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December 9, 2004

Rule 5 Draft

Top 25 Eligible Players

by Dayn Perry

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Baseball's annual Rule 5 draft is upon us (if you don't know what the Rule 5 draft is, here's Alan Schwarz's nifty explanation of it). It'll go down during the upcoming annual winter meetings, which begin this weekend in Anaheim.

This year's crop of Rule-5 eligibles is probably the strongest since I've been following it closely. There's usually a handful of promising relievers and raw arms to be sorted out, but this year there seems to be a little of everything. That'll make for an engaging round of selections. As you may know, if a team makes a Rule-5 selection, that player must remain on the active major league roster for the entire season, barring injury or front office-prompted malingering.

In past seasons, teams have scored talents like Roberto Clemente, George Bell and Johan Santana, so it's certainly worth their while to vet the talent pool as closely as they can.

Anyhow, I've done a little vetting of my own, and here's my top 25 Rule-5 eligibles for 2005:

1. Andy Sisco, LHP, Cubs, Age: 22
In the upcoming Rule 5 draft, the Cubs of '04 stand to be the Pirates of '03. That's to say, some degree of organizational disembowelment is likely in the offing. In particular, the Cubs stand to lose a great deal of pitching depth. Instead of protecting Sisco, Jon Connolly, Luke Hagerty, Ricky Nolasco, Jae-Kuk Ryu and Carmen Pignatiello, the Cubs instead opted to pepper their 40-man roster with people like Geovany Soto, Russ Rohlicek, John Koronka and Ronny Cedeno.

In any event, Sisco may be the prize of the draft. Not so long ago, he was hailed as the best lefty prospect in the low minors. His stock seems to have dropped a bit after his work in the FSL this past season, but that's mostly a result of his 4-10 record and 4.21 ERA. He's prone to control problems, but that's hardly unusual for a hard-throwing young port-sider. For his career, he's fanned 365 batters in 331 innings, and, after he irons out his curveball, he'll have a starter's repertoire suitable for the highest level. It's hard to fathom what the Cubs were thinking on Sisco.

2. Jason Cooper, OF, Indians, Age: 24
Cooper, a third-round choice out of Stanford in 2003, has definite power potential. His numbers took a dive this past season at Akron and Buffalo, but he'd posted SLGs of .564, .528 and .553 at three different stops in the low minors. He's also developed strong plate discipline along the way. Before his struggles in 2004, scouts were projecting he'd have 30-homer power in the bigs. There's no explaining away his poor numbers this year, but we have many examples of players who endured one bad season in the minors and went on to have good careers. If not for the Tribe's quasi-embarrassment of riches in the outfield, he'd have certainly been cosseted away on the major league roster. Cooper will be an excellent pick for someone.

3. Tyler Johnson, LHP, Cardinals, Age: 23
Again, why have Mike Mahoney or an undistinguished reliever like Mike Lincoln on the 40-man if Johnson and John Nelson (#6 below) are to be left imperiled? A lefty reliever, Johnson's out pitch is a filthy 12-6 curve that he sets up with a low-90s fastball. He needs to cut down on the walks, but he's rung up 402 strikeouts in 338 career innings. Potentially, he could be a force in a major league bullpen right now. As you'll see below, this year's Rule 5 is potentially a growth market for lefty relievers.

4. Mike Napoli, 1B/C, Angels, Age: 23
Here's a breakout guy. In previous seasons there wasn't much production to speak of, but in 2004 things changed drastically for Napoli. With High-A Rancho Cucamonga, he hit .282/.393/.539, drew 83 unintentional walks in 583 plate appearances and whacked 62 extra-base hits. He's not a great defender, he strikes out a ton, and there's always a possibility that his work this past season was anomalous; however, if it's for real, he's a find. If he winds up in an organization willing to countenance some defensive pratfalls at catcher, he's even better. Could be this year's Chris Shelton.

5. Jake Gautreau, 3B, Padres, Age: 25
A former first-round choice out of Tulane, Gautreau's career has been derailed by a crippling battle with ulcerative colitis. Last season, however, he showed flashes of his substantial potential. He split the season between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Portland; Gautreau hit .259/.351/.462 at the former and .274/.333/.500 after his promotion. Those are reasonably strong numbers considering his health history and the fact that he was in the high minors for the entire season. It's also worth noting that he's capable of playing second. "Goat" could be a heck of a utility player at the highest level and perhaps be a productive regular.

