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Rule 5 Draft Preview


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Lets hope we can get another "Matt Mantei" to help out our bullpen.


2003 Rule 5 Draft Preview

By Josh Boyd

December 10, 2003


WHAT: Rule 5 Draft

WHEN: Monday, December 15, 9 am CT

WHERE: New Orleans, Winter Meetings



Teams are allocating more time and resources to scouting and preparing for the Rule 5 draft than ever before. One American League baseball operations official said his team has had as many as four people pouring over scouting reports and crunching numbers in the office. And that doesn't include the countless hours scouts spent evaluating potential draft targets over the course of the season.


A record 28 players were selected last December, a trend most front office executives expect to continue. "We definitely see it as a productive avenue for acquiring players," said Matt Slater, the Dodgers director of professional scouting. "Our scouts are aware of every team's Rule 5 eligibles when they go in to scout a team."


With payrolls on the decline all around baseball, the cost of selecting a prospect and bringing him to spring training for evaluation is not prohibitive. Twelve of the 28 players selected last year remained in the majors all season. That doesn't include Derek Thompson and Luke Prokopec, who spent the year on the disabled list and must be kept on 40-man rosters for the 2004 season.


Who And Why


There are two schools of thought on which type of player to select: the long-term project with high upside, typically a versatile middle infielder; and the major league ready contributor, more often than not, a bullpen arm. It's similar to the college versus high school debate, except in this case teams are forced to keep the player on their 25-man major league roster all season.


Though rebuilding teams are more likely to grab an inexperienced prospect, they can't always afford to carry a player who is not ready to contribute either because it can be a burden on the manager or detrimental to the development of other young big leaguers.


"Usually these are players that are on Triple-A reserve lists with above-average tools or stuff and have probably performed in the lower levels of the minor leagues," said a National League executive from a small-market club. "As an organization, we are less likely to select one of these players and burden our manager with carrying this player, unless we feel he is ready, which is unlikely."


If the Indians, for example, can't count on their starters to pitch deep into the game, Eric Wedge is going to need depth and flexibility in his bullpen, not just a Class A mop-up man. It essentially reduces the major league roster to 24.


For this reason, many teams have turned their attention to uncovering major league-ready players. Between 1990-1995, 32 percent of the 92 players drafted remained in the majors the next season. Sixteen were pitchers, and as a group they averaged 60 innings with a combined 4.49 ERA in their season on the roster. Few of those picks stuck around to contribute significantly thereafter. A few exceptions, such as Matt Mantei, continued on to a successful future. Most posted ERAs around 5.00 and provided little long-term help for the club that selected them.


The 13 position players drafted during that period provided even less immediate help, hitting .245, contributing an average of 127 at-bats. Catchers Eddie Taubensee and Kelly Stinnett were the only two who earned significant playing time after their first season following the Rule 5 draft.


In 2003, seven pitchers made the cut, and most of them were pitching in meaningful situations by season's end. Blue Jays righthander Aquilino Lopez and Tigers righty Chris Spurling earned stints as their team's closer, while righthander D.J. Carrasco led the Royals pen with 80 innings pitched. Relievers with plus pitches are likely to be the focus of the Rule 5 draft again in 2004. Much of Lopez' and Carrasco's success can be attributed to their above-average sliders.




Another reason pitchers are most popular is that position players picked based on raw tools and projection who survive the first season on the roster often suffer from the lack of playing time.


"Teams who take raw athletes hoping to add depth to their system often are doing the player a disservice," the AL baseball operations official said.


The temptation to draft a low-level prospect with a high ceiling is often too much for a rebuilding club to pass up. Last winter, the Brewers started the draft by selecting Mets Class A third baseman Enrique Cruz. Instead of getting much-needed everyday action in the minors, the 21-year-old spent most of the year on the Brewers bench, hitting .085 with 30 strikeouts in 71 at-bats. The Orioles kept 23-year-old shortstop Jose Morban on their roster all year, also costing him a year of development. In 71 at-bats, he hit .141.


"Where are (Felix) Escalona and (Luis) Ugueto now?" the AL executive asked, referring to a pair of middle infielders selected in the 2001 Rule 5 draft. "What young player can improve by taking a year off?"


Not many. Jay Gibbons is an exception, but he had a full year of Double-A experience and the Orioles managed to get him 225 at-bats in his rookie year. While players such as Escalona and Ugueto, contributed the year following the draft, their development has since sputtered, and they're back in the minors.


