While the Rule 5 draft can be a bit over-hyped, it is exciting in the sense that there is at least a small chance that your team drafts the next Josh Hamilton, Johan Santana, or Joakim Soria. What? You've never heard of those guys? OK, I'll fill you in.
Hamilton is that guy who's going to sign a free agent deal worth about $25M per season in the very near future. When he was drafted by the Cubs and acquired by the Reds in the 2006 Rule 5 draft, he was known as the troubled, former #1 draft pick who had missed four seasons due to personal issues, injuries, and drug suspensions. Rarely is this kind of talent available, so you know the baggage had to be massive. And it was. In 90 games for the Reds, however, the 26 year-old hit .292 with 19 homers and an overall .922 OPS. He was traded to the Rangers the following offseason for Edinson Volquez and you probably know the rest. AL MVP. Five-time All-Star. Yada Yada Yada.
When the Twins acquired Santana from the Marlins after they had taken him from the Astros in the 1999 Rule 5 draft, he was a 20 year-old coming off of a decent season (4.66 ERA, 160.1 IP, 162 H, 55 BB, 150 K) for Lo-A Michigan in the Midwest League. The Twins look like geniuses now. But, of course, they probably weren't counting on 93 wins and two AL Cy Young Awards in his eight seasons with the team. They obviously saw some talent to draft a 20 year-old out of A-ball, though. And they had an opportunity to stash him in their bullpen because they were a last-place team not quite ready to compete in the AL Central. So his 6.49 ERA in 86 innings didn't really hurt an already bad team.
Soria was an unknown commodity when the Royals stole him from the Padres before the 2007 season. Signed out of Mexico by the Dodgers, he made just four appearances in Rookie ball before Tommy John surgery forced him out of action for the 2003-04 seasons. He pitched in the Mexican League in 2005 after being released by the Dodgers. The Padres, who signed him the next offseason, liked him so much (sarcasm) that he was loaned to a team in the Mexican League for most of the season. Much credit has to be given to the Royals for taking a guy who had a 3.89 ERA with a 7.3 K/9 and 15 saves in 39 Mexican League appearances and not much else to go on. The 23 year-old rookie earned his first big league save on April 10th, 2007 and finished with 17 saves, a 2.48 ERA, 19 BB, and 75 K in 69 innings.
I'm not going to say that my 'Three Rule 5 Draft Picks Most Likely To Succeed' are going to be the next Hamilton, Santana, and Soria, but there are some similarities in their paths. They've all had adversity to overcome and have diminished value for different reasons. They also have opportunities for playing time on three teams unlikely to have championship aspirations in 2013.
Alfredo Silverio, OF, Marlins: After a breakout 2011 season, when he hit .306 with 76 extra-base hits (16 HR, 42 2B, 18 3B), 85 RBI, and 11 SB in 132 games for Double-A Chattanooga, Silverio was probably just one season away from the big leagues. That season was supposed to be spent in the very hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, where he would have likely continued to put up more ridiculous numbers before breaking into the majors late in the season. Instead, Silverio spent it recovering from injuries sustained in an offseason car accident.
Outrighted off the 40-man roster last month, he became a free agent briefly before being re-signed to a minor league deal. That may not have been the best choice, considering that the Dodgers have an outfield full of guys with very long-term contracts, but going to the Marlins could end up being the best possible scenario for the 25 year-old. Whether they'll admit it or not, 2013 will be a re-building year. Silverio could start the season on the Disabled List, head out on a 30-day rehab assignment sometime in May, and join the team in June. At that point, the Marlins could be 25 games out of 1st place and a young player like Silverio could get significant playing time in left field to finish out the year.
Hector Rondon, RHP, Cubs: I wrote about Rondon a couple weeks back as he's been pitching very well in relief down in the Venezuela Winter League. On the comeback trail after missing most of the past three seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery and a fractured elbow, it wasn't that long ago when he appeared to be on the fast track to the big leagues. His age 21 season in Triple-A, way back in 2009, was outstanding and it looked to be only a matter of time before he joined the Indians' rotation. But pitchers get hurt. Rondon's elbow ligament snapped and his career was on hold.
The Cubs are hoping to take advantage of an opportunity to acquire a player who fell under the radar after missing so much time. He reportedly still has good stuff and, at the very least, should be able to secure a long relief role in the Cubs' bullpen next season and help in some capacity out of the bullpen down the road. Best-case scenario: he's lights out in relief in 2013, continues to build up arm strength, regains command of secondary pitches, and returns to a starting role in 2014.
Josh Fields, RHP, Astros: No one's been this excited about Fields since the Mariners drafted him in the 1st Round back in 2009 out of the University of Georgia. He was supposed to move quickly but expectations waned after he walked 22 batters in 33.1 Double-A innings with a 6.48 ERA during his first action as a pro. The command didn't improve until he was traded to Boston in July 2011. He only walked 10 in 17.1 innings after the trade as he finished that season with Double-A Portland. Not great. But there was progress.
Fast forward to 2012 and Fields has his career back on track. In 58.1 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, he walked just 18 batters and struck out 78 in 58.1 innings. Opposing hitters batted just .183 against him. The 27 year-old finished the regular season with a string of 13.1 consecutive scoreless innings with only 2 walks and 19 strikeouts for Triple-A Pawtucket. It's very surprising that the Red Sox did not add him to the 40-man roster last month. Maybe he scared them by reverting back to the bad version of Josh Fields in the Dominican Winter League (6 IP, 8 ER, 7 BB, 8 K). Regardless, the Astros' pick was a no-brainer.
Here's what the Astros' Pro Scouting Coordinator, Kevin Goldstein, had to say about Fields:
On Fields: "We all saw him in the Arizona Fall League and we really liked what we saw in him. We think he can pitch in our bullpen right away and that's something we needed. When he first got drafted, he was seen as a closer who was going to get there quickly and obviously had some command and control problems at the start of his career. We started to see progress and real strike throwing at the end of 2011 and that continued into 2012 to the point where his walks were way down and his stuff was still there. That's not something you see all the time. We think he can throw strikes and obviously bullpen was something we wanted to address all along and we're happy we've got something like this with the first pick."
When we sat in the room, there was a very short discussion about 1-1. We all sat around and said 'well, we have Fields,' and everybody kind of nodded their head and said 'let's move on and talk about the other picks.' We were all very comfortable.
On his age: "There's a couple unique factors. There are the command issues that took a while to come around and also his unique background with him getting drafted a couple times and having to hold out. He had a late start to his career so his arm's actually fresher than most of the guys his age and that's something that maybe works to our advantage as well."
The Astros' bullpen is as thin as any in the league. To give you some idea, I have Hector Ambriz, who has a 5.19 ERA in 52 big league appearances, projected to be their closer. Jobs are there for the taking. If his command is good, Fields could at least step into a 7th inning setup man role early in the season and possibly even finish as their closer.