Most of the credit for the Phillies’ improbably competent start to this season has, with good reason, gone to the pitching staff. Vince Velasquez, Aaron Nola, and Hector Neris are as much fun to watch as they are difficult to hit, and the team has allowed three or fewer runs in 24 games already. They only had 60 such games all of last season.
Still, it’s Odubel Herrera who has most single-handedly improved Philadelphia this season. He’s neck-and-neck with Dexter Fowler for the title of best leadoff hitter in the National League. He’s already drawn more unintentional walks this season than he did in 2015. He’s the jewel of the Phillies position-player corps, and will be until the farm system starts to graduate some of its brightest lights. That’s pretty remarkable, considering that the Phillies got Herrera in the Rule 5 Draft.
It didn’t used to be quite as hard to find talent in that particular player pool as it is now. Dan Uggla headlined the last class of Rule 5 draftees before the rule change that took effect in 2006, a change that lengthened the term of a team’s absolute control over a minor leaguer from three or four years (depending on their age when they signed) to four or five. Starting in 2006, the notable names from the next several Rule 5 Drafts just barely count as notable. There was Josh Hamilton that year, and R.A. Dickey in 2007, but those two were exceptional cases, not traditional members of this player pool in any sense. Joakim Soria was the gold standard of the Draft under the new rules for years, after the Royals grabbed him in 2006. The Draft became, in large part, a flea market for marginal relievers, and some guys (Jared Burton, Wesley Wright, Joe Paterson, George Kontos, to name a few) went on to have a few good years, but the impact potential of that channel for talent acquisition seemed to have dried up. From 2006 through 2011, the best position player to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft (other than Hamilton) was Everth Cabrera.
Something happened in 2012. A dam broke. Another new CBA had taken effect, and although it didn’t alter the rules governing the Rule 5 Draft at all, maybe it reorganized teams’ priorities or depth charts enough to shake things up. In any event, that Draft saw Hector Rondon (the first eventual relief ace since Soria to change teams that way), Ender Inciarte (eventually returned to Arizona, but taken), and Nate Freiman change hands, in addition to the usual assortment of relievers. Then came the 2014 Draft, in which not only Herrera, but Delino DeShields, Mark Canha, and Logan Verrett moved.
There are a lot of reasons for this surge in Rule 5 talent and draftees’ success, all of them potentially interesting. Let’s start with the obvious, least interesting, most annoying one, though: tanking. Because there are an increasing number of teams acknowledging the reality that it’s better to win 65 games in a season than 75, and embracing multiyear rebuilds designed to build sustainable success, there are more who will happily accept another team’s detritus and give them a chance to stick in the big leagues, or even thrive there. It’s not a coincidence that Herrera sometimes shares the outfield in Philadelphia with 2015 Rule 5 draftee Tyler Goeddel. Rebuilds facilitate opportunities for players who haven’t yet gotten an honest shot, whether it be via waivers or change-of-scenery trades or minor-league deals.
That’s not the whole story, though, and I find the other contributing factors both harder to parse and more interesting. For instance: Herrera has proved to be a solid defender and a good OBP guy, even if some of his dizzying gains in walk rate are sure to be repossessed by the baseball gods at some point. That echoes the profiles of DeShields and Inciarte. They all share a common flaw, too: they lack power. If you’ve been watching the way offense has changed over the last five or 10 years, you’re probably already well aware that there’s been an accelerating shift toward a brand of run production centered around home runs. Advances in information available to teams, evolution of pitchers’ usage and skill sets, and changes to the dimensions of the strike zone over time all have helped nudge things in that direction.
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering, recently, to what extent that shift was necessary, and to what extent it was elective. This cluster of a few Rule 5 successes suggests (however anecdotally) that there’s definitely some of the latter to it. Teams are allowing some good players with solid OBP skills to become freely available, actively choosing players with a chance to blossom into power hitters over them. Even Freiman and Canha were available because, given their lack of defensive value, they were underpowered. There’s another worthy conversation to be had about whether that’s the correct choice: are we getting too far from the old BP axiom, “OBP is life,” or is the emphasis on power a survival-centered adaptation to a harsh run environment? For now, though, I’ll choose simply to highlight that the choice is being made. This is useful information, too, as you put together your mock drafts and gather around the laptop this December with your friends to follow the Rule 5: The best bets seem to be guys who get on base and play some defense.
The other big potential contributing factor to this kind of increase in Rule 5 efficacy is a rising league-wide talent level, stretching even down into the minors. That’s a big deal, in my eyes. Here, we can expand the conversation to include the likes of Rondon and Verrett, who have enjoyed a lot of success in the time since they were drafted. When players as good as these start more consistently popping up and being swapped this freely, the implication is that the time for expansion really might be coming. Now, I don’t endorse expansion in the near term, because without some substantial advancement in transportation, there just aren’t viable MLB-sized markets that could be added to the league without hampering the schedule makers. From a talent perspective, though, the increasing number of interesting players left unprotected from the Rule 5 Draft indicates that two more teams could easily join the league without the overall level of play measurably falling. As Cuba and Korea send talent to MLB more and more freely, that will only become more and more true.
One last point, then, connected to those: Players ought to have more self-determination than this when they reach this stage of their careers. Minor leaguers should be paid better, and they should also get a chance to more proactively choose a new home if their organization isn’t willing to commit a 40-man spot to them within a few years. Barring expansion, they ought to have that kind of power within the marketplace, because it’s clear that there are enough of them with real value to big-league teams to create some leverage. Here’s hoping the MLB Players’ Association goes to bat for those players this time through the negotiation cycle, instead of hanging them even further out to dry.
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