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December 5, 2007

Wait 'Til Next Year

Practically Free Pitchers

by Bryan Smith

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More than any other opportunity, the Rule 5 Draft is a chance for executives to combine their evaluation and analytical skills to steal diamonds in the rough from each other. In 2006, 19 players were taken in a draft that some were predicting would only feature a few pick-worthy players. Remarkably, seven stuck with their new organization for the entire season, compared to just three in 2005. Josh Hamilton, Joakim Soria, Kevin Cameron, and Jared Burton were all significant bargains, despite rule changes that made the available player list substantially shorter. Forty-man rosters are simply not large enough to hold all the good players in baseball, and like every season, 2007 offers a bevy of role players that can contribute to a big-league team starting in April.

There is no question that this season's draft promises to be heavy on pitching. Brian Barton and Chris Lubanski have gotten most of the draft's publicity--and deservedly so--but they are two in a list of few impressive hitters. I previously surmised in June that Barton could help at the Major League level, as his patience and ability to hit southpaws make him an ideal bench player. Lubanski has more tools of the two, with far more power potential, and he hits from the left side. Lubanski is a good fit for non-contenders that could develop him properly; Barton makes more sense for teams merely looking for a bench player at league minimum.

However, beyond the big two outfielders, the hitting available in the Rule 5 draft is wretched. I mentioned a pair of catchers last week, Raul Padron and Chris Gimenez, but both have pretty unconvincing resumes. In fact, the best player available beyond Barton and Lubanski might be Mark Johnson, one of the winter's top minor league free agents, recently signed by the St. Louis Cardinals. In just 80 Triple-A games last season, Johnson hit .320/.440/.410, which Clay Davenport's "regular" Major League translation had him hitting .277/.395/.357. However, dipping into the players who were even cheaper two weeks ago is an indication of just how shallow the hitting is. Diory Hernandez isn't advanced enough to handle the major leagues, while Christian Colonel and Garrett Guzman would likely wilt against more advanced pitching.

So while Barton and Lubanski could conceivably lead off the draft as the two most tempting position players, I would not be shocked to see every other name called in the Draft to be a pitcher's. This makes sense, as there's nothing more fungible than the last two spots--and in some cases, even the first two spots--in an organization's bullpen. When looking for a pitcher, a team generally has two directions they can take: pitchers with good stuff but who lack command, or "smarter" pitchers who have fringe major league stuff. Divided into those two groups below, here are a dozen pitchers who are worth the $50,000 risk.

In Need of Pitching Coaches

The pitcher with the highest upside eligible for the Rule 5 Draft is Colorado's Shane Lindsay, who has seven starts at Low-A in 2006 and a Hawaiian Winter League stint this fall as his most advanced professional experiences. However, this is also a pitcher who has struck out 13.7 batters per nine innings in 150 2/3 minor league innings. Lindsay has also allowed just four home runs with his mid-90s fastball which--paired with a nasty knuckle-curve--could make him ready to pitch in a big-league bullpen today.

Here's one way to look for good Rule 5-eligible players: look for pitchers who started their professional careers as hitters. In 2001, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed an 18-year-old Venezuelan infielder named Jose Rojas, who had a good arm at shortstop but little else. For three seasons, he struggled in the Venezuelan Summer League, hitting .167/.285/.201 in 117 games. He was promptly released, but his time in Venezuela did not go unnoticed--the Cincinnati Reds signed him two months later... as a pitcher. The Reds have babied him--he wasn't promoted to High-A despite allowing just five earned runs in 25 games at Dayton in 2006--but his arm is ready. Including a current good stint in the Venezuelan Winter League, Rojas has struck out 111 batters in 84 1/3 innings on the season. Walks are a problem, but a team should take a look in spring training, as his fastball has reached as high as 97 mph in the past.