6. John Nelson, SS, Cardinals, Age: 26
If your farm system were in Cardinal-like tatters, would you cut bait on a shortstop who, in his second taste of the high minors hit .301/.396/.524 with a strong walk rate and .200-plus ISO? At age 26, Nelson isn't a future star, and Tennessee is a notable hitter's park. Still, there's a chance his 2004 progress is genuine. At the very least, you don't expose him for the sake of keeping Mahoney on the 40-man. Nelson could make someone a very useful utility man right now.

7. Sergio Lizarraga, RHP, Diamondbacks, Age: 23
Lizarraga has command of three pitches and has added speed to his fastball over the last couple of seasons. His ERA this past season at Double-A El Paso was 5.04, but that's a hitter's park, and his peripherals were stronger. Those numbers also came after skipping over the Cal League entirely. He had a 3.21 K/BB ratio in the low minors, and he's capable of providing credible mop-up innings at the highest level. Long-term, he has potential as a major league starter.

8. Shawn Kohn, RHP, A's, Age: 25
Kohn was a Moneyball draftee and, at the University of Washington, was used almost exclusively as a starter during his junior season. The A's, however, made him a reliever. Last season, he split time between High-A Modesto and Triple-A Sacramento and recorded a ridiculous 9.55 K/BB ratio. His numbers the previous season were also impressive. Kohn showed a weakness for the home run in the PCL, but he's ready to help out a major league pen.

9. Brad Knox, RHP, A's, Age: 22
His repertoire underwhelms some scouts, and he hasn't pitched above the Midwest League. But still, a 5.47 career K/BB ratio? He doesn't project as much more than a solid back-of-the-rotation guy, but that's nevertheless a commodity.

10. Nick Gorneault, OF, Angels, Age: 25
He's old for a prospect, but he boasts a career .302 AVG and a career .504 SLG, and he can play all three outfield positions. On the downside, his walk rates aren't particularly strong, and he's spent most of his career in hitter's environments. He's already proved himself at Triple-A, so he's ready now to be someone's fifth outfielder. Gorneault, with his power and reasonable defensive abilities, could be a very useful reserve for the next four or five seasons.

11. Luke Hagerty, LHP, Cubs, Age: 24
Another former first-rounder, Hagerty underwent Tommy John surgery in 2003 and missed much of last season while convalescing. He was able to log only 22.2 innings in 2004, so it's possible the team that drafts him can stash him away on the 60-day DL for the opening months of the season. He blew away the Northwest League after being drafted. Hagerty, when healthy, boasts a nasty mid-90s heater with good life and a plus slider.

12. Warner Madrigal, OF, Angels, Age: 21
Another project. Erstwhile Angels scouting director Donny Rowland, for all his faults, did have an eye for projectable talent. In 2001, Rowland signed Madrigal out of the Dominican because of his power potential. He's not selective and is especially prone to breaking stuff, but he's raw. In '03, he cut a wide swath through the hitter-friendly Pioneer League, but his numbers dropped precipitously this past season in the Midwest League. He has a terrific arm in right, and, given time and patient treatment, he could turn into a Jose Guillen proxy. The lost year of development will hurt him, though.

13. Brandon Sing, 1B, Cubs, Age: 24
Sing is 24 and hasn't toiled above the FSL. Still, there's notable power here. He came up a dinger shy of setting the FSL record last season in what was the toughest circuit in the minors for hitters. Granted, these numbers were out of step with the rest of his career, but it's hard to ignore a .301 ISO in the FSL and 75 unintentional walks in 504 plate appearances. The Cubs would've protected him if not for the presence of first baseman Brian Dopirak, who's easily the better prospect. Sing will be miscast on a major league roster, but he merits a flyer for a team who can afford to stow him away.

14. Tony Blanco, 1B/OF, Reds, Age: 23
It seems as though Blanco has been a prospect for the better part of a decade, but in reality he's only 23. Scouts have always loved his quick bat and tremendous raw power; on occasion he's wielded them. For instance, this past season in the Carolina League, he slugged a robust .588 in half a season. He struggled somewhat after a promotion to Double-A Chattanooga, but he still recorded an ISO of better than .200. Because of an organizational bottleneck, his days as a third baseman are probably over, but he has the arm to play right. The power potential is undeniable.

