By Chris KlineDecember 2, 2005
As the Rule 5 draft approaches, the recent history of the draft has shown hitters can be found who will make a big league impact.
Perhaps its best success story in recent years was Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons. The Orioles gambled on Gibbons in 2000, a few months after the Blue Jays’ 1998 14th-round pick hit .321-19-75 in 474 at-bats in Double-A. It took Gibbons two years to fully establish himself in the big leagues, and the first year in particular required a lot of patience from the Orioles’ brass to preserve him on their major league roster. But the move eventually paid dividends, as Gibbons emerged as a solid everyday big leaguer.
Other hitters have made their mark since then. The Indians lost shortstop Hector Luna and outfielder Willy Taveras in 2003, and both went on to reach the World Series with their respective clubs within two years, but not without some additional shuffling.
The Astros knew Taveras was not major league ready that season, and rather than watch him ride the bench in the majors, they traded lefthander Jeriome Robertson to the Indians in order to keep him and send him to Double-A. Clubs can select players each December in the major league Rule 5 draft for $50,000 and must keep them for all of the following season on their 25-man major league roster. If they do not, the player is returned to his original club in exchange for $25,000.
Luna was picked twice, first by the Devil Rays in 2002 (then returned to the Indians), then by the Cardinals the following year. He wound up sticking on the Cardinals roster and played a utility role for the 2004 National League champions.
Tigers first baseman Chris Shelton is another example. Detroit took Shelton from the Pirates with the first pick in the 2003 Rule 5 draft, kept him on the roster and Shelton ended up hitting .299-18-59 in 388 big league at-bats in 2005.
So while there is a recent track record of some success within the draft, it’s a crapshoot at best. When teams prepare for the Rule 5 draft, they are looking for versatility, and lefthanded hitters are a commodity, as well. But because pitching ultimately costs clubs more down the road, arms are really what teams are after. Everyone’s looking for the next Johan Santana, the 2004 American League Cy Young Award winner whom the Twins selected from the Astros in the 1999 Rule 5.
“Finding quality pitching is the toughest job in this game,” an executive from an American League club said. “And finding it in the Rule 5 draft is so rare these days, simply because clubs do a much better job at scouting themselves than they did 10 years ago. There are so many questions about pitchers–whether it’s stuff, makeup or medical history–that to find an arm that is ready (for the big leagues in the Rule 5 draft) has become close to impossible.
“The guys you’re more likely to find are utility infielders, maybe an outfielder who can play more than one spot. But to find an impact player and more importantly be able to keep him is becoming more and more of a rarity.”
With that in mind, we looked at the list of eligible players for this year’s Rule 5 draft and profile the best of the bunch.
Kevin Howard, 2b/3b, Reds
Howard has the biggest buzz coming into this year’s draft after having a brilliant season in the Arizona Fall League. A fifth-round pick in 2002 out of Miami, Howard won the AFL batting title, hitting .409-3-16 in 88 at-bats. But perhaps his strongest asset was proving himself to be an adequate defender at third base. Howard played third in college, but played primarily second base since turning pro. He’s a patient lefthanded hitter with a line-drive stroke, and has shown improved power. Some scouts in the AFL liked him better at third, and Howard could be solid at either spot making him the best overall position player available in the draft. Dan Uggla (Diamondbacks) is another utility player who dramatically upped his stock in the AFL, but Howard’s lefthanded bat, which could be valuable off a big league bench, gives him the edge.
Mitch Maier, of, Royals
Maier has been all over the diamond in his career. He was a catcher in college, then the Royals moved him to third base and finally to the outfield this season. He’s an average defender in left field, runs well and is athletic enough to play all three outfield spots. Maier has great hand-eye coordination, and his bat is his best tool. He struggles getting consistent leverage in his swing, and his lack of power is why the Royals left their 2003 first-round pick exposed. Ben Francisco (Indians) and Jason Cooper (Indians) are also outfield candidates who could get a look, particularly Cooper with a lot of juice in his bat from the left side.
Josh Muecke, lhp, Astros
The Astros used Muecke as a starter and a reliever over his first two seasons, but he jumped into a starting role at high Class A Salem in 2005 with varied results. A fifth-round pick in 2003, Muecke has average velocity in the 88-91 mph range with good command. His curveball showed flashes of being a plus pitch at times, and though he doesn’t use his changeup enough, it was much improved from 2004. Muecke is tough and durable, but needs to learn how to consistently repeat his delivery.
Ricky Barrett, lhp, Twins
Barrett didn’t do much to impress scouts in the AFL, going 0-3, 9.00 in 12 innings for Grand Canyon. But he’s a lefty with a low 90s fastball and complements that pitch with a slurvy breaking ball and changeup that rates as average. Repeating his delivery was Barrett’s biggest menace in 2005. He got hit hard at Triple-A Rochester (6.71 ERA), and that carried over to the AFL. When he commands the zone, he can be dazzling, and could fit in perfectly as a middle reliever if he can iron out the mechanical lapses.
Rafael Rodriguez, rhp, Angels
Rodriguez has arguably the most electric stuff of any player eligible, but as explosive as his arsenal is, it is also extremely erratic. He logged a career-high 146 innings in 2005, but struggled in the second half at high Class A Rancho Cucamonga when he tended to elevate his pitches. Rodriguez features a 90-94 mph fastball with great life, and hard-biting mid-80s slider. He hasn’t been able to refine his changeup and appears destined for the bullpen.
