On Thursday morning, the MLB will hold its annual Rule 5 Draft.
Teams will have the opportunity to draft eligible players, and then add them to their rosters for the upcoming season. Not all teams will participate, but those that do, will pay a $50,000 fee to the organizations they select players from.
If a team does select a player, they must keep him on their 25-man roster for the entire 2012 season. If the club decides to part with a drafted player, they must first offer him back to the team they drafted him from. If the other team agrees to take the player back, they have to return $25,000 to the drafting team. Before the player returns to his original club however, he must pass through outright waivers.
The Rule 5 draft pool consists of players who aren’t currently on MLB 40-Man rosters. Included in the pool are two types of eligible players:
(1) Players who were older than 19 years old when they were drafted, and have spent four years in affiliated professional baseball.
(2) Players who were 18 or younger when they were drafted and have spent five years playing affiliated professional baseball.
Generally, only about half of the league’s teams actually participate in the MLB phase of the draft. Out of those clubs that do use the draft, only a handful of them actually end up keeping the player they selected. For the most part, teams draft for depth. They use Spring Training to get feel for whether they actually need to burn an active roster spot on a Rule 5 draftee.
Every year, there are a number of intriguing prospects left unprotected. Even top athletes like Jiwan James (2011), Jesus Flores (2006) and Jayson Werth (2001) are often available. Usually however, clubs will pass on developmental projects, as these players aren’t prepared to contribute in the MLB immediately. Instead, they’ll usually choose players that can fill specific roles right out of spring training.
The draft’s talent pool is thin, and there are few players capable of playing everyday in the MLB. But clubs can still get lucky and grab quality relief pitchers, utilitymen and occasionally, a true starter. Stars like Josh Hamilton (2006), Joakim Soria (2006), Shane Victorino (2002) and Johan Santana (1999) are former Rule 5 draftees, while Scott Podsednik (1997), Alexi Ogando (2005), David Herndon (2009), Ivan Nova (2009), Scott Diamond (2010), and Pedro Beato (2010) are among a large fraternity of former draftees who have made solid big league contributions.
Here are some of this year’s most intriguing Rule 5 eligible players:
Josh Fields, Red Sox
Perhaps the top talent in this year’s crop, Josh Fields would’ve been protected in many other organizations. He’s blessed with a cannon arm, and he’s coming off of a career-best season in the high minors. The Red Sox however, are well-stocked with prospects and their 40-man roster had needs in other areas. Plus, protecting their deep stock of catchers was their first priority this winter.
Originally drafted by the Mariners, 20th overall in 2008, Fields has taken a long, winding road from top prospect status, through a forest of injuries, to the depths of the minors, back to top prospect stardom. When Seattle selected him with their top pick, they believed the former Georgia Bulldogs closer could assume a key role in the back of their bullpen in a matter of months. But a slew of injuries and control problems killed his performance as soon as he suited up for the Mariners, and three years later, he’d worn out his welcome all together. The Mariners ended up shipping him to Boston in the Erik Bedard trade.
Riddled with command problems and arm injuries, Fields’ career was in a free fall by 2011. So, the Red Sox decided to do what the Mariners couldn’t, and completely revamp Fields’ mechanics.
Coming out of Georgia, Fields’ wind-up was similar to Tim Lincecum’s, albeit with more violence and a higher arm slot. After spending the past couple of seasons cleaning up his timing and hands, he’s finally found some consistency. He still uses the drop-and-drive technique, but Fields’ new delivery is much more compact, and he’s shorter to the plate.
To make a long story short, the Red Sox have turned Fields’ career around.
Pitching in Portland this Spring, Fields took the mound as the pitcher the Mariners thought they were getting when they drafted him. He was nasty. His velocity returned to the mid 90′s and his curveball sharpened back into a hammer. But most important, his command improved drastically. Through his first 32 appearances out of the bullpen, he posted a 2.62 ERA, a career-best 59 strikeouts and he yielded just 16 walks through 44 2/3 innings pitched. His 3.16 BB/9 ratio was half of his career mark (6.30 BB/9), and his ground-out/fly-out ratio improved from 0.83 in ’11 to 2.06.
Fields finished the season on fire, with ten shutout appearances at Triple-A Pawtucket. Through 13 2/3 innings pitched with the Paw Sox, he struck out 19 batters and allowed just 10 baserunners.
Fields’ stock appears to be on the rise. His stuff is nasty, his wind-up is deceptive and he’s pitching with confidence. Out of the bullpen, his ceiling is still on-par with a quality big league closer. Even if he doesn’t quite reach that level, as long as he maintains his solid control, his mid 90′s heat and spike curve should still make him a very effective reliever.
Complete prospects like these, who boast first rate tools and success in the high minors, are rarely available in the Rule 5 Draft. The Astros have the first pick tomorrow, and there’s a good chance they’ll use it on Fields. Even if he makes it past Houston, though, he’ll almost certainly hear his name called within the first 10 picks.
Kyle Heckathorn, Brewers
Back in 2009, the Brewers used their third draft pick to select Heckathorn at the 47th slot.
