December 5, 2001
Rany On The Royals
The Rule 5 DraftThis is hard. I knew when I signed up to continue this column that it would be a chore to write a thousand words about the Royals every week, but I didn't think it would be this difficult. Trying to comprehend Shaggy's lyrics is easier. Even after taking a week off to recuperate from Thanksgiving, there's no pressing topic about which to write.
So at a time when news about contraction and Bud Selig's latest open-faced lie rule the day, I'm going to write about the draft. No, not the one in which teams have a chance to draft Vladimir Guerrero--the one that gives teams the opportunity to select the next Scott Chiasson.
The Rule 5 Draft is slated for December 13, and as usual the Royals have left a couple of open slots on their 40-man roster, presumably in the hopes that they might snag a hidden gem, you know, like Endy "Another Year, Another Homer" Chavez. But this year, the Royals need to be less concerned about nabbing another team's players and more concerned about protecting their own.
The highly productive Royals' drafts of the late 1990s are showing fruit. Many of the prospects selected in those drafts are reaching maturity, and need to be added to the 40-man roster. The Royals did a lot of this in September, purchasing the contracts of Angel Berroa, Ken Harvey, Mike MacDougal, Brad Voyles, and Brandon Berger when each player was brought to the majors. It says a lot for the team that their best prospect not eligible for the draft, catcher Mike Tonis, was not given a cup of coffee, keeping him safe from Rule 5 intrigue.
The Royals have shrewdly added Kyle Snyder to the roster. Snyder, the seventh overall pick in 1999 (two picks ahead of Barry Zito), has finally rounded back into form following Tommy John surgery. After an impressive stint in Instructional League, he was sent to the Arizona Fall League, where he wasn't scored upon until the last of his five innings. For a pitcher who had never retired a batter above rookie ball to hold his own in the AFL is impressive, and an indication of the kind of stuff Snyder threw prior to his injury, and what he may still be capable of throwing. There is no sense in taking the risk that he might be drafted, and the Royals very wisely are not.
There are still two players missing from the 40-man roster who could be drafted by a savvy organization and easily spend the entire season at the back end of a major-league bullpen. The first of these is Jeremy Hill, who a year ago was a 23-year-old catcher who had hit .234 and .197 the past two seasons. You know the drill... intrigued by his strong arm, the Royals had Hill experiment on the mound, and after an instructional league outing in which he showed a 97-mph fastball and a hammer curve, the position change was permanent. Last season was his first on the mound, and working in short relief, he struck out 66 batters in 48 innings, allowing just 22 hits, before he was finally promoted from the Midwest League to the Carolina League. He pitched just 12 innings in Wilmington, but managed to go 4-0 with a 0.73 ERA.
Now, he's three levels from the major leagues, and you might think that a pitcher that far from the majors is safe from the Rule 5 Draft. You'd be wrong, though. In December, 1994, a Mariner farmhand who struck out 70 batters in 48 innings in the Midwest League--credentials uncannily similar to Hill's--was selected by the Florida Marlins. That pitcher was Matt Mantei, who, if not a diamond in the rough, was at least a semi-precious stone. After some polishing, the Marlins swapped him for a real diamond, Brad Penny.
Not every low-A-to-the-majors jump works out as well as Mantei's did, certainly, and Hill may yet be safe. The Royals' decision to leave Corey Thurman off the 40-man roster, though, is much more dangerous, and nearly inexplicable. He was already one of the Royals' ten best starting pitcher prospects a year ago... and then he went out and had his best season yet, going 13-5 with a 3.37 ERA for Wichita, with 148 strikeouts against just 117 hits allowed in 155 innings. I don't understand the thinking here: you draft a projectable 17-year-old kid out of high school, you work with him for five years to make him a major-league prospect, and now that he's nearly ready, you're going to let any organization with a roster spot and a few neurons sweep in and reap the windfall for all your hard work?
The downside to any Rule 5 player is risk: the risk that the player won't be able to contribute in any role, forcing the team to play with a 24-man roster, or the risk that the year of inactivity will hurt the player's development. But there is no risk with Thurman: he's practically ready for a bullpen shot on merit, and having already proven himself as a minor-league starter, a year of throwing 60 garbage innings for a major-league team might help, not hinder, his development.
I think Thurman is as good as gone. What do teams look for in Rule 5 picks? One of two things: players with huge upsides, usually tools goofs in A ball or any pitcher capable of registering 95 on a radar gun, or players capable of contributing immediately in a minor role, like a quality fourth outfielder or a situational left-hander. Thurman is both: he is polished enough to make a contribution immediately, and having just turned 23 last month, he's young enough to grow into a much larger role. A package that enticing is a rare find in the Rule 5 Draft.
Meanwhile, the Royals are holding on to such luminaries as Scott Mullen and Donnie Sadler.
It's already too late to erase the mistakes of the past (the deadline for cutting players off the 40-man roster has passed), but it's not too late to prevent a mistake on December 13. The Royals need to add Thurman to their roster while they still have time. They have to stop thinking about the talent they can add in the Rule 5 Draft, and worry instead about the talent they can't afford to lose.
Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.