2021 MLB Rule 5 Draft Preview Version 1.0
Editor's Note: Stefanic's report has been updated with regards to his defense.
Whether it takes place on Dec. 9, as currently scheduled, or is delayed because of a potential lockout by MLB owners, there will be a Rule 5 draft at some point this offseason. And to get you ready, we’ll be running through the names to know.
Last year’s Rule 5 preview pegged Garrett Whitlock, Akil Baddoo, Trevor Stephan, Kyle Holder, Zach Pop and Jordan Sheffield as names to know. We hope to do even better this year. We’ll keep expanding this list but to get started, here’s a look at 15 interesting names to know.
Miles Mastrobuoni, INF/OF, Rays
Mastrobuoni’s ceiling is much lower than some other players on this list, but he’s also one of the most likely to be picked. What he does well is a little bit of everything. Mastrobuoni played six positions for Double-A Montgomery and six positions with Triple-A Durham. He’s stretched a little at shortstop, but he played 26 games there in 2021. He can capably handle second base, third base and any outfield spot. At the plate, Mastrobuoni has shown he can hit for average (.296 in 2021), get on base (.378 OBP in 2021) and spray ball around the field. He also has shown he can catch up to high-90s fastballs—his at-bats against Hunter Greene early in the season are worth watching. Mastrobuoni doesn’t really project as an everyday regular, but his ability to play everywhere (other than first base and catcher) means he’s a potentially useful back-of-the-roster utilityman with a better bat than many of his ilk.
Michael Stefanic, INF Angels
An undrafted free agent signed out of NAIA Westmount (Calif.) College in 2018, Stefanic hit .334/.408/.505 with 16 home runs across 104 games (458 plate appearances) at the Triple-A level in 2021. One analyst with an American League team we spoke with described the Angels middle infielder as “an easy guy to carry." While Stefanic is an older prospect, with just two full minor league seasons under his belt, he has proven to be a versatile defender, logging over 180 starts between second base and shortstop since the beginning of 2019. He's not particularly good defensively at either spot as his range is quite limited. His combination of plus bat-to-ball skills (82.9% contact rate), plate approach (22.4% chase rate) and production (.397 wOBA) could position Stefanic as the rare positional pick that sticks.
Ryan Noda, INF/OF Dodgers
Acquired by Los Angeles as the player to be named later in the trade that sent Ross Stripling to Toronto, Noda has long been a name familiar to statline scouts due to his high walk rates (18.1% career walk rate) and good overall markers (153 career wRC+, .408 wOBA). The Dodgers did work on his swing coming into 2021, opening his setup and adding a leg lift timing mechanism. It paid dividends throughout 2021 as Noda’s bat stayed in the zone longer, subsequently leading to more contact and improved contact quality. A lefty hitter and thrower, Noda has split time between the outfield and first base, and has shown the ability to handle each position competently.
While his power played up in Double-A, Noda’s calling card is still his on-base ability. Arguably one of the best at drawing walks in the minor leagues the last three seasons, his low-chase approach is driven by his discerning eye at the plate and excellent swing decisions. It’s led to some of the best statistical production in the minors the past two years and provides a strong foundation for his offensive game. However, the ability to tap into more of his raw power in 2021, slugging .521 with 29 home runs, was an improvement that put him on “a few clubs' radars this winter," per sources. One analyst with an AL club described him as having “the best shot to stick (on a 26-man roster) of the sluggers available with success at or above the Double-A level.”
Shawn Semple, RHP Yankees
In what has become a grand annual tradition a Yankees pitching prospect will go in the Rule 5 draft. In fact, one Yankees pitching prospect has been selected every year dating back to 2014. To add insult to injury they lost two pitchers last year (Garrett Whitlock and Trevor Stephan), one of whom (Whitlock) became a major cog in their primary rivals' bullpen. So it’s less a matter of if a Yankee will go, but which one. Evaluators like Semple due to the plus vertical movement on his fastball, flat vertical approach angle and feel for a trio of secondaries. The former 11th-rounder out of New Orleans mixes a four-seam fastball at 92-95 mph, a sweepy low-80s slider, a mid-80s changeup with late armside run and a high-70s curveball with steep two-plane break. While he struggled during his trio of Triple-A appearances late in the season, he pitched to a 3.76 ERA and 1.13 WHIP while striking out 74 batters across 64.2 innings at the Double-A level.