Coming out of Kennesaw State, Heckathorn was widely considered a hefty player development project. His stats were mediocre (4.98 ERA as a senior), and he’d delt with mechanical problems and elbow issues throughout his college career. But, he was 6’6″ with a big frame and a power 94 MPH fastball, and that’s usually enough to draw first-round suitors.
In the pros, it has been more of the same for Heckathorn. He certainly looks the part, and his arm still fires heat as high as 95 MPH, but he’s been inconsistent on the mound. He has a 4.32 ERA through 88 career appearances in the minors, and he’s often struggled since his promotion to Double-A at the end of 2011.
Heckathorn split 2012 between the rotation and the bullpen, totalling a 4.75 ERA and 165 baserunners allowed in just 119 1/3 innings pitched. Teams considering him in the Rule 5 draft will be looking at him strictly in relief though, and he’s been solid out of the ‘pen. In 29 1/3 innings of relief last season, he posted a 3.68 ERA, struck out 20 batters and allowed just twenty-seven hits. His two-seamer has some solid weight and sink to it, and combined with his hard slider, he’s managed to induce two ground-outs for every fly-out throughout his career.
Heckathorn’s velocity jumps considerably from game to game, but when he’s at his best, he has knock-out stuff. His four-seamer and two-seamer both fight through bats, and he can reach back and blow hitters away when he’s loose. His mid 80′s slider has stiff break, and though it’s a chase pitch right now, it shows plenty of potential. Despite his ground-ball rates, he works up in the zone too often. Once he does a better job staying on top of the ball and pitching down hill, he could be an even better ground-ball pitcher.
If he’s drafted, Heckathorn is a long shot to stick. His command is erratic and his arm action is still violent, making it difficult to believe he’ll enjoy any sustained success against big league hitters in the near term. But, for any pitching coach looking for a bullpen project, he offers plenty of tools to work with. His mid 90′s heat, big league body and sharp slider should be more than enough incentive for teams to give him a long look.
Destin Hood, Washington Nationals
A member of USA Today’s 2008 All-USA High School Baseball Team, Hood was a superb prospect coming out of St. Paul’s Episcopal high school in Alabama. He starred in both baseball and football, and attracted attention from a tsunami of scouts in both sports. On the diamond, his .485 batting average and eight homeruns earned him honors as Alabama’s 5-A Player of the Year. He was also a star wide receiver and four-star (Rivals.com) recruit on gridiron. Hood made 56 catches and totalled 955 receiving yards as a senior, en route to the 5-A state championship.
Impressed by his remarkable athleticism, the Nationals drafted Hood in the second round in 2008, and handed him big money to turn down his football and baseball scholarships at the University of Alabama. Many teams even viewed Hood as a legitimate top-20 draft talent at the time, but his commitment to play for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide scared them off.
Like Fields, Hood would be protected in most organizations. But the Nationals are stocked with talented outfielders, and their packed 40-man roster forced Mike Rizzo to take a gamble by leaving Hood unprotected.
Though he had a down season in 2012, the Nationals believe Hood is a future star. A former All-Star in both the South Atlantic League and the Carolina League, he’s proven himself in the past. After putting together a solid performance in 2010, his first season above rookie ball, Hood enjoyed a breakout season in 2011.
Playing the outfield corners for the Carolina League’s Potomac Nationals, he hit .276/.364/.445, stole 21 bases in 27 attempts and racked up 47 extra-base hits through 128 games. He finished the season ranked third in the league with 83 RBI and fifth with 206 total bases.
Last season, Hood struggled as a twenty-two-year-old playing against more advanced Eastern League competition. He hit .245/.301/.344 in 355 at bats and stole just six bases. However, the Nationals were generally happy with his willingness to overcome adversity and their director of minor league operations, Mark Scialabba, believes Hood took a step forward. The young outfielder did rebound at the end of the season and he performed well in the club’s instructional league this fall.
Hood won’t turn twenty-three until April, and he still has plenty of time to make good on his promise. For now he has plenty to iron out, but that doesn’t mean he can’t help a big league team in the near term either. His defense is already advanced enough to push for major league at bats off of the bench, and his plate discipline and power could develop quickly with proper coaching.
One of the top high school baseball players in Alabama history, Hood’s athleticism will be hard to pass-up in the Rule 5 draft. He’s blessed with a sweet swing and enough raw power to drive 20+ home runs in the big leagues one day. His body control and solid running speed also make him an above average corner outfielder and an asset on the base paths.
Though Hood’s still fairly raw for a Rule 5 pick, a rebuilding team like the Astros could stomach his growing pains for a season–as long they’re confident in the ultimate payoff.
Jesus Aguilar, Indians
Signed by the Indians in 2007, Aguilar has risen through the prospects ranks throughout the past couple of years. After spending two seasons in the Dominican Summer League, and his stateside debut in rookie ball, he broke out in the Midwest League in 2011. He mashed nineteen homeruns and launched forty-eight extra-base hits in just 349 at bats, and his .915 OPS was the best mark among the league’s first basemen.
