In what seems like a departure from my purported drumbeat of the last few years, I'm not sold on the Cubs making a Rule 5 selection for themselves this season. If Theo's scouts are sold on one of the youngsters they know from a prior life, I guess there's no harm in bringing in a player in the final action of the Winter Meetings. That said, I'm ambivalent on adding a guy in the Rule 5 draft.
I see that three-quarters of you just swallowed your tongues.
I will recount my stances on the last two 'of note' Rule 5 selections by the Cubs. In 2009, the team selected David Patton from Colorado. While it is entirely true that he never worked out, I remember the general construction of the bullpen. While the front end was decent enough looking (Kevin Gregg, Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall, Aaron Heilman), the back end was sketchy at best. The last few in were (as I recall) Jeff Samardzija, Luis Vizcaino (however briefly), and David Patton. Chad Gaudin, in whom Lou Piniella had entirely lost faith, was the last one out.
Would Gaudin (who had a decent year in 2009 in San Diego and New York) have made a difference? Probably not, but either way is hindsight. Players kept eliminating themselves in spring training, and Patton, who couldn't be optioned, was kept. The team did fairly well when he was around, not coming unglued until Carlos Zambrano hurt himself on a western road swing. By then, Patton was on rehab, and mysteriously became injured himself.
What is true is, the Cubs' 2009 bullpen didn't have a great option being excluded by keeping Patton. It was, keep three of Patton, Samardzija, Gaudin, and Vizcaino. The Cubs kept Vizcaino (for about a week) and the two guys who couldn't be optioned. The first guys up from the minors that year were Angel Guzman (who did well in 55 appearances), Kevin Hart, and Esmailin Caridad. After coming over in a trade, John Grabow found his way into 30 games.
In short, much of the reason David Patton stuck around all season in 2009 was that the Cubs had precious few other bullpen options.
Fast forward to 2012. I was somewhat ambivalent about Lendy Castillo. On the broadcasts I heard, they raved about his curveball. I still haven't seen him pitch much at all. I will probably double my innings seen with him on the mound by his second start in Tennessee next year. I was perfectly good with passing on Castillo last year -- until I heard reports on the back end of the Cubs bullpen.
As I look back now, I have to disregard everything I learned since then. Marmol was the closer. Kerry Wood was the eighth-inning guy. Shawn Camp, James Russell, and Rafael Dolis were next up. Jerr Beliveau was the second lefty. Corpas was in the mix as well. The question, as a few years ago. Who was the guy to keep? From the Cubs' baseball-reference 2012 team page, the only relievers in the 12-30 category that had ERA's under 4 were Jaye Chapman, Jairo Asencio, and Michael Bowden. None were on the team yet. (Yes, Joe Mather had a 0.00 ERA, but the sentence didn't flow as well including the bomb shelter reliever with those three.)
Why am I willing to eschew the second pick in the December 6 Rule 5 draft? Is it because I think the Cubs will stun the experts and compete? Is it because I've had a change of heart?
No. I'm still ambivalent, as I was on Patton and Castillo.
I trust that Theo Epstein will be in contact with a number of teams about the pick, whether he selects a player or not. There are a few interesting names available. Theo acquired Josh Fields for the Red Sox in the Erik Bedard deal, and Fields sported a sub-1.00 WHIP between Double-A and Triple-A last year. Rob Wort posted a WHIP under 1.1 in High-A, fanning just over 15 per nine innings. There might be an outfielder or a long-term potential starting pitcher out there as well. But there are three reasons to not leap at a Rule 5 guy this year.
In 2013, before the Cubs issue scads of non-roster Invitations to Mesa, here is how the 40-man roster looks. Matt Garza sounds like he might be ready for April. Pencil in Scott Baker, Samardzija, and Travis Wood; the fifth starter isn't here yet. On to the pen: Marmol is the closer-until-traded. Russell, Camp, Dolis, Chapman, and Michael Bowden might well belong Plug in Alberto Cabrera and Beliveau if you want, and suddenly, the Cubs have eight relievers that represent better (short- and long-term) than Chad Gaudin did in 2009. And this is before NRIs.
I'm not saying all of them are locks to be solid, but the argument could be made that Cabrera and his 11+ K/9 represents better shot at a 5 WAR for his career than a Rule 5 guy.
As we all now know, Theo loves to play a game we might term "Waiver Wire Roulette" or "40-Man Jenga". In 2013, he will have first option through spring training on any guy in the National League, since Houston has been bumped to the American League West. Not only will he use that option in 2013, he also has had success in DFA trades -- specifically the one dealing Marlon Byrd (who is crushing the ball this off-season in winter ball) for Bowden and minor-league reliever Hunter Cervenka, who pitched well in the Cubs system last year at Peoria and Daytona. Having a Rule 5 guy, on top of non-productive (at the MLB level, at least) 40-man spots taken by Jorge Soler, Gerardo Concepcion, Matt Szczur, and a few others, would make Jenga that much tougher.
I wouldn't put it past Theo to make a trade with his Rule 5 draft spot. What has happened in the past has been a sort of "Gentleman's Agreement". While I'm no more privy to GM haggling than you are, Theo seems a stone-cold-so-and-so to negotiate with. In the past, it seemed the agreement was similar to...... "We'll spend $25,000, and draft who you want. You pay us $50,000, and you got him." I think that's what likely happened in the Josh Hamilton deal, and minus personal knowledge Jim Hendry and Tim Wilken didn't have, it's tough to argue the premise.
However, I could see Theo playing both sides of the argument. He will probably have a spot open on December 6. He will do the research and have internal efforts looking into Fields, Wort, and a few others. He will also have open lines of communication with other teams that draft later. Time to simulate a conversation:
Theo: "You want someone in the Rule 5, right?" Other GM: "Perhaps." Theo: "Which means, of course I'd like one of them. But you think I might beat you to him. And I might." Other GM: "How about I...." Theo: "Ooooh, the you give me 50 K so I double my money? I spent 25 K on the office latte party last week. Not interested. However..." Other GM: "However what?" Theo: "You have a guy in rookie ball that we wanted from the Dominican in Boston three years ago. Neither one of us sees him commanding that slider enough to be a closer type. But if you trade me him, I'll let you make my second selection for me." Other GM: "You really are a horrible person, Theo. I'm not sure who Houston will take." Theo: "Neither am I. But I do have to go. It seems that one of..... Spoilers. You'll find out soon enough. Toodles."
If the Cubs take a Rule 5 guy, the ante on his performance will be higher than before. If Theo takes one, there will be a good reason. That said, I'd be good with him having the extra roster spot to dumpster-dive all year. Unless, of course, the Cubs get off to a quick start and outplay two of the Reds, Cardinals, Pirates, and Brewers through late-May. Either way, Alberto Cabrera or a NRI option may be better than the Rule 5 guy. So, as with before, they'll have to prove their value.