With the end of the Winter Meetings comes the Rule 5 draft, where every team dreams about acquiring Johan Santana for a token sum of cash and often ends up with…less, or possibly nobody at all.
The highlights from the list of players taken in Rule 5 drafts, or its predecessor-drafts, is mighty impressive. On the sunny side, you have two Hall of Famers (Hack Wilson, Roberto Clemente), a couple of players who should have gotten more Hall of Fame attention (Johan Santana, Darrell Evans), and more than two dozen All-Stars. But that isn’t the likely result and getting those types of players involved a GM who didn’t understand the rules (Syd Thrift/Bobby Bonilla), predating of minor league affiliations (Wilson), or an older “bonus baby” rule that is no longer in effect (Clemente). Teams do pay attention to this kind of thing, so you see more teams protecting young, low-level players with upside rather than older, minor-league journeymen who may give a team a larger short-term boost.
But value can still be found. Brad Keller has a 3.08 ERA in multiple roles for the Royals and any of the playoff teams would have been happy to have him on their roster. Odubel Herrera, Delino DeShields Jr., Joe Biagini, Justin Bour, and Tommy Kahnle are all fairly recent picks and all have had some success in the majors. Here are the ZiPS projections for the players taken in this year’s Rule 5 draft; we’ll have full scouting reports on them soon.
The Orioles aren’t playing for 2019 of course, but I’m not sure that Jonathan Villar is actually the preferable candidate to be starting even if they were. Martin has a reputation as a glove man and the rudimentary, craptacular defensive measurements available for minor leaguers generally agree with this, while Villar is extremely stretched as a shortstop and isn’t part of Baltimore’s future. Martin did hit .300/.368/.439 for double-A Midland, but ZiPS is still going to need to see him to be sold. It would be a shame if in a rebuilding year, the O’s carried both Martin and Drew Jackson, and didn’t let either get full-time at-bats. Both are more interesting than Steve Wilkerson, who the Orioles can actually send down to the minors.
Connor Joe, who you may have seen erroneously listed as a catcher, still has some versatility, with experience at third, second, and first base, as well as in the outfield, though he’s not a plus defensive player at any of those positions. He may stick as a 25th-man in Cincinnati, a team that is short on experienced role players and would likely prefer players like Nick Senzel or Shed Long to play full-time when they’re called up. Drew Ferguson gets the best projection of the hitters and is a welcome as an additional spring training option given San Francisco’s paper-thin outfield, which will probably begin the year with three of Steven Duggar, Mac Williamson, Austin Slater, Chris Shaw, and Mike Gerber if the season started tomorrow.
The Royals picked up Sam McWilliams and Chris Ellis, the latter by way of the Texas Rangers. Ellis’ projection as a starter is not good, but as a fastball-slider pitcher, he’s long been expected to end up in relief if he ever makes it to the majors, and if that happens with the Royals, he’ll likely be the last pitcher on the roster. If Josh Staumont’s control ever improves, I think Ellis would find himself on the bubble fairly quickly. McWilliams has a more starter-friendly repertoire of pitches — Eric will surely have more on this — and he gets what amounts to a fairly impressive projection, relatively-speaking. I don’t want to predict that he’ll be Brad Keller, but the Royals may use him as a swingman in 2019.
Texas is doing more of a rebuild-lite than a full teardown, but the back of their bullpen might be able to squeeze in Romano; I don’t expect that the team will seriously look at him as a starter in 2019. Three of the four pitchers are genereally already used as relievers in the minors: Reed Garrett, Travis Bergen, and Brandon Brennen all project to be above-replacement level, though safely below-average (average ERA+ for a reliever tends to be somewhere around 108). Garrett throws a good deal harder than he did back in the days when he was a sorta starting prospect, but I think his lack of exploitable platoon splits gives him less of an obvious role in the majors right now than the other relievers. Bergen is the most interesting pitcher to me in that he missed most of the three seasons going into 2018 due to injuries, so his dominating 2018 in the minors is essentially all we have. He’s not a hard thrower and the limited data means his outcome is volatile, but you want volatile in a Rule 5er in most cases, given that the mean projections are never going to be exciting. Plus: left-handed!
Elvis Luciano is a rarity among this group, a throwback to other very young pitchers snagged from the low minors. He’ll be 19 in February, throws hard, and there’s enough projection there that the Blue Jays may be happy to just keep him and play with more-or-less a 24-man roster. This plan is subject to change if Toronto is actually good, something I think they will not be. Given his complete lack of upper minors, even that limited projection is likely crazy-optimistic.
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.