A swingman as a junior at Arizona State, the Red Sox drafted Beau Vaughan one round before Jon Papelbon in 2003 with the same intention: to turn a college reliever into a minor league starter. However, arm problems don't leave Vaughan with enough endurance for the rotation, and his vulnerability to left-handed hitters is better hidden in relief. However, with a 90-93 mph fastball and a spike curve, Vaughan is as good as anyone available in the Rule 5 against right-handed hitters: he held them to .197/.287/.205 in the Eastern League last season.

Vaughan's teammate for much of the season at Portland, Lincoln Holdzkom, is another pitcher with a big one-two punch and big walk rates. He didn't work in Astros spring training as a Rule 5 pick a year ago, but can you blame him? He had only pitched in 58 1/3 minor league innings between 2004-2006. With 63 innings under his belt last season, Holdzkom should be better prepared this time around. At Baseball America, Chris Kline mentioned Jose De La Cruz, a Mariners right-hander with a power sinker and a 6-6 pitcher's body. De La Cruz is a more advanced version of a player touted in this space last week, Stu Pomeranz. Both are worthy of being snagged on Thursday, but admittedly, Pomeranz should be a back-up plan for teams hot after De La Cruz. Finally, I want to re-stress my assertion that Diamondbacks southpaw Mark Rosen would be a good choice despite his Arizona Fall League performance. Lefties who throw 94 mph sinkers should have $50,000 worth of value.

Where Results > Radar Guns

If there is one near-certainty for the 2007 Rule 5 Draft, it is that Fernando Hernandez is going to be drafted. After the draft, then, Kenny Williams should be forced to answer why the Sox believed Cole Armstrong or Lucas Harrell were more likely to be taken in the draft. I don't want to beat a dead horse, but let's reiterate what I touched on last week: good command, good endurance, good change, and a current 20 1/3 inning scoreless streak. While Hernandez should go near the top of the draft tomorrow, we also touched on Jarrett Grube a week ago, a pitcher similar to Hernandez, albeit without the Arizona Fall League helium.

Dusty Hughes is my favorite pitcher available, coming off a dominant fall, and a perfect fit for teams with spacious outfields. While susceptible to being blown over by the wind with his tiny frame, Hughes has a very good changeup and good command. If he goes early--Jim Bowden, be that guy!--then organizations should next turn to Sean Thompson. The Padres prospect was inexplicably waived from the team this season, then claimed by the Rockies. Thompson has some very good minor league numbers, and stuff that allows him to pitch backwards with success. His command has some brutal days, but he could work fine in a bullpen as teams work on command consistency.

And, as always, the Rule 5 Draft has its side-armers. From the left side, the premier LOOGY this season looks to be Geoff Jones, a 28-year-old southpaw in the Cubs organization. Jones is huge at 6-5, making for a mound presence that intimidates, even if his stuff doesn't. Jones rarely allowed a flyball in 2007, striking out 10.6 batters per nine innings coupled with a 2.8 groundball-to-flyball ratio. In Double-A last season, Jones held left-handed hitters to a .132/.267/.158 batting line. Even if he isn't drafted, Jones should be in the majors in April, as Will Ohman's replacement in the Cubs bullpen.

Finally, we have Jesse Ingram, who may be wrongfully ignored after coming off a poor season. Ingram remained dominant at times in Double-A with 70 strikeouts and just 43 hits allowed in 62 innings, but 10 home runs allowed didn't help an ERA that bloated to 4.21. Still, that number shouldn't deter teams from picking Ingram, as he has a long history of good strikeout and hit ratios in the minors. With a low-90s fastball and a good slider, Ingram has good enough stuff to work in the majors as well.

There are probably another eight to 15 pitchers that are worthy of being drafted Thursday. The point is that players like Jared Burton and Kevin Cameron are littered across the minor leagues; teams just need to find the players and then show the guts to trust them more than spending a lot more than $50,000 and the major league minimum on the iffy relievers asking for multi-year deals on the free agent market.

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

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