April 7, 2011
Rule 5 Roulette
There are very few diamonds in the Rule 5 rough. Most teams would settle for the athletic equivalent of cubic zirconia when combing through other clubs’ unwanted players, but after examining the results of prior Rule 5 drafts, it becomes clear that even synthetic stars are in short supply. There are plenty of rejects, though, and it’s not hard to see why.
Time for a quick refresher: in order to be eligible for the Rule 5 draft, which is conducted each December at the Winter Meetings, a player has to have been left off his organization’s 40-man roster. He also has to have toiled in the organization for at least four years if he was signed at age 19 or older, or at least five years if he was signed at 18 or younger. Not many future stars—or even future utility men—fulfill those criteria. (It’s never been easy to unearth hidden talent in the Rule 5 Draft, but the current CBA extended the exemption periods by a year starting in 2006, making it even less likely that any useful players would slip through the cracks.)
Rule 5 draftees are the professional equivalent of the kids who get picked last in gym class. By the time each draftee’s name is called in December, his original organization has decided that he isn’t worth protecting from the predations of other teams, because it has (or shortly expects to have) at least 40 more promising players already in the fold. At least in theory, there should be no better judge of a given player’s talent than the team that originally drafted or signed him and then watched him develop over the next several years, so that vote of no confidence doesn’t bode well.
So why do teams keep diving headfirst into the shallow end of the talent pool, despite the posted warnings? For one thing, clubs do strike gold on occasion, and recent success stories like Josh Hamilton, Johan Santana, and Dan Uggla keep them coming back in exactly the same way that reading about a lottery winner can persuade you to go out and buy a ticket. For another, talent isn’t distributed equally across the majors, and one team’s trash might be another team’s mop-up man. Finally, the stakes aren’t high, at least financially speaking—it costs only $50,000 to play Rule 5 roulette, and half of that sum can be recouped if a player is returned to his previous team. (Draftees who make good stand to earn themselves only the major-league minimum.) Sure, $50,000 might pay a stat guy’s salary for a year (actually, more like two stat guys’ salaries, much to their chagrin), but it’s a drop in the bucket on the player side of the payroll. The greater cost comes in the form of the roster spot sacrificed to an iffy acquisition.
As Jeremy Greenhouse discovered, the Rule 5 draft is a replacement-level bazaar, with the overwhelming majority of picks seeing no action in the majors or making little to no impression once they manage to get there. There are some trends that become apparent after studying the list of Rule 5 successes. Pitchers are selected roughly twice as often as hitters, but hitters succeed in sticking with the teams that selected them slightly more often. If you really want to make it as a Rule 5 draftee, the best thing to be is a shortstop or a left-handed reliever, since players at those positions tend to have the highest success rates in remaining on rosters all season. This seems intuitive: shortstops can be repurposed to play at any (or all) infield positions, giving them the versatility to be useful despite their shortcomings at the plate, while lefty relievers are inherently limited players who can often be carved out of the carcasses of unsuccessful starters or of relievers who were exposed against opposite-handed hitters.
Rule 5 drafts aren’t talent-rich in the best of years, but the 2009 edition yielded particularly slim pickings. The only draftees to stick on their new teams’ 40-man rosters all season were Hector Ambriz (Indians), Zach Kroenke (Diamondbacks), and David Herndon (Phillies), none of whom gave their former clubs much reason to regret letting them go. (A couple other players stuck around without distinction after their former teams declined to reclaim them, and Carlos Monasterios and Kanekoa Texeira went on to pitch ineffectively for teams other than the ones that drafted them.)
Undaunted by the league’s virtual 0-fer in the draft last season, a number of teams have elected to take the Rule 5 challenge again this season. Rule 5 selections drop like flies during spring training, migrating back to their original teams, but this season a surprising number have had some staying power. Of the 19 players selected, eight have already been returned to their original clubs. One, Scott Diamond, will remain in the minors with his new team, the Twins, but as R.J. Anderson noted, Minnesota paid a high price to keep him. That leaves the following ten players with a shot at major-league glory (or at least survival) this season:
*On 60-day DL
The first thing you might notice is that contending teams aren’t well-represented in the right-most column. As one would expect, the flow of Rule 5 talent tends to be from the haves to the have-nots, and it’s rare that a team in the thick of the race will entrust one of its precious roster spots to a low-paid player from another team’s discard pile. Not only are teams that don’t expect to compete more willing to carry an unproductive player for a year in the hope that he might amount to something down the road, a luxury that winning teams can’t afford (not that they’re complaining), but low-payroll clubs like the Pirates and Royals are more eager to trim costs by employing a player who makes the league minimum, even if his best attribute is his paycheck. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Yankees Rule 5 selection who made it through a season, though Baseball Prospectus 2003 cover boy Josh Phelps made a spirited attempt in 2007.
