Rule 5 Draft Slipping Into Obscurity

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DALLAS—The Rule 5 draft—never an event that got much attention, even when it was warranted—is on life support.

My experience with the Rule 5 and the Winter Meetings, for the most part, is limited to the last six years. While at the Hilton Anatole, it felt like this year's Rule 5 was the biggest afterthought in recent memory. Past Rule 5 drafts had been the subject of speculation during the week, and pro scouts in the lobby often were asking me who I thought would get taken—usually because I was bugging every one of them to find out who they were hearing about.

This year, there was little Rule 5 buzz. When I did get an answer from those pro scouts, most agreed the talent pool in this year's event was quite thin. Scouts say that about a lot of drafts, but with the Rule 5, they meant it. Teams made just 12 selections in the major league phase, the fewest since 2000 (10). The changes made in the 2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement, giving clubs an extra protection year for their minor leaguers before they have to be added to the 40-man roster or exposed to the Rule 5, have made players available in the draft less attractive.

Roster Filler

Top overall pick Rhiner Cruz got some pre-draft buzz, and it seemed like everyone assumed Cubs infielder Ryan Flaherty—drafted fourth by the Orioles—was gone. Flaherty has pedigree, as an ex-Vanderbilt star and 2008 supplemental first-round pick. He has reached Triple-A and has some offensive track record. His bat will have to carry him, but he's going to an Orioles team with many holes. He has a chance to be a second-division regular.

But no one seemed that interested in the rest of the crop of players, which consisted largely of three groups—low-ceiling back-of-the-rotation starters, specialist relievers and spare parts for the bench.

Even the Astros had bigger items on their mind, having hired a new general manager, Jeff Luhnow, the night before. Houston owned the No. 1 pick, kept a Rule 5 pick last year and is coming off a 106-loss season. If any club needs help at the major league level, it's Houston, and it made two picks, taking Cruz and then trading a Triple-A pick to the Red Sox for the rights to Cubs infielder Marwin Gonzalez.

Cruz has touched 100 mph, but no Astros executive would go so far as to call Cruz, 25, who just reached Double-A in 2011, even an eighth-inning setup man. Both players are part of the Astros' search for useful players in the 30-40 range of their 40-man roster.

The Rule 5 has seemed irrelevant before; The 10 players selected in 2000 included Jay Gibbons, who went on to hit 115 home runs in six seasons as a semi-regular for the Orioles, and Endy Chavez, who remains a productive reserve outfielder.

Historic Run

Even that draft was part of probably the best Rule 5 run in its history from 2004-2007. Outfielder Shane Victorino became a two-time Rule 5 pick in '04, so the Phillies were able to farm him out in '05, and he's been a stalwart since getting to the majors in late '05. After Dan Uggla in 2005—and Alexi Ogando in the minor league phase—the '06 Rule 5 was the pinnacle in recent history, producing Joakim Soria and Josh Hamilton. When Hamilton was selected in 2006, an audible "oooh" was heard at the Swan & Dolphin hotel at Disney World in Orlando. Hamilton, the 1999 No. 1 overall pick, wound up being another Rule 5 pick that turned into a star.

But that was the last draft before teams got that extra evaluation year. Since then, the most successful Rule 5 players picked have been guys who didn't stick with the teams that selected them, such as knuckleballer R.A. Dickey ('07, Mariners) and righty Ivan Nova ('08 Padres). The guys that stick now are low-cost options for the bottom spots on a roster.

Major League Baseball has its own network and has wisely put the First-Year Player Draft (the Rule 4) on TV, in prime time. But MLB Network doesn't even show the Rule 5, which takes about 20 minutes. One year, MLB spiced up the Rule 5, with a digital scoreboard showing each player picked. It was an actual production. But an actual production costs money, and an MLB official said the only way the Rule 5 gets its scoreboard back or gets on MLB Network is if it finds a sponsor.

That might be the kind of thing that makes it relevant again, even if the player pool doesn't improve. Baseball fans like drafts—fantasy drafts, amateur drafts, expansion drafts. Hard-core fans would watch a Rule 5 draft.

Short of that, the draft seems ready to join the January draft (1965-1987) in history's dustbin. No one misses the January draft, and if it goes, few will lament the Rule 5's passing.