Scouting The Rule 5 Draft

Some interesting names could be popped next month




The 2000s have been a great decade for the Rule 5 draft. Johan Santana, a 1999 Rule 5 selection, has been the decade's best starting pitcher. Dan Uggla, Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino and Joakim Soria have joined him among the major league stars who have passed through the Rule 5 since 2002.

It's not easy to pick out who the top players will turn out to be going into a Rule 5 draft, but major league clubs all get the same release of eligible players. It's up to the teams to go through their scouting reports and see who fits their needs best, who's most worth the scant $50,000 wager on talent.

BA's staff has checked its own scouting reports as well as the list of eligible players. We've also checked on the history of the Rule 5 for the profiles of players who often get selected—lefthanded pitchers, relievers, versatile infielders, power bats. Here's our primer on the best bets to go in this year's draft.

Lefthanders

The list of intriguing lefties includes several rarities—lefty power arms. The best-known name, Cubs lefthander Donald Veal, ranked as high as second in Chicago's Top 10 prospects, after the 2006 season. Since then,  he has fallen in stature in much the same way the player he's most often compared to—Dontrelle Willis—has fallen. Veal posted a 10.00 ERA in the Arizona Fall League despite continuing to show a fastball that reaches 94 mph and a curve that at times is a plus pitch. He lacks consistent command of his heater, curve or changeup, and the Cubs plan on moving him to the bullpen to see if he can develop along the lines of an Arthur Rhodes, throwing more strikes in shorter stints.

Two power arms should fly off the board. Pedro Figueroa has only reached short-season ball with the Athletics, spending the last two years in Vancouver in the Northwest League. After adding about 15 pounds, the late-blooming Figueroa improved his stuff in 2008, sitting 91-94 mph at times with a two-seamer around 90-91 with heavy sink. He touched some 95s and has excellent arm speed that also allows him to snap off power sliders in the mid-80s. Twins lefty Jose Lugo, 24, spent 2008 in high Class A Fort Myers, and has some similarities to Twins reliever Jose Mijares. His fastball has heavy sink even in the 91-95 mph range, and the numbers match the scouting report: He struck out 76 in 69 innings, and got 2.34 groundouts for every out in the air. His slider and changeup lack consistency but have their moments, especially the change, which flashes above-average potential.

The best lefty starters available include the Pirates' Kyle Bloom and Braves' Jonny Venters. Both pitched in Hawaii Winter Baseball. Bloom, 25, ironed out some mechanical issues late in the season, freeing up his arm by eliminating a pause in his delivery. His fastball reached 92 mph, his curve and changeup play average, and he dominated HWB, going 2-0, 1.50 with 32 strikeouts and 11 walks in 30 innings while allowing just 15 hits. Venters, 23, has touched 92 mph and has a changeup that can be a plus pitch, but scouts say his slider is fringy. He went 2-3, 2.90 in 31 innings in Hawaii.

Not being added to the 40-man of the already-thin Astros might be a red flag, but Chris Blazek offers the possibility as a nice lefty middle reliever capable of more than handling only one batter. He throws 90-92 mph with late life but tends to get too aggressive. Even then, he struck out 84 and issued 28 walks in 70 innings at Double-A Corpus Christi. It's difficult to get a good read on him against advanced batters, though, and he was shut down after one outing in the Arizona Fall League due to elbow soreness.

Righthanders

Santana is the rare Rule 5 product who is a starting pitcher, though he broke in as a reliever with the Twins. Among eligible Rule 5 righthanders this season, the one most likely to start in the majors might be Matt Torra, 24, the Diamondbacks' 2005 first-round pick. Coming off shoulder surgery, Torra throws a 90-91 mph sinker and solid slider and gets a decent amount of groundballs. He fills up the strike zone and showed durability, throwing 157 innings in 27 games (26 starts) in 2008 between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Tucson.

The Twins didn't protect several players of interest, including last year's No. 1 overall pick, righthander Tim Lahey, whom the Rays selected and traded to the Cubs; he was later returned to the Twins. Lahey could go again, but another righty, Netherlands product Loek Van Mil, has more upside. The 7-foot-1 Van Mil has reached 97 mph in short stints in international play, and consistently hit 94 this summer for low Class A Beloit while also flashing a plus slider. His delivery and arm action are fairly clean, but he over-threw while preparing for the 2008 Olympics with the Dutch national team and has a partial ligament tear in his elbow. He's not scheduled to have surgery and could be stashed on a big league disabled list while he rehabs his elbow in 2009. A former Twin, Rays righty Eduardo Morlan, struggled after being included in the deal that sent Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay, but he regained his 92-94 mph velocity while getting off to a great start in the Puerto Rican League this winter.