Chris Cooper, lhp, Indians
Cooper has always been somewhat of a sleeper in the Indians’ organization, but the 35th-round pick in 2001 has solid-average stuff and could find a role as a lefty specialist. Cooper features an 89-91 mph fastball with good movement, and mixes in a hard slurve with an above-average changeup. He struggled keeping his body under control in his delivery early in his career, but has smoothed out his mechanics since dedicating himself to a more stringent weight-training regimen.
Billy Sadler, rhp, Giants
Like Rodriguez, Sadler has big swing-and-miss stuff, sitting at 92-94 mph with his fastball that tops out at 96. His curveball can also be a plus pitch, though he tends to lose his arm slot and get under the ball at times. His biggest strength is resilience–Sadler racked up 60 appearances in 2004, and took the mound 47 times at Double-A Norwich in 2005. Another intriguing Giants prospect is sidearming righthander Joe Bateman, whose fastball touches 93 mph with sink, and while his slider needs work, he also bounces back well and racks up innings out of the pen.
Matt Wilkinson, rhp, Diamondbacks
Sure, he’s 28, but Wilkinson profiles as a power bullpen arm with mid-90s velocity. The Australia native had Tommy John surgery in 2004, but came back to record 15 saves at high Class A Lancaster last season. Wilkinson complements his fastball with a late-breaking slider, though his changeup is further along at this point.
Jeff Ridgway, lhp, Devil Rays
Ridgway drew attention during the second half of the season when he went 2-2, 2.79 in 29 innings through July and August. That success carried over to instructional league, where Ridgway topped out at 94 mph several times. He shows better command pitching at 89-92, and also features a hard, slurvy breaking ball and a solid changeup. Ridgway has some medical baggage, however, being two years removed from elbow and shoulder injuries.
Lincoln Holdzkom, rhp, Marlins
Holdzkom missed all of 2004 due to Tommy John surgery, but returned this past July to make 12 appearances and finished at high Class A Jupiter. When he came back, his velocity wasn’t quite what it was before the surgery when his fastball topped out at 97 on a regular basis. He should regain that velocity as his arm strength comes back. A physically imposing righthander, Holdzkom is as fiery as it gets on the mound. He still needs to refine the command of his hard-breaking curveball.
25 MORE WORTH A LOOK
Adam Boeve, of, Pirates
Solid defensively in right field, Boeve makes consistent contact with some power
Matt Coenen, lhp, Braves
Needs to smooth out mechanics to be more consistent with his arm slot, but 6-foot-6 lefty has three solid-average pitches
Thomas Collaro, of, White Sox
Power bat with some holes in his swing, Collaro hit 29 homers in high Class A
Casey Daigle, rhp, Diamondbacks
Solid year at Double-A, got a ton of ground balls in the AFL and led the league in saves
Chance Douglass, rhp, Astros
Power fastball up to 95 mph with solid changeup, but lacks quality third option
Angel Garcia, rhp, Twins
Notable, since Garcia was the first pick in the Rule 5 last year by the Devil Rays; Tampa Bay couldn’t keep him and returned him to Minnesota
Richie Gardner, rhp, Reds
Along with righthander Thomas Pauly, both are recovering from shoulder surgeries; Cincinnati thought the injuries were too much for teams to take a chance on
Jared Gothreaux, rhp, Astros
Average stuff with average velocity, Gothreaux’s slider makes him an ideal set-up man
John Jaso, c, Devil Rays
Emerging power, great athleticism; needs more time to develop catch-and-throw skills
Corwin Malone, lhp, White Sox
Another veteran of Tommy John surgery, Malone returned to Double-A this year but still had trouble throwing strikes
J.D. Martin, rhp, Indians
Left unprotected after Tommy John surgery in 2005, Martin still has the best curveball in the Indians system and commands all his pitches well
Drew Meyer, ss, Rangers
Down on the depth chart in Texas, Meyer is athletic enough to play any infield or outfield spot
Ryan Mulhern, 1b, Indians
Breakout year in 2005 and is showing big power in the Dominican this winter, but doesn’t command the zone well
Bill Murphy, lhp, Diamondbacks
Murphy was lights out at times during the AFL, showing plus secondary stuff
Jason Pridie, of, Devil Rays
A lefthanded bat with speed and power, Pridie could also be a top pick
Russ Rohlicek, lhp, Cubs
Big-bodied power lefty reliever, Rohlicek features a low-90s fastball, slider and changeup from a three-quarters delivery
David Shinskie, rhp, Twins
Arguably the best arm on a talented Beloit staff, great athlete projects as a No. 3 or No. 4
Brandon Sing, 1b, Cubs
Sing has big-time power but is a below-average defender limited to first base
Richard Stahl, lhp, Orioles
Medical history might be too much, but 6-foot-7 lefthander has proven relatively healthy the past three seasons
Eric Stults, lhp, Dodgers
Lefty with 88-92 mph fastball, plus changeup, average cutter
Ferdin Tejada, rhp, Yankees
Converted shortstop features big time velocity; went 2-0, 1.80 in the GCL
Glenn Tucker, rhp, Braves
Middle reliever with solid-average stuff, Tucker held AFL hitters to a .228 average in 16 innings
Nic Ungs, rhp, Marlins
Profiles as a middle reliever, Ungs improved his stock with a solid AFL performance
Jamie Vermilyea, rhp, Blue Jays
Commands the zone with diverse repertoire–fastball, slider, splitter, changeup, cutter
Bob Zimmermann, rhp, Angels
Proven college arm with a 90-95 mph fastball with sink; slider and changeup remain inconsistent