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November 27, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Or December

by Bryan Smith

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Over the next few weeks, Major League Baseball organizations will go through every name available on the Rule 5 eligibility list. They will dig through old scouting reports to trace the history of each player, attempting to build a case for spending $50,000 on any they judge worthy. If history repeats itself, these teams will start with the most recent scouting reports, weighing winter league reports on a plane higher than the rest. At the onset of the Arizona Fall League, I created a list of players whose second seasons were particularly important in their future, my attempt at the league's best draft-eligible players. Of this list of ten players, seven were protected in October and November, with particularly notable (and 40-man roster spot-worthy) AFL seasons from Jack Egbert, Cory Wade, and Chris Dickerson.

Three, on the other hand, will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft on the last day of the Winter Meetings. Rockies third baseman Christian Colonel was unspectacular in the AFL, clubbing only one extra-base hit in ten games. Colonel has good power, and if teams believe he has enough versatility to help them off of the bench, he would be worth a pick due to his ability to club southpaws. Among prospective pitchers, I was surprised to see Sung Ki Jung left unprotected by the Braves after the right-hander struck out 15 batters in 11 1/3 innings. Jung's near his peak at age 28, so if his slider drew any notice in Arizona, expect him to be snapped up in Nashville. Lastly, Snakes southpaw Mark Rosen had a disastrous AFL stint, allowing 20 baserunners in eight innings. Rosen's return to his previous command problems is worrisome, but he induces a lot of grounders and has good velocity for a lefty. Teams confident in their pitching instruction and looking for a specialist should consider Rosen despite his AFL campaign.

However, Rosen is a special exception. In most circumstances, teams will weigh the Arizona Fall League heavily in their decisions to draft players. By my count, 25 hitters played in the Arizona Fall League that entered the league's season not on their parent organization's 40-man roster, and so were eligible for the 2007 Rule 5 Draft. Of those players, 11 were subsequently protected in October or November, leaving 14 draft-eligible. The list is rather thin, but we'll run through the highlights:

The Royals made a bold decision to leave Chris Lubanski, the fifth overall choice in the 2003 draft, exposed. Lubanski has had a topsy-turvy minor league career, looking horrible at times, but he's managed a .285/.350/.471 career line in 557 games. In 2007, Lubanski was solid in Double-A Wichita before a disastrous second half in Triple-A, where he hit just .208/.273/.363. The Royals are clearly stating that Lubanski is not ready for the major leagues, challenging teams to draft a raw talent the way the Mets did with Jesus Flores a year ago (losing Flores to the Nationals as a result). However, while teams will see Lubanski as a player that has crushed right-handed pitching for almost his entire minor league career, many will notice that he was far worse against right-handers than southpaws in both Omaha and Arizona, a disturbing trend that limits Lubanski's value.

Outside of Lubanski, I don't expect any Arizona Fall League hitters to be drafted; there is no Dan Uggla in this year's class. However, teams with everyday catchers could do worse for backups than Raul Padron and Chris Gimenez. Padron hit .320/.404/.460 in a short AFL trial, posting solid offensive numbers for the first time in his career. However, he does have some juice in his left-handed bat, and he threw out 40 percent of opposing baserunners in both the California League and AFL. Gimenez has a better offensive history, as he's patient and pretty powerful despite striking out too much. He's also a far worse defensive player than Padron, so a team would have to be pretty confident in the bat with just 30 games of experience above A-ball to draft him.

Thankfully, the pool of talent gets better from here. The AFL was littered with offensive prospects, but as a result, the group of Rule 5-eligible players was thin. However, the distribution is usually flipped with pitchers, as many teams are wary to send their top pitching prospects to the offense-friendly league. The result? A host of interesting pitchers left eligible to the draft that pitched solidly in the league.

The Royals continued to surprise in their 40-man roster decisions, leaving Dusty Hughes eligible to the Rule 5 draft in addition to Lubanski. Hughes was voted as the AFL Pitcher of the Year after an Arizona Fall League where he posted a 2.25 ERA in six starts. However, it was Hughes' health that was most important, as the southpaw proved that his Tommy John surgery was successful. Hughes is a fantastic option to bring in to compete for the back end of a rotation, relying on a 88-90 mph sinking fastball that induces groundballs at a good rate, as well as a very good change. If teams believe they can continue Hughes' development by working with him on his breaking ball, he's the type of player the Rule 5 draft was designed to expose.

Finally healthy in the Arizona Fall League, the Red Sox might make a mistake in thinking they can hide Lincoln Holdzkom. The big right-hander is in his third organization, and threw 70 innings for the first time in 2007 after a career riddled with injuries. When healthy, like he was in the AFL, Holdzkom is tough to hit, with a tough mid-90s fastball and a good slurve. He's certainly worth the $50,000 to bring into camp. Another popular reliever is White Sox reliever Fernando Hernandez, who pitched in 60 games at Double-A in 2007, striking out 84 batters in 85 1/3 innings. Hernandez doesn't have spectacular stuff, but he has substantial experience in simply retiring hitters, and has the endurance to pitch in middle relief. For an organization like the White Sox that struggled with their relievers in 2007, leaving Hernandez available to baseball's other 29 teams is a pretty silly mistake. Finally, I really like Rockies farmhand Jarrett Grube. Like Hernandez, he can pitch multiple innings and works consistently in the zone. Grube's high-80s fastball probably didn't impress scouts in Arizona, but his pitcher's body and command should stick out in a few scouting reports.

Elsewhere, the most disappointing piece of last offseason's Randy Johnson trade, right-hander Steven Jackson, was left off of the Yankees' 40-man roster. Jackson all but closed his own door on a future in starting pitching after a disastrous Triple-A stint, but he was much better in relief. Despite a 5.63 ERA in the AFL, teams should focus on his sharp stuff and groundball-inducing fastball. And while I harped on Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan in my previous AFL Rule 5 article, it was St. Louis' other AFL pitcher, Stu Pomeranz, that was left exposed. Pomeranz has a pitcher's body and allowed just one earned run in 14 innings in Mesa, but his injury-driven relative inexperience leaves him without the resume of other draft-eligible pitchers.

Finding available Rule 5 talent is an annual practice for scouts in the Arizona Fall League, but in 2007, there's no question the list of solid players in 2007 is smaller than usual. However, there's no reason why Lubanski, Hughes, Holdzkom, Hernandez, and Grube should not be chosen. In the weeks before the Rule 5 Draft, I'll look at other available players appearing in other winter leagues-Hawaii and the full spread in Latin America-in an Unfiltered post.

Bryan Smith is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bryan's other articles. You can contact Bryan by clicking here

Related Content:  Arizona,  Arizona Fall League,  Rule 5 Draft,  AFL

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