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January 5, 1998

The Rule V Draft

A look at this year's winners and losers

by Keith Law

The Rule V draft is essentially a legal lottery that baseball GMs play. They get to buy a ticket (i.e., a player) in each round, and each ticket has roughly a one in a million shot of turning out to be worth its cost (i.e., a lost spot on the 25-man roster for a year). While articles on the Rule V draft typically fawn over such successful draftees as George Bell, Bip Roberts, and Jon Nunnally, these successes are dwarfed by the hundreds of selections who haven't worked out, or the dozens who've spent a season rotting on a major-league bench, losing development time.

Yet the anachronism continues unabated. Teams continue to select marginal talents from the class-A teams of rival organizations, then express surprise when these players inevitably fail at the major-league level. Sure, there are valuable players waiting to be plucked from major-league farm systems; 1997 selection Emil Brown, now with the Pirates, was a solid prospect inexplicably left off the A's protected list. For the Pirates, a franchise in the midst of a rebuilding process that could afford to use its 25th roster slot on a prospect for a season, the move made sense. But why would teams like the Dodgers or Blue Jays, publicly avowing their intent to contend this year, bother with the Rule V draft in the first place?

Some teams have begun to use the Rule V draft as a means to acquire borderline major-leaguers to fill the end of their bench or the back of their bullpen. While there is some logic to this - plenty of worthy players rot in AAA for want of a vote of confidence from the major-league affiliate - this doesn't explain why valuable players like Bob Hamelin or Jeff Patzke aren't selected.

This year's Rule V draft featured a typically faceless bunch, mostly pitchers (11 of the 13 major-league picks) with low ceilings whose organizations had good reason to leave them off the 40-man roster.

The A's used the first pick on occasionally hard-throwing righty Javier Martinez, a former Cub farmhand. Martinez has had a solid showing in Puerto Rico this winter, although his K/BB ratio of 26/14 is unimpressive. The A's promptly sold him to Pittsburgh.

The Phillies used the second pick on Hector Mercado, a Marlin pitching prospect who blossomed this year in AA after five futile seasons in the Astro chain. Mercado fanned 125 in 129.2 innings in AA Portland (a decent hitter's park) while walking 54. Hazard signs: 129 hits allowed and 16 wild pitches. Mercado, immediately traded to the Mets for Mike Welch, will probably get cuffed around a bit in the majors, but he could hang on as a #2 lefty reliever.

The Cubs, fresh off their inane loss of 1997 rule V pick LHP Ramon Tatis in the expansion draft, used the third pick on Twins' LHP Alan Mahaffey. Mahaffey had a very good first half in his first fast-A exposure, and was more than adequate at AA, fanning 84 total in 71 innings at the two levels, with a mere 18 walks. It's not likely that he'll carry that success to the majors in 1998, but he could easily do what Tatis did if used carefully.

This is where it gets silly: The Blue Jays, who claim they're thinking playoffs for '98, selected a 21-year-old outfielder from the Midwest League named Luis Saturria from St. Louis. Saturria pulled a .274/.340/.413 in the Midwest League, which translates to a .235/.288/.334 in the majors. Perhaps Gord Ash has begun to practice Saturria, because it would take a lot of black magic to make this guy look like a prospect.

Among other notables: The Mariners took Jeff Huson - yes, that one - from the Rockies. Wasting a pick on Jeff Huson is insane enough; what's worse is that Huson just signed with Colorado as a free agent. I'm sure he's thrilled. The Pirates, looking to double their pleasure, used their pick on RH reliever Melvin Brazoban, who pitched only in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League last year. Yes, he pitched well, but a year sitting on the 3RS turf will not help his professional development. The Tigers took pitcher Sean Runyan from San Diego because he's big, left-handed, and because Randy Smith simply can't get enough ex-Padres. The Braves took RH reliever Brian Edmondson from the Mets. Edmondson had his best season as a professional in '97 when he switched to the pen full-time, and could be a decent 11th man on the Braves' staff. The Dodgers, who need pitching like Al Gore needs Valium, selected two pitchers: soft-tosser Frank Lankford from the Yanks, and Marc Deschenes, a minor-league closer from Cleveland's system who was virtually unhittable in two stops at the A-level last year.

The minor-league portions of the draft featured a few names to raise the eyebrows. Florida selected David Pyc from LA. Pyc isn't overpowering, but has excellent control, and pitched acceptably at San Antonio last year - one of the worst places in the known universe to pitch in. Pyc's selection is relevant because he could wind up in Florida's rotation this season, and could even surprise a few people by being at or slightly below league-average.

Other notables selected in the AAA and AA rounds: former Dodger pubescent-prospect Kym Ashworth, who lost the 1997 season to (surprise!) injury, selected by Detroit; Roosevelt Brown, the bounty Florida got for Terry Pendleton in '96, by the Cubs; and onetime Brave prospect (Ra)Chaad Stewart, whose promising career was derailed by injuries and control problems, probably from overuse in his last season in the Orioles' chain (1995, when he faces 635 batters at age 20), by Baltimore.
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