Manuel Alvarez, RHP Guardians
Alvarez is one of the more divisive players available among front office people we contacted immediately following the deadline. While one source awarded Alvarez the superlative of “The best data fastball in the minors,” another analyst with an AL club cast doubt on his selectability stating, “it’s hard for me to see him go, the control is so bad, hard to carry a guy like that.” Therein lies the rub with Alvarez. On the one hand his high octane two-pitch mix consisting of a four-seam fastball that sat 98 mph this season with plus analytical markers and hard sweepy slider look tailor-made for a major league bullpen. On the other hand he walked 44 batters across 43 innings and his ERA was above seven. While there are certainly elements to like from a raw stuff perspective, it’s hard to see poor command cutting it for a full season on the active roster.
Joey Murray, RHP Blue Jays
With a meteoric rise to Double-A New Hampshire in 2019 followed by a strong alternate site showing, Murray was positioned to see time with the big league club come mid summer, however, he missed nearly all of 2021 with an undisclosed injury, seeing time in a single mid August complex league game. If he’s fully healthy heading into 2022 he could be an attractive pick for an analytical team that desires his high spin efficiency, flat vertical approach, angle traits and starter upside. His calling card is his heavy supination profile which is directly responsible for his innate ability to spin the baseball. His low-to-mid-80s slider is the best example of this ability, running his raw spin rate on the pitch up to 3,000-plus rpms at the alternate site in 2020, per sources. Murray looks best suited for a back-end starter’s role or a long relief job, where his strike-throwing ability and deception will be an asset.
Samad Taylor, INF/OF Blue Jays
Exciting is the best way to describe Taylor’s game on the field. Blessed with twitch and easy athleticism, Taylor not only is a plus runner and basestealer, he displays impressive bat speed at the plate, leading to bigger impact hitting than his diminutive frame may suggest at first glance. While he can be hyper-aggressive early in counts, he shows the ability to settle into his two-strike approach and battle pitches off the edges. He has above-average on-base abilities (11.2% walk rate in 2021) that allow him to overcome below-average bat-to-ball skills. Some of this is a product of a lofty swing that can lead him to whiff on good pitches to drive. Despite this, Taylor gets the most out of his physicality and swing, displaying good power numbers (.209 Isolated slugging) and a knack for hard flyball contact (46.4% flyball rate in 2021). He has versatility in the field, a characteristic that's desirable to teams in the Rule 5, having logged time at second base (his natural position), shortstop, third base, center field and left field. While the versatility is good, he lacks a true defensive home. Another potential negative, as one evaluator noted, is his strong side platoon splits, making him unlikely to see much work versus lefthanders. Despite the potential limitations, Taylor has the offensive upside, defensive versatility, and baserunning acumen to fit as a sparkplug utility type.
Michael Stefanic Resembles A Past Angels Prospect
Signed as a nondrafted free agent, Stefanic isn't flashy afield, but his versatility, batting potential and determination give him a chance to earn a big league role.
Garrett Hill, RHP Tigers
A standout for Salt River during the Arizona Fall League, Hill is a crafty back-end starter type who uses advanced sequencing of his four-pitch mix to his advantage, moving his fastball all over the zone and doubling up on cutters and curveballs to keep hitters off-balance and chasing. Evaluators like Hill’s loose and easy operation, as well as his low release point due to an accentuated drop-and-drive delivery. The latter is a quality that allows the righthander’s fastball to play above his pedestrian velocity (90-93 mph). Hill features a trio of secondaries but he relies on his mid-80s cutter and high-70s curveball primarily. Control and command are still a work in progress but Hill showed an improved feel for the zone during his Fall League tenure, walking just three batters across 13.2 innings pitched.
Buddy Kennedy 3B, Diamondbacks
It came as somewhat of a surprise that Kennedy went unprotected by Arizona. The righthanded-hitting third baseman who shares a hometown with Mike Trout hit .290/.384/.523 across two levels with the majority of his production coming as a member of Double-A Amarillo. He had an up-and-down Arizona Fall League, hitting .236/.328/.400 with Salt River but participated in the circuit’s Fall Stars game. Kennedy played multiple spots in the infield (first base, second base and third base) during the 2021 season but is a below-average defender at all three. His average throwing arm allows him to play a passable third base and potentially second base, a position he saw time at during the Arizona Fall League. While it’s reasonable to believe Kennedy’s bat could fit on a big league roster, one question remains—will he hit enough to overcome his defensive limitations?
