring Training, he could find himself getting regular at-bats before too long.

Similar to the other players on this list, Tocci has the benefit of getting his first MLB opportunity in a relatively low-pressure environment as the Southsiders have no playoff aspirations for the upcoming season.

  1. Nestor Cortes – LHP (BAL)

Nestor Cortes has already far surpassed what was expected of him when the Yankees drafted him in the 36th round of the MLB Draft back in 2013. Last season, the left-hander dominated both High-A and Double-A, to eventually wind up in Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre where he was equally dominant.

Cortes fits the mold of a crafty lefty who won’t overpower hitters but can upset hitters timing with a deceptive motion and an ability to change speeds. It seemed as though every time Cortes was promoted last season, he rose his game to the level of the competition. Cortes proved that his reliance on deception and unpredictability was a recipe for success at the higher level as well. In 11 games with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (the Yankees Triple-A affiliate), he posted a gaudy 1.49 ERA while punching out 115 hitters and walking just 24 in 106 innings.

Cortes has more or less dominated at each stop through the minors with a career ERA of just 2.08 and an opponents batting average of .211.

With the dearth of MLB quality starting pitchers currently on the Orioles roster, Cortes could provide the club with a reliable lefty that can hold down the back-of-their-rotation for a few years while they rebuild a pitching staff that was one of the worst in baseball a year ago.

         6. Julian Fernandez – RHP (SF)

Fernandez was signed out of the Dominican Republic at eighteen years old by the St. Louis Cardinals but was quickly sent to the Colorado organization where he dominated in Rookie Ball at Grand Junction and did the same at short-season Boise before getting called up to full-season ball with the Class A Asheville Tourists.

While he was not completely dominant in Asheville in 2017 (at least relative to his dominance at the previous two levels), he still struck out over a batter an inning and posted a 3.26 ERA in 51 games.

The most concerning aspect of Fernandez’s game is his lack of command (roughly five walks per nine innings), which is a typical problem for a guy who regularly gets clocked in the triple digits. In addition to his poor command, some scouts have described his offspeed stuff as “extremely limited.”

One reason for optimism (and perhaps the reason the Giants were willing to take a flyer on him) is the fact that he seemed to have harnessed his control towards the end of last season. After walking 20 batters in just 23 innings to start the season, Fernandez struck out 35 and walked just 9 over his final 34 innings.

It is a long shot for Fernandez to break camp with the Giants as the flamethrowing righty has virtually no room for error in Spring Training. If somehow Fernandez is able to locate while flashing an above average breaking ball to go with his high octane fastball, he could quickly become the talk of the Giants camp. That is a lot of ifs, but the great thing about Rule 5 draft picks is that that they are a no-risk, high reward proposition.

This could be the last time you ever read Julian Fernandez’s name, but if the Dominican native comes to Arizona with an improved breaking ball and a better feel for the zone, watch out.

Honorable Mention:

Anthony Gose – LHP (HOU)

Unfortunately, Gose didn’t make the list because of the high unlikelihood that he will break camp as a left-handed reliever for the defending World Series Champions. Although Gose is a long shot to make the 25 man roster,  that does nothing to diminish the incredible resilience he has shown by reinventing himself as a pitcher after he declined as a positional player.

Gose originally came up in the Tigers system as a fleet-footed center fielder, capable of stealing a base or two if need be. His downfall, of course, was his bat. Over the course of five seasons, Gose managed an anemic .656 OPS, while never posting an OPS+ over 90. There are a number of other statistics I could use to describe his ineptitude at the plate, but I think you get the point: Gose simply couldn’t cut it as a hitter.

But instead of hanging up his spikes, Gose went back to the drawing board and decided he would try his hand at pitching. To be clear, Gose did not just wake up one morning and thought maybe it would be fun to try to pitch. Rather, scouts as far back as high school begged Gose to choose pitching over hitting, only to have Gose insist on being an outfielder. It wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker for scouts because after all, Gose did spend five seasons in the bigs as a perfectly competent outfielder. But while he can be a mediocre journeyman fourth outfielder playing the outfield, it became clear to everyone who saw him pitch that he was something special on the mound.

Since recreating himself as a left-handed reliever there have been some natural bouts of wildness and command, both of which can be corrected. What can’t be taught, however, is the ease with which Gose regularly dials up 100 mph+ fastballs.

This sentiment is reflected perfectly in Gose’s limited minor league stat line. In 10.2 innings pitched, Gose has fanned 14 batters while walking six. While the overall stat line doesn’t look encouraging with an unsightly 7.59 ERA standing out like a sore thumb, he held Triple-A batters to just a .182 batting average, while recording a FIP of 2.65, which is much more representative of his true performance compared to ERA.


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