15. Ricky Nolasco, RHP, Cubs, Age: 22
Puzzling Cubs roster decision? Ibid. Nolasco didn't fare well after a late-season bump up to the International League, but that's his only misstep thus far. Despite an aggressive promotion schedule (straight from short-season to High-A), Nolasco boasts a career K/BB ratio of 3.01. He's shown a weakness for the homer in the high minors, but he projects to have three major league-average or better pitches. Nolasco merits a selection.

16. Anthony Webster, OF, Rangers, Age: 21
Webter's a project who hasn't played above the Cal League, but he has decent on-base skills, excellent speed and a good glove in center. He needs to work on driving the ball more, but, at age 21, there's still time to cultivate some power. He'll be overmatched in the majors in 2005 and perhaps wind up as nothing more than Shane Victorino v2.0, but he's not a bad crapshoot for a team with no designs on contention.

17. Colt Griffin, RHP, Royals, Age: 22
The ninth overall pick of the 2001 draft has been an unmitigated disaster, an object lesson and a cautionary tale all wrapped up in one convenient package. So much so that I suspect on some level I'm putting him on this list merely for the sake of being pseudo-novel. Here's what we know: he can still dial it up in the high 90s with regularity, and he has no business ever returning to a starting role. After being promoted (mostly for the hell of it) to the Texas League, he was converted to relief and made notable strides. He still needs a ton of work, but an organization committed to making him a reliever and with a highly capable roving pitching instructor needs to take a whack at him. Worth noting: For his career, he's tallied 235 strikeouts and 235 walks in 315 innings.

18. Jon Connolly, LHP, Cubs, Age: 21
While in the Tigers' organization in 2003, Connolly led the minor leagues in ERA. After coming Cubs-ward, he posted a 4.21 ERA at High-A Daytona and had six strong innings after a late-season promotion to the Southern League. His fastball is usually in the mid-80s, and his curve doesn't profile as a plus offering. Still, he has exceptional control and location, and he's certainly done the job thus far.

19. Bobby Livingston, LHP, Mariners, Age: 22
Good numbers at Inland Empire of the Cal League (186.2 innings, 141 K, 30 BB, 4.34 R/G). Livingston's velocity has dropped since being drafted, but he already has a plus change and his breaking stuff is coming along. The sink on his fastball allows him to get by with only throwing in the mid-80s, but it remains to be seen whether that'll hold up.

20. Marshall McDougall, 3B, Rangers, Age: 26
McDougall has logged some solid power numbers in the high minors, and is capable of at least getting by at every infield position. This past season he hit .282/.349/.508 at Oklahoma, which is one of the toughest hitting environments in the PCL. He'll provide pop and defensive flexibility to someone.

21. Blake McGinley, LHP, Mets, Age: 25
Another promising lefty reliever. McGinley earned plaudits after he obliterated the FSL in 2003, and last year he took his act to the high minors. In 99.1 innings between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A Norfolk, McGinley struck out 111, walked 22 and gave up 10 homers. He gets by with an average repertoire, but get by he does.

22. Sendy Rleal, RHP, Orioles, Age: 24
Since graduating from the Sally League following the 2002 season, Rleal has struck out more than a batter per inning and has maintained a 3.4 K/BB ratio. Average stuff, but he had an especially strong year in 2004 at Double-A Bowie.

23. Royce Ring, LHP, Mets, Age: 24
A former first-round pick of the White Sox, Ring was dealt to the Mets as part of the Roberto Alomar trade. His fastball is average, but his slider is particularly tough on lefties. For a while, he's been projected as a future closer, but his skill set lends itself more to specialist deployment. His command has been spotty at times in the high minors. Ring has name value, but there are better arms available.

24. Corey Myers, 3B/C, Diamondbacks, Age: 24
Some power potential, and "third catcher" chops. He hit .289/.369/.483 at Triple-A Tucson, but, of course, that's one of the most hitter-philic parks in all the minors. If an organization's looking for someone to don the tools of ignorance on occasion, Napoli and Suomi are both better choices.

25. Tripper Johnson, 3B, Orioles, Age: 22
Johnson hadn't shown much offensive potential prior to this season, but his .269/.343/.454 line in the Carolina League is reasonably impressive. He draws a few walks and tallied 42 extra-base hits last season. Johnson isn't a future star by any means, but if he learns to drive the ball with more consistency he could be a contributor.

Also worth mentioning: Brian Barden, 3B, Diamondbacks; Brent Colamarino, DH, A's; Javier Guzman, SS, Pirates; Davis Romero, LHP, Blue Jays; Brian Stavisky, OF, A's; John Suomi, C, A's

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