Before I get started, please allow me a moment to give my full professional endorsement to this TV show. Moving along…

Baseball’s Rule 5 draft, in many ways, is confined to the rural route of the annual winter meetings, so it doesn’t get as much bandwidth/column inches as it should. But as many teams are learning or already know that the Rule 5 is a nifty way to add a high-ceiling prospect to the system.

The catch, as you know, is that any team selecting a player in Rule 5 must keep the lucky draftee on the active major league roster for the entire season or until he can fake an injury substantial enough to eventually land him on the 60-day DL. Just last year, we saw teams choose a handful of vaguely useful to flat-out good relievers (e.g., Aquilino Lopez of the Blue Jays and Javier Lopez of the Rockies). And reaching back into the antediluvian mists of prehistory, luminary Roberto Clemente first made his way to the Pirates via Rule 5. This winter’s crop is the least impressive since I’ve been closely following this draft, but there were still some engaging names on the board.

So, in my stateliest Lance Ito fashion, I shall now pass judgment on the 2003 class of Rule 5 draftees. All rise…

First Round

  1. Detroit TigersChris Shelton, C/1B, Pirates, Age: 23

    Shelton was the best position prospect available. He’s logged only 132 sub-optimal plate appearances above the Carolina League, but in the low minors he was highly, highly impressive. He shows patience at the plate, hits for excellent power and has a career .332 AVG, all in pretty much league-average hitting environments. At Lynchburg, for example, he put up a wholly indecent batting line of .359/.478/.641 this past season. There’s some question as to whether he’ll be able to stick at catcher; the Pirates this year had him slated for work at third and in left. He’ll be on the Detroit roster as a third catcher and pinch hitter. Given his limited experience in the high minors, he’ll likely struggle at the highest level. For the future, however, he’s an excellent pick by an organization that has nothing but patience to offer him. It’s a stunner that the Pirates didn’t find a place for him on the 40-man.

  2. San Diego PadresRich Thompson, OF, Pirates, Age: 24

    Thompson can play all three outfield positions and is wicked fast. Additionally… he can play all three outfield positions and is wicked fast. He’s a scouting fave, but there’s just not much else to recommend him. His walk rates have been mediocre ever since he left short-season ball, and his career SLG is a paltry .344. Thompson did hit .313 in the Eastern League earlier this year, but he’s tanked in three separate cracks at Triple-A. Think Shane Victorino plus four years. Not a sage use of a high draft spot. Traded to the Royals for RHP Jason Szuminski (see below) and cash.

  3. Tampa Bay Devil RaysAlec Zumwalt, RHP, Braves, Age: 22

    Zumwalt is a converted outfielder that made some noise in stops in the Carolina and Southern Leagues last year. 2002 was his first taste of professional pitching, and, unsurprisingly, he suffered some fits and starts. But 2003 yielded better results. Still, caveats abound. First, for a prospect, there’s nothing so contraindicative of future utility as the fact that the D-Rays liked him enough to choose him. Perhaps that’s not fair. What is fair is that his command at Double-A Greenville was lacking, and his performance at Myrtle Beach wasn’t so impressive once you consider he was getting his second look at the circuit and Myrtle Beach is arguably the best pitcher’s park in the pros. To his credit, however, he does strike guys out at a nice clip and keep the ball in the park, and he’s only been pitching professionally for two seasons. He can throw three pitches, but he’ll likely remain in the bullpen for the rest of his career. A reasonable flyer, but the odds are long that he’ll be difference-maker in the bigs.

  4. New York MetsFrank Brooks, LHP, Pirates, Age: 25

    Brooks has decent velocity for a lefty and has command of two pitches. Through the first four seasons of his career, he suffered problems with his control, but he righted himself this past season during his second tour of duty in the Eastern League, where he posted a sparkling 5.5 K/BB ratio. Since it was his second time through the circuit, some skepticism is warranted. Ditto for the fact that his previous record of performance is less than impressive. Still, his breaking stuff is particularly tough on same-side hitters, and he should make at least a serviceable LOOGY in the majors. Traded to Oakland, so he may have some trouble sticking now that the A’s have a veritable Panzer division of left-handed relievers.

