There’s been a lot of headlines coming out of the GM meetings this week, but that’s merely the warm-up act for the Winter Meetings in San Diego from December 9-12th. The last day of that is devoted to the annual Rule 5 Draft. But before playing offence and looking for the next hidden gem comes the defensive element of preventing one’s farm system from being the one raided. Teams must set their 40-man rosters by Wednesday, November 20, adding any eligible prospects they want to protect from being selected by other teams.
Whether an eligible player is added or not is a combination of expected future value/impact, the availability of roster spots, as well as the likelihood of another team selecting the player and him sticking. The 40-man roster is currently full for the first time in many years at this juncture, but there is no shortage of “bubble” players and non-tender candidates who can be replaced.
For the first time in almost a decade last year the Blue Jays lost players in the Rule 5, both of them in the first eight picks after some controversial decisions about who to protect and expose. In the end, both Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen ended up back in the fold (the latter surprisingly so after he passed the threshold for San Francisco to keep him), and this year they don’t have at all the same degree of risk exposure.
Rule 5 Primer
The basic goal of the Rule 5 Draft is to prevent teams from unduly stockpiling talent in the minors without giving the players a shot at the majors. The timelines for Rule 5 eligibility are complex, but as a basic rule of thumb, high school draftees and international free agents (IFA) are first eligible four years after signing, with college players being eligible three years after signing. And as was seen with Elvis Luciano last year, any player who signs a second contract (for whatever reason) becomes immediately eligible.
For 2019, this generally means HS draftees and IFAs signed in 2015 and college players signed in 2016 (the first wave of players drafted by the current front office to become eligible). In addition, all players who were previously Rule 5 eligible remain eligible, unless they are likewise added. This includes minor league free agents signed prior to the Rule 5 draft and former major leaguers who have been outrighted off the 40-man roster.
In the major league phase, teams can select eligible players from other organizations who are not on a 40-man roster for $100,000. Drafted players have to remain on the 26-man (active) roster for the entire subsequent season, with a minimum of 90 active days, or be put on waivers and offered back to the original team if cleared. If the player fails to reach 90 active days, he has to remain on the active roster in subsequent seasons until he reaches 90 active days. The minor league phases of the draft are much less important and generally used just to fill out rosters.
First Time Eligible Players
Below is a table of the 25 first time eligible players, along with some background information and the levels at which they’ve played in the organization the last three years. Names in bold are those that are at least worthy of mentioning, if not necessarily realistic candidates:
There’s seven highlighted, though none are slam dunk candidates to be added and a case could be made that individually each is less than 50% at least purely on the merits. Bryan Baker came over in the Swung-hwan Oh deal, and had a solid 2019 across New Hampshire and Buffalo. It’s the classic relief profile in today’s game, he throws very hard — mid-90s touching into the upper 90s — though staying around the zone is a challenge. He works really quickly, some innings are blink and you miss it. He’s close enough that a team that liked him could definitely roll the dice and see if he sticks.
Santiago Espinal came over a month before that when Steve Pearce was the first veteran shipped out. He was in the midst of a breakout 2018 having been a nice find as a quasi-senior sign in the 10th round of the 2016 draft, and had a solid if less spectacular run in New Hampshire. That carried over into 2019, earning a late season call to Buffalo where he performed well albeit on the back of a .391 back-up. He’s very solid defensively, I don’t think he’ll hit much but he profiles as a utility infielder. That wouldn’t be enough for me to add him, but the biggest thing going for him is he was targeted by the current front office. That’s been significant the last couple years for those added to the 40-man, and the scuttlebutt seems to have him as a very likely addition.
Which is a convenient segue to Thomas Hatch, who was acquired at this year’s trade deadline for David Phelps, having spent the last two year in AA as a 2016 third rounder of the Cubs. Again, the track record was more solid than spectacular, but finished strong in New Hampshire. He has a four pitch mix, with a slider, changeup and cutter as secondaries though none standing out as a true weapon. He did post some 94s and 95s on stadium guns, which was more than I was expecting. It would be a bit of a jump to the majors, but manageable, and the odds probably favour him being added.
Zach Jackson was the Jays’s own third rounder in 2016 out of Arkansas. He had a full year in Buffalo so he’s on the cusp as is, with good performance at all stops. On the surface, that would make him a Rule 5 candidate. The thing is, in today’s game his stuff is more okay than above average or plus, and there’s a real issue with strikethrowing that more experienced hitters in the upper minors were able to leverage. Far too many times he’ll have 30 pitch marathon innings even if it results in a zero, and that’s only going to be more of a struggle at the big league level. For that reason, I’d have him on the outside looking in.
The last three merit mention in passing. Josh Palacios continues to post solid production as he moves up, but the profile is still tough and it’s just half a season in AA (and an outfield logjam internally). Kirby Snead keeps performing, but for me he’s a lesser Bergen. Curtis Taylor came over in the Eric Sogard deal, with good performance in AA and good stuff but an arm injury that kept him out the second half. On that basis I wouldn’t see him as a viable Rule 5 candidate.
Previously Eligible Players
This doesn’t tend to be a very deep pool annually, with these players having been already passed over. But sometimes, especially on the high school and IFA side players breakout, put things together or show they can healthy.
There’s a couple familiar MLB names in Ryan Dull and Brock Stewart, but the Jays obviously just outrighted them and any team could have had them on more favourable terms as a waiver claim. Likewise, Bergen cleared waivers in August on his way back to the Jays, when any team could have claimed him, rostered him for less than 10 days before rosters expanded and then had him free and clear in 2020. Having not done so, a Rule 5 claim a few months later would only make sense if the front office has turned over, and there’s little reason to protect him.
Jackson McClelland is the most compelling name in this group. It’s a similar story to last year: huge arm with an upper-90s fastball, slider that’s swing-and-miss at its best, and a change-up that’s actually pretty good too for a reliever’s third pitch and will flash plus. Consistency is still an issue — so many outings are lights out, marred by total meltdowns once in a while. He got through last year, but having got to Buffalo and with a full year of AA rather than a month it’s a more compelling case now. I’m have doubts it would happen again: if I were rebuilding a team, this is the exact type of relief arm to target for potential impact down the road.
That leaves a trio who were all in the system last winter when first eligible. Forrest Wall put up a fine season in line with the past and got to Buffalo. He’ll almost certainly play in the majors at some point, but didn’t make a case above a crowded mix for now. Corey Copping is in the same boat really, it wouldn’t surprise me if he pitched in the majors in 2020, but he didn’t build off 2018.
The dark horse candidate for me is Dany Jimenez. Stuck in low levels for multiple years, he’s really moved the last couple years reaching New Hampshire were he was pretty electric. Another whose fastball will touch the upper 90s, with a power curve that gets a where he’ll manipulate the depth some and gets a lot of whiffs. The numbers are loud, ultimately there’s still some work to do and odds are probably against him being poached and thus protected this winter.
My guess would be Espinal and Hatch are added to the 40-man and protected next week, and I’d add McClelland as well.
That said, with the 40-man full but having many players whose position is tenuous, a lot of the rest of the decisions are at least partially dependent on the broader context of existing options on the 40-man and direction this winter. Over the next, I’ll drill down into each major areas where with decisions: pitching, outfield, and infield.