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This is hard. I knew when I signed up to continue this column that it would
be a chore to write a thousand words about the Royals every week, but I didn’t
think it would be this difficult. Trying to comprehend Shaggy’s lyrics is
easier. Even after taking a week off to recuperate from Thanksgiving, there’s
no pressing topic about which to write.

So at a time when news about contraction and Bud Selig’s latest open-faced
lie rule the day, I’m going to write about the draft. No, not the one in
which teams have a chance to draft Vladimir Guerrero–the one that
gives teams the opportunity to select the next Scott Chiasson.

The Rule 5 Draft is slated for December 13, and as usual the Royals have
left a couple of open slots on their 40-man roster, presumably in the hopes
that they might snag a hidden gem, you know, like Endy "Another
Year, Another Homer" Chavez
. But this year, the Royals need to be
less concerned about nabbing another team’s players and more concerned about
protecting their own.

The highly productive Royals’ drafts of the late 1990s are showing fruit.
Many of the prospects selected in those drafts are reaching maturity, and
need to be added to the 40-man roster. The Royals did a lot of this in
September, purchasing the contracts of Angel Berroa, Ken
Harvey
, Mike MacDougal, Brad Voyles, and Brandon
Berger
when each player was brought to the majors. It says a lot for the
team that their best prospect not eligible for the draft, catcher Mike
Tonis
, was not given a cup of coffee, keeping him safe from Rule 5
intrigue.

The Royals have shrewdly added Kyle Snyder to the roster. Snyder, the
seventh overall pick in 1999 (two picks ahead of Barry Zito), has
finally rounded back into form following Tommy John surgery. After an
impressive stint in Instructional League, he was sent to the Arizona Fall
League, where he wasn’t scored upon until the last of his five innings. For
a pitcher who had never retired a batter above rookie ball to hold his own
in the AFL is impressive, and an indication of the kind of stuff Snyder
threw prior to his injury, and what he may still be capable of throwing.
There is no sense in taking the risk that he might be drafted, and the
Royals very wisely are not.

There are still two players missing from the 40-man roster who could be
drafted by a savvy organization and easily spend the entire season at the
back end of a major-league bullpen. The first of these is Jeremy
Hill
, who a year ago was a 23-year-old catcher who had hit .234 and .197
the past two seasons. You know the drill… intrigued by his strong arm, the
Royals had Hill experiment on the mound, and after an instructional league
outing in which he showed a 97-mph fastball and a hammer curve, the position
change was permanent. Last season was his first on the mound, and working in
short relief, he struck out 66 batters in 48 innings, allowing just 22 hits,
before he was finally promoted from the Midwest League to the Carolina
League. He pitched just 12 innings in Wilmington, but managed to go 4-0 with
a 0.73 ERA.

Now, he’s three levels from the major leagues, and you might think that a
pitcher that far from the majors is safe from the Rule 5 Draft. You’d be
wrong, though. In December, 1994, a Mariner farmhand who struck out 70
batters in 48 innings in the Midwest League–credentials uncannily similar
to Hill’s–was selected by the Florida Marlins. That pitcher was Matt
Mantei
, who, if not a diamond in the rough, was at least a semi-precious
stone. After some polishing, the Marlins swapped him for a real diamond,
Brad Penny.

Not every low-A-to-the-majors jump works out as well as Mantei’s did,
certainly, and Hill may yet be safe. The Royals’ decision to leave Corey
Thurman
off the 40-man roster, though, is much more dangerous, and
nearly inexplicable. He was already one of the Royals’ ten best starting
pitcher prospects a year ago… and then he went out and had his best season
yet, going 13-5 with a 3.37 ERA for Wichita, with 148 strikeouts against
just 117 hits allowed in 155 innings. I don’t understand the thinking here:
you draft a projectable 17-year-old kid out of high school, you work with
him for five years to make him a major-league prospect, and now that he’s
nearly ready, you’re going to let any organization with a roster spot and a
few neurons sweep in and reap the windfall for all your hard work?

The downside to any Rule 5 player is risk: the risk that the player won’t be
able to contribute in any role, forcing the team to play with a 24-man
roster, or the risk that the year of inactivity will hurt the player’s
development. But there is no risk with Thurman: he’s practically ready for a
bullpen shot on merit, and having already proven himself as a minor-league
starter, a year of throwing 60 garbage innings for a major-league team might
help, not hinder, his development.

I think Thurman is as good as gone. What do teams look for in Rule 5 picks?
One of two things: players with huge upsides, usually tools goofs in A ball
or any pitcher capable of registering 95 on a radar gun, or players capable
of contributing immediately in a minor role, like a quality fourth
outfielder or a situational left-hander. Thurman is both: he is polished
enough to make a contribution immediately, and having just turned 23 last
month, he’s young enough to grow into a much larger role. A package that
enticing is a rare find in the Rule 5 Draft.

Meanwhile, the Royals are holding on to such luminaries as Scott
Mullen
and Donnie Sadler.

It’s already too late to erase the mistakes of the past (the deadline for
cutting players off the 40-man roster has passed), but it’s not too late to
prevent a mistake on December 13. The Royals need to add Thurman to their
roster while they still have time. They have to stop thinking about the
talent they can add in the Rule 5 Draft, and worry instead about the talent
they can’t afford to lose.

Rany Jazayerli is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.