After a monster 2011, Aguilar arguably out together an even better campaign last season. Playing in the humid, power-sapping Carolina League, he hit .277/.365/.454 and managed to belt 12 homeruns and thirty-seven extra-base hits in 368 at bats. His power bat and solid batting eye not only earned him a promotion to the Eastern League by the end of the summer, but he even represented the Indians at the Futures Game.
Despite his impressive power, Aguilar is up for grabs in this year’s Rule 5 draft. While he’s a very good prospect, the Indians aren’t completely crazy for leaving him unprotected. Listed at 6’3″, 257 pounds, the big first baseman’s true weight appears to be much closer to 300 pounds. He’s a bad athlete, and will always be a base-clogger and slow-footed fielder.
Aguilar does have plus raw power and enough present juice to hit 20 bombs in the MLB right now. There’s tremendous strength in his swing, and even if he doesn’t hit for average, there’s little doubt as to whether he’ll be able to punish premium pitching. He also has a MLB-grade batting eye, posting a .359 on-base percentage in A-ball in 2011, and then a .372 mark between the Carolina and Eastern Leagues last season.
Jeremy Hazelbaker, Red Sox
The Red Sox took Hazelbaker out of Ball State in the fourth round of the ’09 Draft. After a couple of years of mediocrity in A-Ball, he’s bloomed in to one of their better outfield prospects. He hit .273/.335/.472 and stole thirty-six bases while playing in the Eastern League for the majority of the 2012 season. His performance earned him a cup of coffee with Pawtucket in September, and he’s hit well enough (.261/.346/.565) in Mexico this fall. Armed with plus speed, the ability to play all three outfield positions and a decent enough left-handed bat, he’s a prime candidate for the Rule 5 Draft.
Randy Henry, Rangers
After he was drafted by the Orioles 116th overall in 2009, Henry was dealt to the Rangers in the Taylor Teagarden deal two years later. Primarily a second baseman in junior college, Henry has returned to the mound full time in the pros. Though he started eleven games this year, he’s not built to be a starter. Thin and athletic, Henry repeats his delivery well, but his velocity is fringy coming out of the rotation.
In the bullpen last season, Henry posted a sparking 1.32 ERA through 34 innings, and struck out 30 batters. He spots his low 90′s heater to both sides of the plate and his tight slider is a swing and miss pitch against righties. He does a nice job keeping the ball on the ground, with a 2.4 career G/F ratio. Though he doesn’t dazzle, he profiles as a bullpen piece in the big leagues, and he should earn a pick tomorrow.
Ryan Chaffee, RHP, Angels – Smallish Texas League arm with MLB relief profile. Fastball sits in the low 90′s, and he had one of the better sliders in AA last year. His command is below average, however.
Jose Dominguez, RHP, Dodgers – Skinny flamethrower whips consistent 93-96 MPH riding heat. Promising slider but raw control and inconsistent mechanics make him a long shot to stick.
Nate Freiman, 1B, Padres – 6’7″ 230-pound Duke University alumnus mashed 24 home runs, 56 extra-base hits in 137 Texas League games in 2012. Slugging percentage has improved annually last three years. This fall, he posted a .728 OPS in AFL and played in championship game.
Jon Galvez, 2B, Padres – Tall, thin middle infielder with .281/.375/.435 career line in pros. Posted a .292/.364/.426 line in the Texas League last year, and showed an improved glove at second base. Has so-so arm and athleticism, but could be a nice MLB utilityman one day.
Jason Hagerty, C, Padres – Twenty-five-year-old switch-hitting catcher with power and a playable glove. Since posting a monster .902 OPS in the Midwest League, his OPS has dropped 170 points total.
Jon Keck, LHP, Pirates – Lefty reliever with shaky command but heavy fastball that touches 95-96 MPH. Posted a 3.20 ERA in 64.1 IP between the Carolina League and Texas League last year, and has maintained a G/F above 2/1 since the past three seasons.
Marc Krauss, 1B/LF, D’Backs – Big power hitter has lost weight and gotten in better shape since pushing the scales when he was a second round pick in 2009. Great batting eye, plus power, but poor athleticism and zero defensive value. Bounced back after sub-par 2011 to slug .509 in the Southern League last year.
Chris McGuiness, 1B, Rangers – 2012 AFL MVP led the league with 27 RBI. Smallish first baseman has sweet left-handed swing and nice plate discipline. Decent pop, hit 23 home runs in hitter friendly Texas league last year.
Carlos E. Perez, C, Astros – Former Blue Jays top prospect, rebounded from tough 2011 to post a .798 OPS in A-ball last year. Twenty-two-year-old has a strong arm, and nice defensive tools. But, he’s also raw, allowing 32 passed balls in 185 games the past two seasons.
Nick Struck, RHP, Cubs – Little righty has low 90′s sinker and sharp three-pitch off-speed arsenal. Throws all of his pitches for strikes, and changes speed like a veteran. He was so-so in the AFL, but he spent most of the fall focusing on improving his mechanics.