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Chicago Cubs Rule 5 Draft preview

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Much ado about nothing? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

Vimael Machin
Vimael Machin
Dylan Heuer

The Winter Meetings finish ever year with the Rule 5 draft, where teams can take unprotected minor league players from other teams for the low, low price of $100,000. The only catch is that the player must remain in the major league roster the entire next season and at least 90 days of that have to be on the active roster. (Meaning that they can’t be on the injured list for at least 90 days.) If the team decides they don’t want them on their 26-man roster, then they have to offer them back to their original team for $50,000.

Players are eligible to be drafted if they are not on the 40-man roster and they’ve played four seasons in the minors if they signed after they turned 19. If they signed their first contract before they turned 19, then they must play five years in the minors before they are eligible.

Hardcore fans pay a lot of attention to the Rule 5 Draft but the truth of the matter is, it hasn’t had much impact in recent years. The best player taken in last year’s draft is probably Brandon Brennan. The year before, it was Victor Reyes. The best player taken in 2016 was Anthony Santander. If you’re saying “Who?”, that’s kind of the point. The days of getting a Shane Victorino, Johan Santana or Josh Hamilton in the Rule 5 Draft are pretty much over. These days, teams are mostly hoping to land a useful situational reliever, a utility infielder or a fifth outfielder. On the other hand, there’s always a chance. You only have to go back to 2014 to see the Phillies take outfielder Odubel Herrera, who may not be much now, but he was a four-win player his first two years in the majors. (Wikipedia has a good list of recent Rule 5 Draft results, in case you were interested.)

After the major-league phase of the draft, teams get to protect more players and a minor-league phase begins. Players taken in the minor-league phase have no roster requirements. If a team takes the player, he’s theirs. However, there is not a lot of talent left at this point. This is how the Cubs lost Justin Bour back in 2013, so it is possible that a late bloomer slips through the cracks.

No one really knows what the Cubs will do in the Rule 5 draft, but I do have a prediction: They will take no one in the major-league phase and they will lose no one. There will be some action with the Cubs in the minor league phase, but it will most likely be for organizational depth to fill out the roster in Tennessee or Myrtle Beach. They could lose a few players in that phase as well, but it’s hard to know who because we don’t know who the Cubs will protect.

The Cubs are unlikely to take anyone in the major-league portion because they haven’t taken a player in the draft since selecting Hector Rondon in 2012. (They selected Taylor Featherstone in 2014, but they did that as part of a pre-arranged deal with the Angels, and they acquired Caleb Smith, taken by the Brewers, in 2017. He wound up returned to the Yankees.) Even with a 26-man roster, there likely isn’t a player that would be worth it for the Cubs to hold a major league roster spot for an entire season, or half a season with liberal use of the injured list. If there were a player like that, the teams picking far earlier than the Cubs pick would grab them. It make sense for a rebuilding team like the Tigers (or the Cubs in 2012) to take a risk on a player and keep them on your roster. After all, such teams aren’t expected to win anyway. But for a team like the Cubs that is presumably still trying to win the NL Central, it doesn’t make sense to carry a player who likely isn’t ready for the majors.

As far as losing a player, the Cubs just don’t have the unprotected players that would likely interest teams that are picking. And if they do lose a player, it seems unlikely that the player could win a roster spot out of Spring Training and keep it all year.

Having said that, if the Cubs lose anyone, it will likely be one of these three players:

Infielder Vimael Machin: Machin has played all four infield positions in his minor league career and while he’s not a great shortstop, he wouldn’t be terrible there on the major-league level. So that means he has some flexibility that teams looking to carry a guy would look for. But Machin is also a left-handed hitter who hit .294/.386/.403 in Double-A last year and also impressed in a short stint in Iowa. He’s already 26, so there isn’t much room for growth. But if a rebuilding team is looking for someone to fill out their bench, they could do worse than Machin.

Infielder Trent Giambrone: The Cubs had hoped to turn Giambrone into the next David Bote by getting him to change his launch angle on his swing. On the positive side, he hit 23 home runs and stole 17 bases in Iowa last year. On the down side, he only hit .241 with a .314 on-base percentage. (And it should be noted that everyone was hitting home runs in the Pacific Coast League last year.) He also struck out a ton in Triple-A. Like Machin, Giambrone turns 26 in a week.

Defensively, Giambrone is a good second baseman, but a weak arm would keep him from playing on the left side of the infield or right field on the major league level. But if a team is willing to live with the arm, he could play anywhere on the diamond.

Right-handed pitcher Oscar De La Cruz: As recently as 2017, De La Cruz was a top-five prospect in the Cubs system. Then he got suspended for 80 games for testing positive for a masking agent. Since he returned, he hasn’t been the same pitcher. His fastball, which used to be in the 95-97 mph range, now clocks in at around 91-93 mph. His control, which was never a strong spot, has gotten worse. At least he’s been relatively healthy since his return. He wasn’t healthy very often before his suspension. He turns 25 in March.

A team might take a chance on De La Cruz. They could stick him in their bullpen and hope he returns to his 2016-2017 form, only healthy.

Here are some players who might be taken from other teams in the Rule 5 Draft. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong and the Cubs will take one.

RHP Joe BarlowTexas Rangers. High-90s fastball and no control. There’s always one team that thinks they can fix that.

RHP Phil BickfordMilwaukee Brewers. Former first-round pick whose career has been derailed by two positive drug of abuse tests, but they don’t test for marijuana for players on the 40-man. Had a good season in High-A last year.

RHP Brandon BaileyHouston Astros. Bailey had a good year as a starter in Double-A last year, striking out more than a batter an inning. The Astros traded Ramon Laureano to get Bailey in 2017, proving that their front office makes big mistakes too.

RHP Dauris ValdezSan Diego Padres. Valdez is 6’8” and can hit 100 mph with his fastball. He also has control issues and he doesn’t miss nearly as many bats as you would think from a pitcher who is 6’8” and can hit 100.

SS Wander JavierMinnesota Twins. Javier was a top international prospect when he signed with the Twins in 2015, but his minor league career has been nothing but injuries. He missed all of 2018 with a shoulder injury and was terrible in low-A in 2019 upon his return. There is no way that he can play a credible major-league game in 2020, but a talent like his is rarely available via Rule 5 these days. If some team was planning on losing 100 game anyway, they might take Javier, hide him on their bench and hope that he gets healthy. He’s still only 20 years old.

1B/OF Connor JoeLos Angeles Dodgers. Joe was a Rule 5 pick last year by the Reds, but the Reds didn’t have a spot for him and they traded him to the Giants rather than offer him back to the Dodgers. The Giants played him in eight games and sent him back to the Dodgers after he went 1 for 15. But the same thing that made him attractive last year makes him attractive this year—he hit .300/.426/.503 in Triple-A last year. He’s already 27 and he’s bad defensively anywhere but first base. But with a 26-man roster, maybe a team can afford to carry him this year.

The Rule 5 Draft will take place tomorrow, Thursday, December 12 at 11 a.m. Central time. Then everyone at the Winter Meetings goes home for the holidays.