Between 1990-1995, Rule 5 picks including third baseman Freddy Garcia, outfielders Todd Steverson and Miguel Mejia were all carried on 25-man rosters and received less than 60 at-bats. It's impossible to gauge how detrimental it was to their careers. And while it's impossible to determine whether or not they would have gone on to more productive careers, the fact is only Garcia, who was noted for his raw power, returned to the majors. He hit .222 in 401 career at-bats.


"I think the guys that dont develop the year after werent going to develop anyway," an NL director of pro scouting said. "A major leaguer is going to be a major leaguer."


This doesn't bode well for Cruz or Morban, but as long as the risk in selecting a high-upside prospect remains low--$50,000 for the pick--teams will continue to roll the dice.


Who To Look For In '04


Expect another active year of drafting. After several conversations with scouts and baseball operations officials, we've put together an extensive list of players who are attracting interest. Since clubs are still in the process of narrowing down their Rule 5 preference lists and most won't finalize their list until this weekend at the Winter Meetings, we've focused here on a few teams who are risking losing multiple players. We'll provide more coverage this weekend leading up to the draft.





Pittsburgh Pirates


Rich Thompson, Chris Shelton, Jose Bautista, Frank Brooks, Henry Owens, Brandon Chaves, Jeff Bennett


It's really a testament to the strength of their system, but the Pirates are running the risk of getting pillaged in this year's draft. Outfielder Rich Thompson and first baseman/catcher Chris Shelton are almost locks to be selected on Monday.


Thompson, who was acquired in a steal this summer from the Blue Jays for journeyman righthander John Wasdin, was at his best in front of scouts in the Arizona Fall League. He is the ideal Rule 5 pick because his plus speed and ability to play all three outfield spots will allow him to step in as a fifth outfielder right away. Thompson, 24, was drafted by the Blue Jays in the sixth round out of James Madison in 2000. He hit .293-0-26 with 48 steals in 55 attempts between Double-A and Triple-A, so power is obviously not his game. However, Thompson understands this and is geared toward hitting the ball on the ground and to the opposite field. He makes consistent contact and has good instincts to hit.


Shelton, 23, is coming off a .336-21-83 effort between Class A Lynchburg and Double-A Altoona. His .568 slugging percentage and .441 on-base ranked among the best in the minors, and he earned the Carolina League MVP award. Despite his gaudy numbers, he doesn't overwhelm scouts. The attention Shelton has conjured in the Rule 5 is predicated on his ability to catch. After being drafted in the 33rd round out of Utah in 2001, he primarily caught in his first season, but split time between first base and catching the last two years. In 38 games behind the plate last year, Shelton threw out 25 percent of basestealers. He has average arm strength at best, but doesn't have the most refined catch-and-throw mechanics. He's got a stocky, unathletic build at 6 feet and 200 pounds, and has often drawn comparisons to Craig Wilson. Shelton could be carried as a third catcher, and his plate discipline and power could make him a valuable righthanded option off the bench.


Perhaps the best athlete in the Pirates organization, Jose Bautista is enjoying a second consecutive solid winter in the Dominican Republic. He's showing off his versatility, which makes him an attractive Rule 5 option, by playing center field and right field, though he's only played third for the Pirates. Bautista was limited to just 162 at-bats at Class A Lynchburg after breaking his hand when he punched a garbage can out of frustration.


Righthander Henry Owens might be the hardest thrower eligible for Rule 5 selection. A converted catcher, his fastball maxes out at 97-98, and he has a usable curveball, though the jump to the majors might be too much to ask. He has just 15 innings above low Class A.


Righty Jeff Bennett was solid in the AFL and scouts saw his velocity spike up to 95 mph this summer. Lefthander Frank Brooks, acquired from the Phillies for Mike Williams in July, held opponents to a .202 average between Double-A and Triple-A. He works with a 90-91 mph fastball and 81 mph curveball with three-quarters break. His crossfire delivery is tough on lefties.


Shortstop Brandon Chaves might be selected based on the strength of his defense alone.





Toronto Blue Jays


Tyrell Godwin, Josue Matos, Miguel Negron, Derrek Nunley, Ryan Houston


With as many scouts and player development staffers who have left Toronto for other organizations within the last two years, other organizations are armed with more information on Blue Jays players than ever before.


While they were successful in snagging Aquilino Lopez at the major league level and Jorge Sequea in the Triple-A phase of last year's Rule 5 proceedings, they also lost power lefty Franklyn Gracesqui to the Marlins in the minor league draft. Not many organizations will leave a lefthander who throws in the mid-90s for the taking, and Gracesqui was added to the Marlins 40-man roster this offseason.