  5. Milwaukee BrewersJeff Bennett, RHP, Pirates, Age: 23

    Bennett turned heads this year after he added velocity to his fastball, but recent shoulder troubles and a mixed record of performance call his future into question. In seasons past, Bennett’s calling card was his control. However, in 2003, perhaps aided by the newly found giddy-up, he struck out more than a batter per inning at Double-A Altoona; however, he sacrificed a bit of his control in the process. He was notably less impressive after a promotion to Triple-A. He’s not a strong bet to stick for the entire season in Milwaukee.

  6. Baltimore OriolesJose Bautista, 3B, Pirates, Age: 23

    You’re reading that correctly: five of the first six picks were Pirates. That’s a notable blow to the system. Anyhow, Bautista, according to scouts, has perhaps the highest ceiling of any player taken in this year’s Rule 5 cattle call. He’s a career .287 hitter with good gap power skills and strong plate patience. On the downside, he missed most of the past season after breaking his hand (the result of landing a vicious haymaker to some wiseacre garbage can that no doubt had it coming). He’s never played above High-A, and with the Orioles suddenly in contending mode Bautista may wind back in the Pirates’ organization before the season ends.

  7. Cincinnati RedsDavid Mattox, RHP, Mets, Age: 23

    The Reds are already talking about plugging Mattox into their 2004 rotation, but if there’s a fool’s gold pick among the top ten it may be David Mattox. I say this for a couple of reasons. One, he’s yet to have a particularly strong season, in terms of command, since his 2001 stint in the rookie-level Appalachian League. And, two, although this past season he did post a comely 2.82 ERA at (reasonably pitcher-friendly) St. Lucie, he did so in spite of a weak 1.4 K/BB ratio. To put a finer point on it, I just don’t see the peripheral strengths to justify the hype. He does throw four pitches, and he’s already got command of his change. That means he could survive, but the numbers that might otherwise portend of success just aren’t there. Those ERAs are nice, but the Reds should’ve looked deeper.

  8. Texas RangersChris Mabeus, RHP, A’s, Age: 24

    And so continues the tradition of the A’s and the Grady Fuson-controlled haunts of Arlington swapping B-list prospects back and forth. This time, it’s Mabeus, who’s split time as a reliever and starter for much of his professional career. Like Bennett above, Mabeus added velocity to his fastball; unlike Bennett, Mabeus’ extra oomph came in tandem with improved command. Despite pitching in hitter-friendly Modesto and El Paso, Mabeus combined numbers were 70 strike outs, 13 unintentional walks and only two homers in 62 innings. Nice. He was repeating the Cal League for part of the season, but the bulk of his work in 2003 came at Double-A El Paso. He’s a strong bet to succeed in the Rangers pen, and he’s one of the better pitching selections in the entire draft.

  9. Colorado RockiesMatt White, LHP, Indians, Age: 26

    For the second consecutive year, White (no, not that Matt White) was selected in the first round of the Rule 5 draft. Last year, the Red Sox returned him to Cleveland after he battled minor injuries and command problems at the highest level. This year, he’ll test his mettle on Planet Coors. In spite of his popularity in Rule 5 circles, he’s not overly impressive. He’s old for a prospect, somewhat homer prone despite pitching most of his career in, broadly speaking, pitcher’s circuits and has exceeded a 2.5 K/BB ratio in exactly one stop of his six-year career (and that was in the Carolina League). Then again, scouts like his breaking stuff, and he can get lefties out. So maybe he’ll pass muster as a strict LOOGY, but don’t expect anything more than that.

  10. Kansas City RoyalsJason Szuminski, RHP, Cubs, Age: 25

    Szuminski’s fastball is a tick above average, but it’s his extreme groundball tendencies that garner him attention. Accordingly, he’s very stingy with the homers (only one allowed all of last season). Szuminski isn’t a dominator (5.8 K/9 for his career), but with a solid infield defense behind him, he could thrive. West Tennessee did play as a fairly extreme pitcher’s park last year, so his performance must be discounted to a degree. Still, in spite of middling command, he can do well if he keeps balls on the ground as he has in the past. Traded to San Diego for Rich Thompson.

