Image credit: Max Muncy (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Q: Who were the best players who went unpicked in last year’s Rule 5 draft?
— Judy Rising, @baseballgods16
A: Now that teams are poring over lists of eligible players for the 2018 Rule 5 draft, there’s also time for reflection over what could have been. Last year’s Rule 5 draft has one big success story (Royals RHP Brad Keller) and a few other players who stuck, but the list of players who weren’t picked is in many ways more impressive than the ones who were.
There’s no guarantee that if these players listed below had been picked that they would have had the same success. Five of the seven players on this list received significant minor league time before being promoted, something that is not allowed for players picked in the Rule 5 draft. But it is notable how well some unprotected players from last year’s Rule 5 draft performed.
- Max Muncy, 1B/2B, Dodgers
One of the stars of the Dodgers’ 2018 postseason run was available and unpicked in last year’s Rule 5 draft. Muncy is a reminder that some star turns are completely unexpected. Muncy had hit .309/.414/.491 for the Dodgers’ Triple-A Oklahoma City club in 2017. Los Angeles gets plenty of credit for helping him hit .263/.391/.583 this season, but it’s worth noting that they didn’t fully see this coming either. If they did, they likely would have added him to the 40-man roster instead of risking losing him in the Rule 5 draft.
- Josh James, RHP, Astros
James struck out just under a batter an inning while posting a 4.38 ERA at Double-A Corpus Christi in 2017. It’s possible a scout could have liked him as a potential innings eater in that year’s Rule 5 draft, but no one could have forseen his 2018 breakout season. James fixed a sleep apnea problem, gained five mph to his fastball and made it onto the Astros’ postseason roster. He needs to improve his control, but it’s hard not to like a starting pitcher who can touch 100+ mph or better regularly while mixing in a plus changeup.
- Dereck Rodriguez, RHP, Giants
A 2011 draftee, Rodriguez began his career as a outfielder before moving to the mound in 2014. So he got off to a very late start as a pitcher and didn’t reach full season ball as a pitcher for good until 2016. He was a minor league free agent last offseason after posting a 5-4, 3.94 record at Double-A Chattanooga. The Giants signed him as a minor league free agent on Nov. 15 last year, so he was Rule 5 eligible, but no one at the time would have guessed that Rodriguez would be better in the major leagues in 2018 than he was in Double-A in 2017. Rodriguez lowered his walk rate and his hits allowed while going 6-4, 2.81 in 21 starts with the Giants.
- Franmil Reyes, OF, Padres
As a 21-year-old, Reyes hit .258/.322/.464 for Double-A El Paso in 2017. While he had shown top-of-the-scale raw power, Reyes had failed to post an .800 OPS in any full season stop in his career, so it wasn’t surprising when he went unpicked, especially as he was recovering from a broken hamate (which affected the Padres’ decision to leave him unprotected). While Muncy and Rodriguez were in the big leagues quickly in 2018, Reyes spent the first half of the season in Triple-A, where he blossomed to the tune of a 1.042 OPS. It’s fair to wonder if he could have come close to matching the .280/.340/.498 stat line he produced in a half season with the Padres if he had been a Rule 5 pick. But it’s also a safe bet that a lot of teams would have loved to have had that chance in hindsight.
- Ryan O’Hearn, 1B, Royals
Here at Baseball America, we’re not casting aspersions with this list of who should have been taken. We spotlighted nearly 90 Rule 5 candidates last year and didn’t mention any of the top three players on this list, which is a reminder that either we need to write up more players this year or you can’t predict ball. But we did highlight O’Hearn and Reyes because of their power potential. O’Hearn posted a .232/.322/.391 line at Triple-A Omaha before turning into the Royals best power hitter in a late-season 44-game stint. He hit .262/.353/.597 with 12 home runs.
- Jeff McNeil, 2B, Mets
McNeil had posted solid numbers at high Class A St. Lucie in 2017, but he had very little experience at the upper levels of the minors, which made it a safe bet for the Mets to leave the second baseman unprotected. McNeil tore up three different levels in 2018 and hit .329/.381/.471 as the Mets second baseman in the second half of the season. Much like O’Hearn and Reyes, it’s hard to discount the additional 88 games of minor league time McNeil received in 2018, but his year was excellent wherever he played.
- Niko Goodrum, 2B, Tigers
Goodrum signed with the Tigers as a minor league free agent and earned a big league job out of spring training. He hit .245/.315/.412 with 16 home runs while playing everywhere other than catcher and center field. He’s unlikely to be a long-term regular, but as a low-cost utility infielder, he was a solid addition.