Amidst the flurry of activity at this year’s winter meetings, the Rule 5 Draft seems overshadowed. The two largest contracts awarded to starting pitchers will do that, not to mention buzz of a few significant trades and other signings afoot. Still, Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft is a chance for teams to augment their rosters by benefitting from the excess depth (or oversight) of other organizations. Rarely does this result in an impact player, and just three of the 14 players selected in 2019 completed a full season with their new club. One of those returnees was Mets pick Kyle Dowdy, who struggled in spring training before being waived. But this winter is a new opportunity, and a few players stand out as options who could fill out the depth of the now-26-man roster.
Worth noting, of course, is that the Mets, with all 40-man roster spots filled, will not be participating.
No. 5 Starters/Multi-inning Bullpen Conversions
This is the area where the Rule 5 shine most rarely lines up with reality. Teams are loathe to commit to unproven names in their rotation, particularly if they didn’t develop the player, and/or at least vaguely intend to compete. Still, pitchers with good numbers in the high minors and at least a decent scouting reputations don’t grow on trees. With Michael Wacha in the fold, the Mets currently have five starters pretty well solidified, but health and performance are never guaranteed. An intriguing depth option could be found on the cheap in the Rule 5 Draft.
RHP Zack Brown - Brewers
While a few teams may opt out, Brown is liable not to make it to the 19th pick. Despite getting shellacked in the lunar landscape that was the 2019 AAA-Pacific Coast League, Brown handled AA nicely the year before, and has run a >50% groundball rate the past couple years to boot. His fastball hangs in the low-90s with sink, and both his curveball and changeup can miss bats. The loss of command in AAA is worrisome, but it’s hard to know what to hold against guys in the PCL.
RHP Sterling Sharp - Nationals
Did that Zack Brown write-up resonate with you, but make you wish you could just cut out the woeful AAA performance? The Nats have just the guy for you. Despite what Jon Heyman might tell you, Sharp has a fairly uncommon profile. The 6’3 righty learned his sinker by looking up Blake Treinen’s grip online, and has used the pitch to run one of the highest groundball rates in minor league baseball. He missed a chunk of the season with injury, but put up a 3.99/2.59 ERA/FIP in AA-Harrisburg before showing well in the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League. A 24 year old sinker-baller who has gotten results at every level is a promising pick albeit one short on high-minors track record, but the likeliest worry on Sharp is a lack of oomph. His sinker tends to sit 88-90, and while it pairs nicely with his changeup, the lack of likely swing-and-miss stuff is scary in the current MLB. At the moment, his slider is more show-me than see-ya, but Sharp could likely handle a bullpen spot and do double duty pinching some depth from a division rival.
Other names of note: RHP Alec Hansen - White Sox, RHP Matt Swarmer, Cubs, RHP Ljay Newsome, Mariners
Last year’s Rule-5 position player group was fairly rich, headed by a clear top pick in then-Oakland SS Richie Martin. A year later, a clearly over-matched Martin is limping off a 50 wRC+ season with a .208/.260/.322 line in 309 plate appearances, and seems as likely to be ticketed for Norfolk as Baltimore. The Mets are actually fairly flush with utility options, which is typically what the Rule-5 provides. That’s not a glowing commendation, of course - they could use upgrades at a few starting positions - but they’d be unlikely to find that player in the Rule 5. With contention at least somewhat on their minds, stashing a high-upside player with minimal experience seems unlikely too. For clubs inclined to filling their depth out in the Rule 5 however, there are a few players that might fit their needs.
C Brett Cumberland - Orioles
Immediately overshadowed since Adley Rutschman’s entry to the organization, Cumberland has torn the cover off the ball in each full season at a level. He built off that with a strong AA showing in 41 games this year, putting up elite walk rates and flashing enough pop to threaten. While there were questions about his glove on draft day, some reports say he’s improved to a serviceable point, and his bat is showing big league potential. The switch-hitting Cumberland hasn’t played a day of first base as a pro, but he could likely fill in there, as well as a pinch-hitter if need-be. Taking a 24 year old catcher with barely 60 games at the AA level isn’t exactly safe contender conduct, but Cumberland offers upside many secondary catchers do not possess.
OF Ka’ai Tom - Indians
Tom seems like the likeliest of these players to be an immediate contributor. After being a cromulent hitter the first few seasons of his career, the diminutive Hawaiian erupted at the plate in 2019, slashing .285/.386/.512 in his second go at AA-Akron. While his base-stealing totals fell, everything else trended upwards. After 81 games and 343 PAs of handling AA, Tom was promoted for another 51 games and 211 PAs at AAA-Columbus. His success continued with the rabbit ball, maintaining his double-digit walk rate and slashing .298/.370/.564. Despite being a 5th round pick, his numbers were at least a slight surprise to the organization, with a breakout that seems self-driven. There are a few ways to look at Tom, who has drawn little attention on prospect lists despite his breakout. It could be fluky, it could be under the radar, it could be natural improvement against minor league competition from a 5’9 outfielder who turned 25 at the end of May. The fact remains that he’s hit at every level and can play all three outfield spots, and every team can use a guy like that.
Other names of note: 2B/3B Jose Rojas - Angels
Impact (ideally the good kind) Relievers
Here’s where, if teams are going to make a Rule 5 move, the fit is easiest. There are a multitude of options here, as many organizations have at least one or two guys bouncing around with good numbers in AA and 92-95 mph fastballs with questionable command, but some of those guys become good big leaguers.
RHP Dany Jimenez - Blue Jays
Arguably the cream of the crop in this year’s Rule 5 Draft, Jimenez checks every box. He’s got the stuff - an upper-90s fastball and a sharp slider - to immediately look at home in any bullpen. His change-up might stick or might be scrapped, but he was lights out in AA after shredding high-A, with a 1.87 ERA in 33.2 IP at the higher level. He struck out 12.3 per 9 and walked just 3.21, and will turn 26 later this month. There are plenty of Rule 5 picks where teams think they see something they can adjust in a guy to get more from them, but Jimenez seems ready to roll.
RHP Joe Barlow - Rangers
Same story, different book. Barlow’s 2019 saw him span three levels, blazing threw high-A and AA with microscopic numbers. His strand rates were implausible, and the walks weren’t pristine, but when you strike out 47.4% of the batters you face, you’ll get away with a lot. In AAA, unfortunately, he got away with far less. Though the Nashville Sounds provide one of the friendlier environs in the PCL, that’s like calling it one of the swamp’s least vicious alligators. Barlow kept striking batters out, but his command evaporated at the end of the season, possibly denying him a call-up, and keeping him off the 40-man roster. Barlow’s fastball is a mid-90s offering, like Jimenez, with a sharp curveball in lieu of a slider.
LHP Thomas Burrows - Braves
If teams are looking to go a different route for the bullpen, Burrows may be the best alternative. A career reliever, Burrows might surprisingly contribute more at the big league level than the headliner of the trade that brought him from the Mariners to the Braves - Luiz Gohara. Burrows is all set to be a classic LOOGY, with a fastball that hangs 90-92 but a sharp slider that ruins lefties days. Unfortunately for him, 2020 will be the first year of the three-batter minimum, meaning the days of the one-out specialist, save for nabbing the final out of an inning, are gone. Burrows doesn’t have lengthy splits to work with since he’s mostly worked an inning or two an outing, but he’s been far less threatening against righties.
Other names to know: RHP Dauris Valdez - Padres, RHP Brandon Bailey - Astros, LHP/OF Anthony Gose - Indians, RHP Carlos Sanabria - Astros