This year, outfielders Tyrell Godwin and Miguel Negron, and righthander Josue Matos are being considered as potential major league picks. Because Negron missed most of the season with nagging leg injuries, Godwin is more advanced at the plate. Both are capable of playing all three outfield positions, though Negron is more athletic. "(Godwin) projects a lot differently than originally thought coming out of college," an NL scout said. "Now, he's lost his speed because he's bulkier, but he hasn't added much power." Negron, who is making up for lost time by playing for Carolina in Puerto Rico, has to realize the importance of keeping the ball on the ground.


Matos signed with the Blue Jays as a six-year free agent following a career-best year for the Mariners in Double-A San Antonio. In his first year as a reliever, he fanned 104 in 88 innings while allowing just 58 hits. His fastball tops out at 92 mph.


Righties Derrek Nunley and Ryan Houston have fastballs that reach the upper-90s. Nunley's secondary stuff is more refined, while Houston has shown little but arm strength at this point.


Lefty Ryan Costello may attract some interest in the minor league phase. His fastball tops out at 93 mph. Shortstop Manuel Mayorson could be selected based on his defensive ability.





Cincinnati Reds


Brian Shackelford, Ty Howington, Alex Farfan, Eric Valent


The Reds don't boast a deep farm system, but they had limited space available on their 40-man roster, protecting 39 heading into the Rule 5 draft. Lefty Brian Shackelford has impressed scouts over the last two years in the Arizona Fall League. The Reds acquired the 27-year-old lefty in a spring training deal with the Royals Damaso Espino and Alan Moye. Shackelford spent the first four and a half years of his pro career as an outfielder in the Royals system before making the conversion to the mound in mid-2002. He's not entirely new to pitching as he was a starter in college for Oklahoma. He does a good job of mixing four pitches, including an 88-92 mph fastball, slider, cutter and changeup. Lefties hit just .158 against him in limited Triple-A exposure.


Another southpaw, Ty Howington is one of the most high-profile prospects available, and one of dozens of former first-rounders who weren't protected. Even with their roster situation, it's hard to understand why they would expose him to the Rule 5 draft. Howington hasn't had success outside of high Class A yet, and he's been troubled by nagging injuries that have led to mechanical issues. His velocity dipped into the mid-80s early in the season as he struggled to get his full range of motion back after 2002 elbow and shoulder problems. Howington's changeup ranks among the system's best, and by fall instructional league his fastball was back to 88-91 mph, still not quite the 93-94 mph he hit in 2001. One of the lower-tier clubs could add a quality lefty with power potential to their pitching inventory by stealing Howington.


Righthander Alex Farfan has the best fastball in the Reds system, though he hasn't displayed the consistency or command. It would be a reach to put him in the majors, but power righty Jorge Sosa made a similar jump with similar stuff two years ago.


If outfielder Eric Valent doesn't get popped in the major league draft, he will almost certainly go in the minor league phase. He has struggled in three brief big league stints (.161 in 93 at-bats), but has never received steady playing time. His lefthanded power potential will help him find a new home soon.


Righty Ricardo Aramboles has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, and he's coming off shoulder surgery, so it's unlikely he'll be drafted. However, last spring he was nearly ready to step into the Reds bullpen, and some team might take a flier and place him on the disabled list until he's ready.





Atlanta Braves


Alec Zumwalt, David Watkins, Matt Merricks, Bryan Digby


As one of baseball's deepest systems, it's natural to expect the Braves to lose a player in the Rule 5. While they offer some intriguing arms, there is still no guarantee they will lose a player. Last year righthanded reliever Buddy Hernandez was drafted by the A's but returned after a rough spring tryout. In the previous draft, righty Kevin McGlinchy went to the Devil Rays with the first pick, though he was injured and never amounted to a major leaguer.


Alec Zumwalt showcased his live arm in the AFL. He shows a good feel for pitching despite making the transition from the outfield just two years ago. He hit .217 in 743 at-bats before moving to the bullpen. His 62 strikeouts in 64 innings and 1.98 ERA this season are a good indication of the progress he's made. He throws 90-94 with an average slider and changeup.


David Watkins and Bryan Digby are also power bullpen arms, though Digby's injury history is probably enough to scare teams off. Matt Merricks held lefties to a .200 average between two Class A levels, which could make him an option for a team seeking a lefty specialist.


From Baseball America

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