Other intriguing righties include Dodgers product Javy Guerra, whose fastball reached 96 mph in HWB this fall, making him one of the league's hardest throwers. His fastball tends to straighten out, and his breaking ball is short. Fellow HWB righty Junior Guerra, a converted catcher, showed similar velocity with more sink but less consistency, as he's quite new to pitching. A catcher in the Braves system, Guerra didn't pitch in 2007 and made his Mets debut in '08. Another power-armed option, Cardinals 6-footer Luis Perdomo, can hit 93-94 mph with his fastball and has a dastardly slider that helped him hold righthanded batters to a .153 average (24-for-157) between three teams in 2008.

Teams not hung up on velocity could go for 28-year-old veteran Preston Larrison, who signed with the Nationals as a minor league free agent on Nov. 20. A Tigers' second-round pick in 2001, Larrison generates incredible sink and movement on his low-90s fastball, but his release point wavers, affecting his command. And when Larrison's sinker isn't sinking, he becomes imminently hittable seeing as he throws a fringy slider as his second pitch. He has plenty of Triple-A experience but is a low-impact pick.

Beau Vaughan (Red Sox) provides another experienced, groundballing option. He throws almost submarine style, bending low but not finishing softball-like. He struck out 18 and issued only one walk in 15 innings in the AFL, that coming on the heels of striking out 10.71 per nine over 58 innings combined at Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. He's 88-92 mph with his fastball, complemented by a groundball slider.

Pedro Strop is one of the most fascinating pitchers coming into a Rule 5 and could add to his mystery if taken. Despite having made only seven appearances at Double-A Tulsa in April and having surgery in June, the Rangers signed him in September to a minor league deal worth $90,000. Yet the Rangers chose not to protect him despite swooping in in September after the Rockies had designated him for assignment to make room on the 25-man for Todd Helton. A former middle infielder, he's just 23 and has whippy arm action with an 82-86 mph slider and 92-96 fastball.

Potential Bats

The hottest hitter available for the Rule 5 already has changed organizations this offseason. Third baseman Jesus Guzman, 24, bounced around the Texas League the last three seasons with the Mariners and then A's organizations, and has blossomed in 2008. He led the TL in batting at .364/.419/.500, and the Giants signed him after the season as a six-year free agent. He's just a fair defender at third and can play some second, but his value lies with his bat, and he had maintained his hot streak in winter ball in his native Venezuela. He was hitting .400/.500/.696 for Caracas with a league-best 42 RBIs in 32 games.

The Indians couldn't find room for the Jordan Brown, 24, on their 40-man roster, not with the first basemen already there (Michael Aubrey, Ryan Garko) and in their system (Beau Mills and potentially Matt LaPorta and Nick Weglarz). While he's not your prototypical first-base slugger, Brown has a steady line-drive swing from the left side and he goes with the pitch effectively. Though Brown doesn't have much home run power to speak of, he did hit 30 doubles in 109 Triple-A games in 2008, as he battled tendinitis in his left knee, and has slugged .455 in his minor league career. He has good actions, footwork and soft hands at first and was playing in the Dominican Winter League. Two similar players raked in the Arizona Fall League: Mike Baxter, 24, was a fourth-round pick in 2005 out of Vanderbilt, who finished fourth in hitting and second in OBP with a line of .402/.492/.634 in 82 at-bats. He can be a dependable fourth outfielder that makes solid contact against lefties and righties. He hit .272/.351/.426 at Double-A San Antonio this season and controls the strike zone well. Rays first baseman Rhyne Hughes, 25, hit .268/.356/.448 at Double-A Montgomery this year, then raked to a .394/.432/.697 tune in the AFL, leading the league with 20 extra-base hits. All three profile more as reserves than as regulars, but all bat lefthanded, and Baxter has a leg up for his ability to play first or the outfield competently.
 
In terms of raw lefty power, few Rule 5 options may be as attractive as Mike Costanzo. The 25-year-old was the Phillies' second-round pick in 2005, then was flipped to the Astros and then to the Orioles in the span of a month last winter. He has massive power but just as massive holes in his swing, and in a bad sign, his strikeouts inched higher (159) at Norfolk in 2008 as his home run (11) and walk totals (52) dried up. Costanzo is a decent athlete with a strong arm at third base. Scott Moore, a similar but less streaky version of Costanzo, occupies one of four infield spots on Baltimore's 40-man roster.

Defense isn't often the best profile for a Rule 5 pick. Still, shortstop Hainley Statia has a solid, accurate arm and can play shortstop well. His Double-A Arkansas season got short-circuited as a hamstring injury limited the Curacao native to only 59 games, in which he hit .242/.288/.336 with one home run. He clearly needs to add strength in order to drive pitches.

Contributing: Kary Booher, Matt Eddy.