By John Manuel
December 10, 2004
If the Rule 5 draft needed a marketing tool, it could do a lot worse than Johan Santana.
The Twins plucked the lefthander out of the Astros system after the 1999 season, when Santana had an 8-8, 4.66 record in low Class A. They were able to stash him away on the big league roster on the disabled list and in mop-up roles for two years, as he honed the changeup that has become perhaps the best pitch in the American League.
Now Santana is the American League Cy Young Award winner and the best example of the possibilities of the Rule 5 draft, which takes place annually during the Winter Meetings. The Rule 5, which has major league and minor league phases, isn’t the best way to build a roster, but it can be a place for clubs to find bargain talent.
Ask the Rockies. They took little-known second baseman Luis Gonzalez out of the Indians system last year and watched him become a productive utility player in 2004. He hit .292-12-40 in 322 at-bats and played five positions. The 25-year-old Venezuelan wasn’t just stashed on the roster; he was one of the majors’ better rookies.
The Tigers believe they got a quality lefty in the 2002 proceedings, taking Wil Ledezma from the Red Sox. They kept Ledezma through their 119-loss 2003 season, then sent him back to open 2004 in Double-A, where he was one of the best pitchers in the Eastern League. The Orioles got two good years (and a subpar 2004) out of Jay Gibbons, from the Blue Jays organization. The Cardinals carried Hector Luna, whom they plucked from the Indians last winter, on their World Series roster after he hit a respectable .249 in 173 at-bats.
When trying to find the players most likely to be selected in the 2004 major league Rule 5 draft, start with players left off 40-man rosters. Clubs try to strike a balance between players who can help them in the majors in the short run and those with upside who at the same time may be too raw for other clubs to keep.
The Pirates and Indians had the most trouble striking that balance last winter, when both had five players selected in the major league phase. The Indians lost four: Luna and Gonzalez, as well as outfielder Willy Taveras (whom the Astros kept by making a trade in spring training), and righthander Lino Urdaneta (Tigers).
Three of the first four players drafted last year were Pirates, and Pittsburgh lost Chris Shelton (Tigers) and righthander Jeff Bennett (Brewers) but got everyone else back. While they didn’t want to lose those players, farm director Brian Graham said that’s what happens to a club committed to rebuilding from within.
“I don’t think what happened last year changed our philosophy in putting our 40-man roster together,” he said. “When you’re an organization like ours or like the Indians for that matter that is player-development oriented, you realize you valuable young players are, and you realize you have a lot of players that you’d like to protect.
“The number of Rule 5 failures far outweighs the successes. But you’ll take those failures to hit on a big success.”
Like Johan Santana.
Scouts contacted about the Rule 5 and a study of recent history helps break down the kind of players Graham and his peers have to assess when striking the balance between who’s ready and who’s worth taking. The players fall into distinct categories, similar to what clubs look for in the June draft.
Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
Everyone needs it. And in the Rule 5, clubs will go all-out for power arms. That happened in ’99, when the scrum at the top of the draft wasn’t about Santana but righthander Jared Camp, who was throwing in the high 90s that fall and triggered a bidding war for the No. 1 pick. He was trade for Santana, who went second.
The intriguing power arms available this year include righthander Nathanael Mateo, a Padres farmhand who touches 97 mph and posted a solid 6-3, 2.79 season at high Class A Lake Elsinore. Mateo’s secondary stuff remains rudimentary, but he has good control (11 walks in 52 innings) of a plus fastball and could be stashed in a long-relief role while he gains experience.
Lefthanders are at a premium, particularly power arms. That makes Pirates lefty Jeremy Harts attractive. Harts is one of the hardest-throwing lefties in the minors, but the converted outfielder struggled with command in 2004, his first full year as a pitcher. He walked 50 in 44 innings, and his velocity in the Arizona Fall League was down in the 92-93 mph range, as opposed to the 96-97 he had shown during the year.
His command in the AFL was no better at the lower speed (11 walks in 13 innings). However, teams coveted Harts' power arm when he was an amateur, and that kind of arm strength in a lefthander is hard to find.
“You’re always looking for a lefthander who can throw strikes first of all,” said a veteran scout with an American League organization. “Second, if he throws the curve for strikes, you’ve got a guy who can be a factor.”
Three other intriguing lefthanders include Royce Ring (Mets), Davis Romero (Blue Jays) and Jared Thomas (Mariners).
Ring, a 2002 first-round pick out of San Diego State, has had more success, but his stuff has fallen off for most scouts since the White Sox took him 18th overall. Ring, at 6-foot, 220 pounds, has battled weight problems since college, and hasn’t licked them as a pro. He also wasn’t impressive in the AFL (5.28 ERA in 15 innings). Still, it’s been just two years since he was a consensus first-round talent.
“Everyone always thinks they have the miracle drug,” the AL scout said. “Everyone thinks, ‘This guy didn’t throw strikes for them, but if we get him, maybe he will.’ That doesn’t seem to ever work, though. Guys who never threw strikes don’t usually start throwing strikes. At the same time, guys who have weight problems, it’s not easy for them to change just because of they change teams.”
Pitchers out of low Class A leagues also tend to be left unprotected—like Santana. While no one is predicting a Santana future for him, Romero offers the ability to throw strikes now with a good curveball and a track record of success (.202 opponents batting average in 280 minor league innings). Romero, a 5-foot-10, 160-pound Panamanian, doesn’t have a lot of projection, but his plus curveball helps him miss bats (108 strikeouts in 108 innings in 2004), and he’s tough on lefthanded hitters (.127 average in the South Atlantic League).
Thomas, 23, has moved quickly in the Mariners system with a plus curveball and has 197 strikeouts in 167 career minor league innings. He posted a 3.62 ERA at Double-A San Antonio and also had success (.233 average) against lefthanded hitters in 2004. He struggled in the AFL as well (9.14 ERA, 15-15 BB-K ratio in 22 innings).
Usually, these players are going to be reserves, and it’s always helpful to have a lefthanded bat off the bench. If the player has defensive versatility and runs well, all the better.
All of that makes Drew Meyer, the 10th overall pick in the 2002 draft, a distinct possibility to be drafted. Meyer, a shortstop out of South Carolina, has struggled with the transition to wood (career minor league on-base plus slugging of just .671). He also missed much of 2004 with a shoulder injury. In his inactivity, Meyer got out of shape, got slower and got passed in the organization, first by Joaquin Arias and then by Ian Kinsler.
Finally, his chief defender in the organization, Grady Fuson—who drafted him with the first pick of his Rangers tenure—was forced out. The Rangers still like Meyer, but they have the shortstop depth to withstand his loss and believe he may not have enough bat to stick.
“The last time I saw him, he didn’t look like a first-rounder,” an AL scout said. “His body looked dumpy, almost like Mike Gallego.”
Another first-round pick, the Padres’ Jake Gautreau, doesn’t have Meyer’s speed or versatility, but he can play second and first base in addition to third base, his best position. He also has some success at higher levels, having mashed 19 homers in 2004 between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Portland.
Shelton was able to stick in the big leagues with Detroit in part because his versatility—he was poor at several positions—included playing some catcher. The 2004 version of Shelton could be Angels catcher Mike Napoli, who’s better at first base than at catcher. Unlike Shelton, Napoli has holes in his swing and won’t hit for a high average. Also unlike Shelton, he has game-changing raw power and has shown aptitude defensively behind the plate, though he’ll never be more than average.