Lahey Picked First Then Traded

Cubs take active role in most recent Rule 5 draft

NASHVILLE—Last year's Rule 5 draft had its biggest moment when the Chicago Cubs drafted Josh Hamilton with the third pick. However, the Cubs didn't keep Hamilton, trading him to the Reds in a prearranged deal. Hamilton went on to become one of baseball's best comebacks stories.

The Cubs decided to be a more active player in this year's Rule 5 proceedings, trading for righthander Tim Lahey after the Rays had made the former Twins farmhand the No. 1 pick.

Lahey was a catcher at Princeton, then converted to the mound when the Twins drafted him. He has a short, catcher-like arm action, but he throws strikes with his 90-92 mph fastball, one that has touched 95 according to Cubs officials, and the delivery adds some deception. A 20th-round pick in 2004 by the Twins, Lahey also throws a solid-average slider and a changeup. The Cubs see room for improvement, since Lahey is still relatively new to pitching.

"He's got real good sink with a ground ball ratio of almost 3-to-1 and the makings of a pretty good slider," Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita said. "It's amazing—I think he has 178, 179 innings and has less than a hit per inning pitched. That's pretty good for a guy who just got converted. We're excited to see him.

"You've got to trust your scouts. The backbone of the business is your scouts and Mark Service and Steve Fuller had good reports on him, and Joe Housey saw him recently. You take a stab at it—he's a big, strong durable guy with great makeup and we wanted to roll the dice on it. It wasn't long ago that Carlos Marmol was changed from a catcher to a pitcher. Boy, if he's half as good as he is, we might have gotten lucky."

Cheap Relief Help

No team was more active in the Rule 5 than the Padres, who won 89 games in 2007 yet have three Rule 5 players who they must protect on next year's 25-man roster.

The Padres selected one righthander, Mike Gardner from the Yankees, then traded for another, Carlos Guevara, a former Reds farmhand whom the Marlins selected. Gardner, 26, is a late-blooming sinker-slider pitcher whose fastball touches 95 and sits in the low 90s. He gave up only one home run in 81 innings at Double-A Trenton.

Guevara has a well-renowned screwball, and general manager Kevin Towers told reporters he was the organization's No. 1 target. Towers has excelled in recent years at finding inexpensive pieces to the Padres bullpen, using the Rule 5 last year to snag useful righthander Kevin Cameron from the Twins, and the formula could work again this year. San Diego added a third player in Brewers infielder Callix Crabbe, a speedster with a utility infielder profile.

The Twins and Indians were both affected in terms of clubs that lost players, while the Nationals and Phillies took two players apiece. Three Twins—Lahey, outfielder Garrett Guzman and righthander R.A. Dickey—were drafted in the major league phase. Guzman went to the Nationals, while Dickey—a Nashville resident who'd just signed with Minnesota as a six-year free agent—takes his knuckleball to the Mariners.

Guzman, a 2001 10th-rounder, batted .312/.359/.453 at Double-A New Britain last season. Guzman missed the entire 2005 season after breaking his neck in a car accident just days before leaving for spring training that year. Now 25, the undersized lefthanded hitter profiled as arguably the best fourth outfielder candidate on the Rule 5 eligible list.

"We think he can be a fourth outfielder in the big leagues right now," Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said. "He's a quality kid who hits the ball hard, he goes the other way with it."

Guzman has drawn comparisons to veteran reserve outfielder Orlando Palmeiro. While Palmeiro was a bit better runner and defender, Guzman offers more power and offensive upside.

"I think that's a really fair comparison," Bowden said. "His best position is left field, but he could play those other positions. That's actually in our scouting reports—that actual name is in our scouting reports. We think he can be a solid fourth or fifth guy."

The Indians had two players taken in the major league phase, with the Nationals taking corner infielder Matt Whitney and the Cardinals taking Brian Barton, the outfielder who had been rumored to be a candidate for the first overall Rule 5 pick. Whitney was a supplemental first-round pick back in 2002 and was picked that high for his power, and after years of struggles due in part to a significant broken-leg injury Whitney sustained in 2003, his power is still there. He hit 32 homers in 2007 between two Class A stops, but he's still just 23.

"He's not ready for the major leagues, but certainly has tremendous potential," Bowden said. "I loved him back in his draft year—great power—and then he had those injuries that were just devastating. But he got healthy last year for the first time and he performed at two levels. He's got tremendous power, tremendous bat speed . . . third base, first base . . . and like (Jesus) Flores (who was Rule 5'd in 2006), it's worth the gamble."

Barton Goes To Redbirds

Barton, a potential five-tool player, hit .305/.402/.420 with 21 stolen bases in 2007 between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Buffalo. He was considered the consensus best gamble on the board. Most clubs were scared off by concerns about the knee surgery Barton had several weeks ago, but St. Louis obviously did its homework and dispatched scout Charlie Gonzalez to the University of Miami to see Barton work out.

"He's wearing a knee brace right now, but we were able to learn that it's not anything that's going to hold him back from being ready for spring training," Cardinals director of scouting and player development Jeff Luhnow said. "Really when you look at his career, the only time he hasn't performed is that small sample in Triple-A this year and we don't know how much of that was due to the injury. Clearly there was something bothering him, but he finished the season.

"He's a guy that checks a lot of boxes for us because he did perform throughout his career and our scouts liked him a lot. Every time we've seen him we've graded him out with pretty good tools across the board. He can run, he can play all three outfield positions. Defensively, he's very adequate and for us to take a Rule 5 position player the number one concern has to be defense. We felt like that is part of his arsenal and then the bat is a bonus, but he's also a righthanded hitter and right now if you look at our outfield, we've got three lefthanded hitters. He's going to have a legitimate chance to make the club."

Barton, who signed with Cleveland as a nondrafted free agent in 2004, was at home in Miami when he got the news, and was obviously elated to get an opportunity.

"Being left off the (Cleveland) roster was a little disappointing, but at the same time I had to understand that certain teams have certain needs," Barton said. "It's a business and that's the way you have to treat it. Everything's been good health-wise—it was just a little cleanup. I just felt like I'd be a better asset to a team if I was 100 percent healthy, so we went in and had the surgery. It was in the best interest for me and the team. I thought the team would be the Indians, but I'm happy to be a Cardinal now and I plan on making the most of this opportunity."

The Phillies' two picks included hard-throwing righthander Lincoln Holdzkom, who threw mid-90s gas in the Arizona Fall League in front of Phillies GM Pat Gillick but who also is on his fourth organization now in three years. The Phillies also selected lefty Travis Blackley from the Giants, just weeks after seeing Blackley pitch for Australia in the World Cup in Taiwan. Blackley pitched well even though his fastball, a low-90s, above-average pitch in his Mariners days, was sitting 84-87 mph. Shoulder surgery has sapped Blackley of much of his velocity, but he still went 10-8, 4.66 for Triple-A Fresno this season.

The Twins also lost the first two players in the Triple-A phase, outfielder Rashad Eldridge and righthander Josh Hill, to the Rays and Pirates, respectively. Perhaps the biggest name of the Triple-A phase was lefthander Ray Liotta, the third pick, whom the Royals selected from the White Sox. Liotta had offseason shoulder surgery but was a second-round pick back in 2004, when he signed for $499,000.

"When you lose players in the (Triple-A) phase you're getting $12,000 per player," one scouting director said. "One of the guys at our table was saying, 'At least we got some cash out of this.' I didn't have the heart to tell him how much we paid some of the players we lost in bonuses."