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2018 Cubs/MLB Rule 5 Draft preview

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The Rule 5 draft is rarely a big deal. Let’s talk about it anyway.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The last event of the Winter Meetings is the annual Rule 5 draft. This year the draft will happen on Thursday at 9 a.m. Pacific Time. After that, everyone at the Winter Meetings heads for home.

The Rule 5 draft is when minor league players who have four or five years of experience (depending on their age when they first signed) but aren’t on a major league 40-man roster are eligible to be drafted by any team for the low, low price of $100,000. The only catch is that the player has to be on the active 25-man roster all season, although they are allowed to spend half the season on the disabled list. If the team declines to keep the player on the active roster, they have to offer him back to their original team for $50,000. The drafting team is allowed to trade the player to another team, but that new team is also bound by the requirement to keep the player on the major league roster.

Once upon a time, this was a big deal. In the era before the draft and free agency, the Rule 5 draft (and back then it was just called the draft) was a way to prevent teams from stockpiling tons of young players in their minor league system. The draft was a way to give deserving minor leaguers a chance to play in the majors.

Nowadays, the Rule 5 draft is mostly a lot of nothing. Last season there were 18 players taken in the Major League portion of the draft. (There’s also a minor league phase with different rules.) Of those 18 players, six were sent back to their original clubs and one was allowed to become a free agent. Of the 11 that stuck with their drafted team, Brad Keller had a pretty solid season for the Royals. He pitched 140⅓ innings and had a 3.08 ERA. Everyone else taken was either injured or stunk, to put it bluntly. For example:

Victor Reyes hit ,237/.285/.359 with the Tigers.

Pedro Araujo, taken by the Orioles from the Cubs, had a 7.71 ERA over 20 relief appearances.

Elieser Hernandez had a 5.21 ERA over 65⅔ innings for the Marlins.

Brett Graves had a 5.40 ERA over 33⅓ innings for the Marlins.

Carlos Tocci hit .225/.271/.285 for the Rangers.

There are more examples. And yes, the hope is that these players will become better players with more experience a few years down the road. But as I said in my Winter Meetings preview, it’s rare that any Rule 5 pick becomes any more than a utility infielder, fifth outfielder or middle relief arm since they changed the eligibility requirements in 2006. Sure, there’s Marwin Gonzalez, taken by the Astros from the Cubs in 2011, but even he was either a bad player or just a decent utility infielder for the first five seasons of his career in Houston.

The Rule 5 draft works the same way as the amateur draft in June, with the worst team making the first pick. This means the Orioles go first. There will be more rounds until every team passes, which usually happens after two or three rounds.

The Cubs have the 25th pick of the Rule 5 draft, although as it stands right now, it’s actually the the 19th pick because six teams picking ahead of them have full 40-man rosters and cannot add another player. They do have time between now and tomorrow morning to make a trade or release a player to make room, however.

Will the Cubs make a pick or will they pass? With the team picking so late in the first round, it seems likely that the Cubs will pass and select no one. They picked no one last year. However, if someone they like slips to the 19th pick, they could grab him. But it’s pretty much impossible that the Cubs would keep such a player on their active roster for all of 2019. Much more likely, any selection the Cubs would make would simply be a chance to get a first-hand look at a player in Spring Training. The Cubs would then offer the player back to their original team and if they liked him, try to work out a trade later.

Could the Cubs lose someone? They lost Araujo last season, as mentioned earlier. This year, two Cubs catchers have been mentioned as possible Rule 5 losses and both of them played for the Mesa Solar Sox in the Arizona Fall League. Jhonny Pereda played for High-A Myrtle Beach last summer and hit a solid .272/.347/.363 over 496 plate appearances. He’s also gained praise for his defensive ability and overall leadership qualities. The other is P.J. Higgins, who has always shown very good on-base skills and also hit well in Myrtle Beach last year, posting a .289/.381/.401 line before his mid-season promotion to Double-A Tennessee. Unfortunately, Higgins didn’t hit as well at the higher level and his defensive skills, while not bad, are not as widely praised as Pereda’s.

The problem for any team wanting one of these players, and likely the reason why the Cubs left them both unprotected, is that it’s nearly impossible in today’s game to keep a Rule 5 catcher on a roster for an entire season. Backup catchers play a lot and it would be rough to pull a guy out of High-A and ask him to be the primary backup in the majors. In the past, a team could have kept one as a third catcher, but no team carries three catchers these days for an entire season or even half a season.

Right-handed pitcher Erick Leal is another player the Cubs could lose in the draft. Leal missed all of 2017 with an elbow injury that did not require surgery. He came back strong in 2018 and had a 1.41 ERA over 63⅔ innings for Myrtle Beach. He followed that up with some strong results in the Arizona Fall League. However, scouts say that his stuff does not match his results and that he’s unlikely to keep up his success at the higher levels unless he can add a few miles per hour onto his fastball or improve his secondary pitches. A bad team might try to grab Leal and hide him in the back of their bullpen until the All-Star Break when they could decide his elbow injury required another trip to the DL.

As far as players from other teams that might be taken in the draft by the Cubs (unlikely) or some other team, I already mentioned pitchers Riley Farrell and Jairo Beras along with infielder Jake Gatewood in my overall preview of the Winter Meetings. But here are just a few more names that might get called on Thursday morning.

Tyler Jay was a left-hander from the University of Illinois whom the Twins drafted with the sixth pick in the first round of the 2015 draft. He clearly hasn’t lived up to the hopes that the Twins had for him back then and a series of injuries is the main culprit. The Twins moved him to the bullpen to try to keep him on the mound and he was OK in Double-A this past season. Some team might take a chance on him as a left-handed reliever and hope that he can rediscover some of his old promise.

Shortstop/center fielder Ray-Patrick Didder is a utility player in the Braves system who hit .275/.373/.374 in 46 games after being promoted to Double-A mid-season in 2018. He’s very likely to be taken because even though the 24-year-old is considered to have a low ceiling, he can play pretty much any position but pitcher and catcher and most think he wouldn’t embarrass himself at the plate in the majors in 2019. There would be very little risk for a bad team like the Orioles or Tigers to take a chance on Didder.

Shortstop Richie Martin was a first-round pick of the Athletics in 2015 and he hit a solid .300/.368/.439 with 25 steals for Double-A Midland last season. He was repeating the level, however and there are questions about his range at shortstop. But being able to move to second or third base might just make him more attractive to teams picking early in the draft.

Rays second baseman Kean Wong is the brother of Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong and he’s been stuck with the Triple-A Durham Bulls the past two years. He hits for a solid average (.282 last season) but there isn’t much power, walks or speed there. He can play multiple positions on the diamond and has a soft, steady glove. But unfortunately, a weak arm limits his ability to play on the left side of the diamond or in right field.

Right-hander Zach Thompson was a fifth-round pick of the White Sox in 2014 and he mostly spent the first five seasons of his minor league career getting lit up as a starting pitcher. The White Sox made the decision to move him to the bullpen in 2018 and it paid off. He went 6-1 with a 1.55 ERA and two saves between stints with High-A and Double-A. He also struck out more than a batter an inning in the regular season and followed up that campaign with a solid performance in the Arizona Fall League. He’s exactly the type of guy a team might stash at the back of the bullpen for 2019 with the hope that he becomes a solid middle reliever a few years down the road.

I will leave you with the obligatory reminder that it is the Rule 5 draft and not the “Rule V draft.” Major League Baseball wants to make sure you know that.