Image credit: (Photo by Tracy Proffitt/Four Seam Images)
Editor’s Note: Trey Ball was left off of the list of unprotected Top 10 picks. He has been added.
At their core, MLB teams are procrastinators when it comes to prospects.
There is always a chance that a struggling prospect will find a new pitch, tweak their swing, figure out a new position and revitalize their prospect status.
But the 40-man roster deadline every November forces teams to make decisions. Either a team adds a Rule 5 Draft eligible player to the 40-man roster or they risk letting anyone else have that player for the price of a roster spot and pocket change (by MLB salary standards).
When it comes to first-time eligible first-round picks, leaving a player unprotected is a clear sign that team would not repeat that decision if given a do-over.
Only three first-time eligible first-round picks are unprotected this year. But those three were notable. The Twins left two first rounders unprotected (Keoni Cavaco and Aaron Sabato) while the Royals didn’t add lefthander Asa Lacy to the 40-man roster
Lacy did not pitch in a game in 2023. He spent the year on the injured list. A back injury also shut him down early in the 2022 season. He has walked 83 batters in 80 pro innings.
Cavaco was the pop-up prospect of the 2019 draft class. Teams barely scouted him as a junior but he became a first-round pick thanks to an excellent senior season. He’s a .219/.274/.336 hitter in pro ball who has reached High-A.
Sabato’s long track record of hitting in college has not translated to pro ball. He is a .212/.348/.426 hitter who has reached Double-A..
The No. 4 pick in the 2020 draft, Lacy is the highest unprotected pick since 2016. The Rockies left No. 4 overall pick Riley Pint off their roster four years ago. Only nine top-10 picks have been left off 40-man rosters in their first year of eligibility since this draft format began in 2012.
Asa Lacy, LHP, Royals (2020, 4th pick)
Hunter Bishop, OF, Giants (2019, 10th pick)
Austin Beck, OF, Athletics (2018, 6th pick)
Kyler Murray, OF, Athletics (2018, 9th pick)
Riley Pint, RHP, Rockies (2016, 4th pick)
Tyler Jay, LHP, Twins (2015, 6th pick)
Cornelius Randolph, OF, Phillies (2015, 10th pick)
Tyler Kolek, RHP, Marlins (2014, 2nd pick)
Trey Ball, LHP, Red Sox (2013, 7th pick)
So how do the unprotected picks fare? The list above is a pretty solid indicator of their usual fate. Most unprotected first-round picks never reach the majors. But this year did provide a ray of hope.
Outfielder Will Benson was solid with the Reds after they acquired him from the Guardians. The Royals dealt for lefthander Cole Ragans during the season from the Rangers and he was their best starter. Both Benson and Ragans were 2016 first-round picks.
The pandemic scrambled the 2020 draft, but teams seem to have adjusted quite well when using the protection rate for this year’s first-time eligible first rounders as a measurement.
Only two out of 18 2020 college first-round picks were left off 40-man rosters. One of the 10 high school first rounders from 2019 is unprotected.
That 89.3% success rate is the best of any year in the study (which stretches back to 2012). An average of 81.5% of first rounders went protected in their first year of Rule 5 eligibility since 2012. From 2012 to now, 73% of high school first rounders have been protected, while 88% of college first rounders were added.
Here’s a look at the success rate by Rule 5 year.
|Year||Protected First Rounders|