  11. Montreal ExposAndy Fox, INF, Rangers, Age: 32

    When the Expos made this selection, they’d already traded Javier Vazquez and declined to offer salary arbitration to Vlad Guerrero, the greatest player in the history of the franchise. This leads one to ask: since contention is obviously not a realistic aim, why not spend your Rule 5 selection on a player with at least a scintilla of future worth? On the contrary, the Expos chose Fox, an undistinguished utility infielder with more than 3,000 at bats at the major league level. Fox does have some on-base skills and positional flexibility, but so what? There were scores of better selections available when the Expos opted for the 32-year-old Fox.

  12. Toronto Blue JaysTalley Haines, RHP, Devil Rays, Age: 27

    Haines is a split-finger artist who just might thrive as a reliever at the highest level. He’s spent the last two seasons at Triple-A Durham and was quite impressive this last season. He struck out 64 in 67.2 innings of work and posted an outstanding 6.4 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio. What’s more impressive is that Durham, out of step with previous years, played as an extreme hitter’s park in 2003. Barring injury, Haines should stick and be a productive member of the Toronto bullpen for the next few years.

  13. Chicago White SoxJason Grilli, RHP, Marlins, Age: 27

    Grilli, you’ll recall, came Marlins-ward from the Giants as part of the Livan Hernandez trade in 1999. He reached the majors in 2000, but injuries hindered him in 2001 and 2002. This past season at High-A Jupiter, he showed outstanding command for the first time in his entire career, but, of course, that was as a 26-year-old in the Florida State League. His strikeout rate plummeted after being promoted to the PCL, but, then again, Albuquerque was an outrageous hitter’s park in 2003. Over the years, he’s done an excellent job of keeping the ball in the park, but the command and dominance have never really been there. Throw in the history of injuries, and it’s not likely the White Sox are onto anything special. Perhaps he’d see a performance boost as a reliever.

  14. St. Louis CardinalsHector Luna, SS, Cardinals, Age: 23

    Considering that the Cardinals, in putative contention mode in 2004 had the second-worst bullpen in the majors last season, you’d think they would seek to bolster the relief corps by taking any of the promising arms still on the board at this point. Instead, they went with a toolsy Rule 5 retread (drafted by the D-Rays last season) who’s probably at best a poor man’s Marv Breeding. Luna can steal a base, play every infield position and draw a walk every now and then, but his complete lack of power raises doubts that he’ll ever be able to get around on pitches at the highest level. He hit .297 with a .368 OBP at Double-A Akron (a notable hitter’s environment in 2003) this past season, but his Isolated SLG of .062 demonstrates his excruciatingly limited power potential. There were lots of better ways to fritter away this pick.

  15. Boston Red SoxLenny Dinardo, LHP, Mets, Age: 24

    Dinardo has a below average fastball and, according to some scouts, may be too reliant on his cutter. But the numbers are there. His performance in the Sally League in 2002 wasn’t terribly impressive from a command standpoint, but this past season he delivered an LAPD-style beating to the FSL. In 85 innings for St. Lucie, he struck out 93, walked only 14, gave up a single homer and only 64 hits and posted a 2.01 ERA. He continued pitching well, albeit not as devastatingly so, after a promotion to Double-A Binghamton. Except for some control problems at Low-A Columbia, Dinardo has been strong at every stop. Although he’s worked primarily as a starter in the minors, the Red Sox will obviously use him as the sixth or seventh arm out of the pen, depending upon their roster construction. Normally, he’d be a good bet to stick, but with the Red Sox in full-bore contention mode, his leash will be mighty short.

  16. Houston AstrosWilly Taveras, OF, Indians, Age: 21

    Like Rich Thompson, Taveras is an athletic burner who can capably play every outfield position. He’s a highly effective base-stealer (202 career steals, 79.5% success rate) and a .286 career hitter. He’s also posted decent walk rates at almost every stop (including a nice spike in his walk rate this past season in the Carolina League). What he hasn’t done is hit for power. There’s a chance that could develop as his body fills out, but even if he sticks, the lost year of development (he won’t be much more than a pinch runner and defensive sub for the Astros) will hurt him. Still, given his young age and similar skills profile, he’s a much better gamble than Thompson.

