Image credit: Rays RHP Ryan Thompson (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
In the major league phase of the 2018 Rule 5 draft, 14 players were selected. Only three of those 14 players stuck with their new clubs.
No. 1 pick Richie Martin played regularly at shortstop for the Orioles. Righthander Elvis Luciano was buried in the Blue Jays bullpen for all of 2019. Before the novel coronavirus pandemic arrived, he was ticketed to return to the minors to try to continue his development.
The other player who stuck, righthander Brandon Brennan, has proven to be a useful low-leverage reliever for the Mariners. He’s made 49 appearances over the past two seasons and has thrown 54.2 innings.
But the Rule 5 draft does not end with the final selection of the major league phase.
As soon as the MLB phase of the Rule 5 draft ends, the MiLB phase begins. And for many MLB front offices, analytics teams and scouts, that’s where the real fun begins. There were 14 players taken in the 2018 MLB Rule 5 draft, but there were 41 players taken in the minor league phase.
And the best pick of the 2018 Rule 5 draft was not Martin or Brennan. It was righthander Ryan Thompson. A MiLB Rule 5 pick of the Rays from the Astros organization, Thompson had missed all of 2018 because of Tommy John surgery. The Rays liked what he had done pre-surgery and picked him. He spent 2019 at the Rays’ Double-A Montgomery affiliate. The submariner then reached Tampa Bay in 2020 and pitched his way into the Rays postseason bullpen. He made nine postseason appearances for the Rays and threw 2.2 scoreless innings (in three appearances) in the World Series.
Thompson is one of four players from the 2018 MiLB phase who has played in the majors since. Righthander Chris Mazza, a Mets MiLB Rule 5 pick from the Mariners, made nine appearances with the Mets in 2019. He then made six starts (and nine appearances) with the Red Sox in 2020.
Infielder Corban Joseph played for three different MLB teams in 2019. The A’s selected him from the Orioles and brought him up to the majors for 11 games before waiving him. The Pirates then claimed him, played him for nine games and waived him. The Giants claimed him and played him for eight games.
The A’s made an astute pick of outfielder Mark Payton from the Yankees. Payton’s career high in home runs as a Yankees’ prospect was 10. He hit 30 for the A’s Triple-A Sacramento team in 2019. In 2019, he was a major league Rule 5 pick of the Reds. The Reds ended up not keeping him on their active roster, but they did work a deal to keep him in their system and eventually he made it to Cincinnati for eight games.
To be eligible for the MiLB phase of the Rule 5 draft, a player must be left off of the 40-man MLB roster as well as the 38-player Triple-A roster. That means that a player’s current organization has determined that there are dozens of players it would prefer to protect.
But unlike the MLB phase, the MiLB phase of the Rule 5 draft carries with it no roster restrictions. Pick an MLB Rule 5 pick and you have to spend a valuable MLB active roster spot on the player all year.
Pick an MiLB Rule 5 pick and after paying the $24,000 draft price, the player is now a part of the organization that drafted him with no further roster rules.
“The minor league Rule 5 phase is one place that allows creativity and open mindedness. There’s a lack of downside to it,” said Kevin Ibach, the Rays senior director of player personnel. “When you get on the back fields in spring training and scouts ask, ‘where did you get this guy from?’ When you can answer that you took him in the minor league Rule 5 draft, that’s the most satisfying feeling.”
So for astute teams, the MiLB phase of the Rule 5 draft has become a trip to the outlet mall. Everyone available in the MiLB phase has some clear weaknesses, but with the plethora of analytical data that is now pervasive, their best attributes can also be sussed out. Teams like the Rays also rely on their scouts to try to suss out reasons why a player may thrive with a tweak or a role change. As Ibach explained, the Rays try to make it a collaborative process by which scouts and analysts figure out the players to pick.
The Rays picked four players in the minor league phase of the draft in 2018. Thompson has reached the majors, Ian Gardeck pitched well for the Rays’ Double-A club in 2019, Cristofer Ogando and Hector Figueroa both had solid seasons in Class A in 2019. All four remain on the Rays minor league roster heading into 2021.
“All these guys have some sort of warts and you’re the wart remover,” Ibach said. “What can you remove that gets weighed into the decision of why he’s on the Double-A roster?”
And while that allows teams to find potential hidden gems, the outliers can also stand out. Thompson was notable because he threw relatively hard from an extremely low arm slot. A pitcher with top-of-the-scale slider attributes who barely throws it may be worth a pick, as perhaps the pitcher could blossom if taught to make that his predominant pitch. An outfielder with excellent exit velocities but poor power numbers may take off if they can be taught to hit the ball in the air more often to unleash that power.
MiLB Rule 5 picks are fliers. Most will not work out. But in a sport where teams grind for every small advantage, the opportunity to get a low-cost opportunity to pluck a player from another team has its appeal.