Christopher Gau, RHP Rays
When a team has a 40-man roster crunch it’s indicative of a few things: first, a strong ability to draft and develop talent. Secondly, and most importantly in the context of the Rule 5 draft, good players from said organization(s) will go unprotected. Gau, a former 14th-rounder out of Jacksonville, is coming off an impressive season as a reliever across two levels. He runs his four-seam fastball up to 95 with plus vertical movement, allowing it to play above his average velocity for a righthanded reliever. He pairs a hard slurvy slider in the mid-to-high 80s with a high-70s curveball with depth and late sweep. One cause for concern is Gau’s fastball gets hit with relative frequency and is best used as an early-count setup pitch for his pair of plus breaking balls. Off the strength of his offspeed Gau ranked 12th in the minor leagues in K-BB% at a rate of 33%, striking out batters at a rate of 39.4% while issuing walks just 6.4% of the time. If a club believes it can add a few ticks of velocity onto his fastball without negatively impacting his spin efficiency he has the stuff to stick in a big league pen in 2022.
Jhony Brito, RHP Yankees
Two characteristics that teams value in relievers are the ability to drive ground balls and a secondary pitch that finds success versus batters of both handedness. Brito is another Yankees arm with the potential to be selected in this Rule 5 draft who possesses both of these skills. Another pitcher identified by analysts, Brito’s plus changeup has unique qualities movement-wise that make him intriguing to certain teams. As a heavy pronator Brito kills lift or ride on his changeup at a plus level, resulting in heavy armside run and late tumble. He has two variations of his fastball, but mostly works off of his two-seam, a low-to-mid-90s offering with true sink and armside run. He blends in a low-80s slider with some depth and moderate sweep. His sequencing is interesting, as his changeup accounts for over 40% of his pitch usage, with his slider and sinker seeing nearly equal usage. The practice of “pitching backwards” accentuates Brito’s strengths and limits the exposure to his fastball(s) that tend to be hit fairly hard with regularity.
Ruben Cardenas, OF, Rays
The Rays couldn’t protect everyone, and Cardenas is one of the most interesting of the prospects they left available. He has developed more and more ability to get to his power—he hit 25 home runs in 2021 between High-A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery. He’s a little too aggressive at the plate, but has enough bat-to-ball skills to potentially make it work. Cardenas isn’t a true center fielder, but he’s played out there enough to be a fill-in and he’s fine in both corners.
Oscar Gonzalez, OF, Guardians
What can we say about Gonzalez that we didn’t say in our 2019 Rule 5 preview or our 2020 Rule 5 preview? This is Gonzalez’s third year of being available in the Rule 5 draft, but this is easily the year he has the strongest case to be picked. His impressive tools actually turned into production in 2021—he hit 31 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A. Gonzalez doesn’t draw walks and can be viewed as high risk but high reward. There’s a decent possibility his swing-hard, swing-a-lot approach may not work, but if it does, he has the kind of power that could see him become a useful everyday player, something that is hard to find in the Rule 5 draft.
Blake Hunt, C, Rays
Coming into the 2021 season, it would seem unlikely to find Hunt’s name among the available Rule 5 players—he was a significant part of the Blake Snell trade. But in a Rays system that now has four catchers on the 40-man roster, Hunt was somewhat a victim of a numbers game. On top of that, Hunt is less likely than Rene Pinto or Ford Proctor (both of whom the Rays added to the 40-man roster) to be able to stick as a Rule 5 pick. Hunt’s bat has not progressed as hoped yet. He has some power potential, but his inability to hit for average has hindered his ability to fully get to that power. Defensively, he’s relatively polished for a 22-year-old. Catchers often take longer to develop, and Hunt could fit in that category, but that does mean that it’s difficult for a team to pick him and feel confident he can serve as the team’s primary backup catcher. But a team willing to look to the future could seem him as a valuable development piece—he’s more polished and just as promising as Luis Torrens was when the Padres picked him a few years ago.
Justin Yurchak, 1B, Dodgers
In 2021, Yurchak led the minors with a .365 batting average. For his career, he’s a .321 hitter with a .412 on-base percentage. Hitting is Yurchak’s only plus tool, but it is the most important one, which is why he’s a name to consider despite the fact that it may be hard to fit him on a 26-man roster. He’s either a regular/platoon first baseman/DH/left fielder or he’s a pinch hitter.
Yurchak doesn’t have a lot of defensive value and he doesn’t have much power—his career high in home runs is 13 and he only hit seven this year. But he sure can hit.