Second Round

  1. Detroit TigersMike Bumatay, LHP, Rockies, Age: 24

    Bumatay, a Rockies’ Rule 5 selection in last year’s minor league portion of the draft, has been a dominator the last two seasons. In 2002 and 2003, he spent time in the Carolina, California and Texas Leagues. Over that same span, he’s fanned 164 batters in 131 innings. That’s impressive. His control has been a bit of a problem, but he’s done a fair job of keeping the ball in the yard. He has an average major league fastball, but his curve is nasty on left-handers. That’s why he’ll likely stick as a lefty specialist in Detroit this season. But his impressive strikeout rates may augur of a deeper role down the road. In any event, a nice high-upside selection by the Tigers.

  2. Colorado RockiesLuis Gonzalez, INF/OF, Indians, Age: 24

    Gonzalez, a utility player, put up a reasonably impressive batting line of .319/.385/.436 last season at Double-A Akron. However, it was his the third straight year that he’d spent the majority of the season in the Eastern League. In the past, he’s shown modest on-base skills and occasional doubles power, but that’s about it. In truth he was drafted based on a season that was his third in the same circuit and in which most of his value was tied up in his batting average. He grades out better than Hector Luna, but not all that much better.

  3. Boston Red SoxColter Bean, RHP, Yankees, Age: 26

    Bean is a big-bodied side-armer who blew away the Florida State League in 2002. This past season, he spent most of the year at Triple-A Columbus and performed fairly well. His control faltered somewhat, but he did strike out more than a batter per inning. Bean has consistently posted low homer rates (10 allowed in 217 career innings), but his modest command indicators in Triple-A suggest he might struggle in the majors. Better arms were available.

Third Round

  1. Detroit TigersLino Urdaneta, RHP, Indians, Age: 24

    Urdaneta began garnering a lot of attention after he began hitting 98 on the gun in the Venezuelan winter leagues. His record of performance, however, is far less impressive. His strikeout rates as a professional have been underwhelming (5.6 per nine for his career), and that’s led to some weak K/BB ratios. If his newfound velocity is for real, it’ll get a serious test this year in Detroit. He’s a project with little evidence of pitching skills to date. He’s a longshot to stick and will likely be returned to the Indians at some point next season.

And there you are. Other than Shelton, and perhaps Bautista, the crop of position players is roundly unimpressive; however, there are some intriguing arms. Nice selections by the Rangers with Mabeus at eight, Blue Jays with Haines at 12, Red Sox with Dinardo at 15 and Tigers with Bumatay at 17. Most confusing pick: Fox by the Expos at 11. Best example of a reputedly heady pick that probably is anything but: Reds at seven with Mattox. Worst pick (other than Fox): Royals (via Padres) at two with Thompson.

And in closing, here are my top five non-drafted Rule 5 eligibles:

  1. Ray Aguilar, LHP, Braves, Age: 23 … 4.5 K/BB this past season at Double-A Greenville. Good K numbers at every level. Would’ve been a great fit for the Padres and their retooled pen at number two.
  2. Josh Stevens, RHP, Red Sox, Age: 24 … Control artist (79 unintentional walks in 436 career innings) with rotation potential in the majors. 4.9 career K/BB ratio. Brewers certainly could’ve used him at five.
  3. Jesus Silva, RHP, Diamondbacks, Age: 20 … Youngster who pitched solidly at Double-A El Paso, a hitter’s paradise, despite being much younger than his peer group. Outstanding numbers in the low minors. Maybe the highest ceiling of any Rule 5 eligible. Great developmental project for the Expos at eleven.
  4. Jeff Clark, RHP, Giants, Age: 23 … Command specialist with much success as a starter. Dominated Cal League in 2002. 32 strikeouts and five walks in the Eastern League last season. A much better selection than Mattox for the Reds at seven.
  5. Heath Bell, RHP, Mets, Age: 26 … Strong command indicators and 390 strikeouts in 349 career innings. A bit too many homers, but could thrive in a spacious park. Like Detroit at 20.

Happy holidays to all, and I’ll see you in ’04.

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