Chances are that the table above doesn’t contain any stars, and that at least half of the players it holds won’t survive the season or make any meaningful contribution to their teams’ cause. So which of these Rule 5 hopefuls is most likely to succeed? Given what we know about historical success rates by position, Josh Rodriguez and Joe Paterson seem like logical candidates. Rodriguez, the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, was once a second-round pick in the Rule 4 amateur draft, a far more prestigious distinction. The faded prospect bounced back from an injury-plagued 2009 with a career year in 2010, but the Indians opted not to protect him. He’s defensively versatile enough to have spent time at six positions in the minors, though he’s stretched at short. Still, merely by making the Pirates, he became the first number-one Rule 5 pick to make the majors in the season following his selection since the illustrious Fabio Castro, who led off the 2005 draft. He earned his first start for Pittsburgh at shortstop yesterday afternoon, and while he’s strictly bench material, he has a good shot to stick in that capacity.
Like Rodriguez, Paterson has found his way to the perfect setting for a player of his abilities. As we wrote in BP2011, the lefty is “well-suited to match-up work,” and he has experienced some success in the minors in recent seasons. After a historically awful showing last season, the Diamondbacks’ bullpen is in need of warm bodies, and Paterson’s is the only one around that’s left-handed, which makes his position about as secure as a Rule 5 pick’s can be.
Aneury Rodriguez is an unusual case in that he instantly became one of his new team’s top prospects after being selected in the Rule 5 draft. Of course, given the impoverished state of the Astros farm system, almost any selection would have looked better by comparison after heading to Houston, but Rodriguez really came up in the world, ranking as the organization’s 15th-best prospect immediately after being casually discarded by the pitching-rich Rays. He lost out to Nelson Figueroa in a spring battle for a rotation spot, but he won a place in the bullpen, where he should have the stuff to retire major-league hitters. After three consecutive stinkers to start the season, he’s one more awful outing away from earning the nickname “Aneurysm,” but the Astros will be patient before offering him back to a team that needs players with his promise far less than they do.
The Mets doubled up on Rule 5 picks at the start of this season. Brad Emaus’ combination of good plate discipline, decent pop, and passable defense helped him step in to fill a glaring hole at second base for the Mets this spring, and he’ll continue to occupy it unless a new challenger arises. A year after giving up starting as a lost cause and enjoying a more successful season in relief at Double-A, Pedro Beato finds himself in the majors at the expense of more established names like Jason Isringhausen and Manny Acosta. The 6’6” righty comes equipped with a proverbial live arm and an extensive repertoire of pitches, and while he’s unlikely to follow in the footsteps of fellow Rule 5 find Joakim Soria, the Mets could do worse with the last spot in their pen.
The Phillies’ Michael Martinez is Rodriguez without the bat. Like Rodriguez, Martinez has played six positions in the minors (in addition to pitching on two occasions), but he lacks Rodriguez' patience, his .325 average for Triple-A Syracuse last season was a small-sample fluke, and as one might expect from a player listed at 5’9”, 145, he doesn’t have much pop. The Phillies saw enough from him to cut Luis Castillo loose for the second time this spring, but at best they’ve minted the majors’ newest futility man.
The remaining Rule 5ers all fall into the “disposable right-handed reliever” category. The Nationals’ Brian Broderick had a superficially impressive exhibition season, but his 2.30 ERA in 15 2/3 innings looks less impressive when you consider his two unearned runs and six strikeouts. Broderick had a disastrous major-league debut, allowing twice as many runs (four) as he recorded outs (two). The Nationals’ other disposable righty, Elvin Ramirez, has been sidelined by a sore shoulder, which bought the Nats some time. They can’t hide him on the DL all season, though, since Rule 5 draftees must be active for at least 90 days to avoid defaulting to their previous teams.
R.J. Anderson wrote about Nathan Adcock last week: the big righty is a converted starter, but his stuff will have to play way up in the pen to survive the transition from High-A. The Rangers’ Mason Tobin falls into the same camp. Tobin missed the last two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April of 2009, and he’s never pitched above A-ball. That makes him a great story, but if he wanted a happy ending, the credits probably should’ve rolled when he found out that he’d won a job at the end of spring training. The same could be said for most of these Rule 5 remainders, but until the on-field evidence becomes impossible to ignore, their teams will keep hoping for the next Santana, knowing that the next Fabio Castro is a far more likely outcome.