If you guessed that the expansion of the rosters to 26 players would result in more teams rolling the dice in the Rule 5 draft, you guessed wrong. Don’t feel too badly; I guessed wrong, too. Of last year’s 14 draftees taken in the major league phase, only three players — Richie Martin, Brandon Brennan, and Elvis Luciano — weren’t returned to their original teams. So how many of this year’s draftees taken in the major league phase of the draft have a chance of finishing the season with their new clubs?
Most players taken in the Rule 5 draft are quickly returned and forgotten, but there’s a long history of real contributors thriving in their new organizations. Johan Santana was the best player to swap teams in the Rule 5, but the list of eventual All-Stars taken is surprisingly long, including Shane Victorino, Odúbel Herrera, Ender Inciarte, Ryan Pressly, Josh Hamilton, and Joakim Soria. Last year’s draft was a bit of an outlier in that, at least for now, it looks like none of the players will make a long-term impact. For those drafted, there’s a real benefit, as their new team has a financial incentive to give them every opportunity to win a roster spot in the spring, something few fringe prospects can boast. For the players who do make the roster, the result can be lucrative even if they’re returned to their original teams: 43 days of service time gets you into MLB’s pension system, and a single day of service time get you medical benefits.
In the computer’s eyes, Sterling Sharp is the pitcher most likely to earn a roster spot on merit. At a 91 ERA+ projection, the best of the starters drafted, Sharp would be comfortably above replacement-level. He made THE BOARD as the No. 14 prospect for the Nationals, an impressive curriculum vitae for a player left off the 40-man. Our prospect gurus felt that “he may end up as a core member of a pitching staff rather than just a depth arm.” Sharp’s not obviously one of Miami’s top five starters, but there’s plenty of room in the bullpen to look at him in a swing role, much the same way the Royals used Brad Keller.
Trevor Megill also strikes me as a pitcher with a chance to stick with his new team. The Cubs are going full-on thrift this offseason and Megill, a big righty who throws a fastball, curve, and slider, survived the Pacific Coast League relatively intact in 2019. A pitcher who can strike out 13 batters a game in Triple-A, even an older one believed to be past his prospect years, is going to get a chance unless their control is absolutely atrocious (it’s not).
Brandon Bailey is best known for being traded for Ramón Laureano, a trade the Astros probably wouldn’t mind a mulligan on. Not popular with scouts as a fairly short pitcher without a big fastball, he changes speeds well. Both Bailey and Michael Rucker, Baltimore’s other pick, have paths to the roster given how thin the Orioles are. This is an organization, after all, that voluntarily had Dan Straily throwing baseballs in actual games.
On the hitting side, Mark Payton is the most interesting draftee, a smallish corner outfielder who can fake center field. He’s a minor league veteran — he just turned 28 — but what makes him interesting isn’t any remaining prospect potential but rather that he exploded to hit .334/.400/.653 for Triple-A Las Vegas. His 30 home runs was nearly half his professional total. You’re right to be suspicious of a hitter who has a crazy power spike in a year in which the ball suddenly changes, but at the price, it’s worth seeing if a guy with a 1.000 OPS, even in a great hitting environment, is actually just a late bloomer. He’ll have trouble making the team if the Reds sign Marcell Ozuna. With Jesse Winker, Nick Senzel, and Aristides Aquino all but guaranteed spots on the roster, and Phillip Ervin and Josh VanMeter around, he’d have to have a terrific spring.
Similarly, Vimael Machin developed into a walk god in 2019, hitting .295/.390/.412, mostly for Double-A Tennessee. Machin can play shortstop, something the Phillies could use with Jean Segura essentially the backup on the depth chart right now. I’m not certain that Josh Harrison is a better player right now than Machin, and the latter is certainly a safer middle infield option defensively.
[UPDATE: And just like that, Machin is off to Oakland. While Barreto the favorite to be the full-time second baseman would theoretically clear some playing time for another middle infield type, Jorge Mateo is out of options. While this might be just enough depth for the team to close the door on the idea of bringing in a veteran 2B/SS, Machin would likely face a roster crunch if the A’s go with 13 hitters on the 25-man roster. Sheldon Neuse doesn’t have much left to prove in Triple-A, but the A’s have option years remaining for him if he’s not a full-timer. -DS]
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.