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Rule 5 Draft can give players new life12/03/2007 9:00 AM ET
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
Dewon Day remembers the moment as if it were yesterday.
It was August 2005 and he was sitting in the bullpen of the Class A Lansing Lugnuts with fellow Toronto Blue Jays pitching prospect Aaron Tressler.
The season had been pretty much a loss for Day, who was sidelined with elbow trouble that limited him to just 12 games that summer after two terrific seasons of relief in 2003 and 2004.
But he'd apparently shown enough in his short stint with the Lugnuts to impress Tressler, as had another young second baseman from the Dominican Republic whom Day also played with in Class A Short-Season Pulaski in 2003.
"We were talking about which guys on the team we thought would get to the big leagues, and Tressler said two names -- me and Eugenio Velez," Day recalled. "I'd never heard from one of my peers before that they thought I'd make it to the Majors, but he said 'There are only two people on this team that I can see in the big leagues.'"
Just over three months later, Tressler's prediction came one step closer to coming true when Day and Velez were plucked out of the Blue Jays system by the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants respectively in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft.
Being taken in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft is certainly no guarantee of future fame, fortune or even a shot at the Major Leagues.
While players taken in the Major League Rule 5 phase are automatically assured of an initial spot on the 40-man roster and a serious look at Spring Training, the Minor League phase is more of a changing of hands with no guarantees.
Players are simply purchased for $12,000 if taken at the Triple-A level or $4,000 at the Double-A level and remain with their new club.
If you're not familiar with how the Minor League draft works, you're not alone.
"When my agent called and told me I'd been picked up by the Giants, at first I didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing," admitted Velez. "I didn't understand how it worked. But with God's blessing, so far it's turned out for the better."
The '05 draft gave both Velez and Day a much-needed change of scenery, as well as the knowledge that their tools had caught the eye of other organizations, which can be a big boost to a player's confidence.
While the two Lansing teammates' immediate paths diverged after the 2005 draft, they ran on an interesting parallel over the next two seasons.
Both returned to Class A in 2006 and had breakthrough seasons in their new environments. And both made their Major League debuts in 2007.
Velez, 25, originally signed with the Blue Jays in summer 2001, making his pro debut the next year with Toronto's Dominican Summer League club, batting .301 with 56 RBIs and 28 stolen bases in 69 games.
That would be the last time, however, that the switch-hitting middle infielder would get to show his top-of-the-order speed on a regular basis with the Jays. He would steal just four bases over the next two summers at Class A Short-Season Pulaski. With Lansing in 2005, he hit .285 and stole seven bases.
But after being taken by the Giants, Velez joined the Augusta GreenJackets in 2006 and hit .315 with 14 home runs, 90 RBIs and 64 steals. He led the Minors with 20 triples, posted a .557 slugging percentage -- second in the league, and earned South Atlantic League MVP honors.
Velez found the Giants as an organization were much better tailored to his style of play and that was immediately reflected in his play at Augusta.
"With Toronto, more of the team strategy was to be not as aggressive on the basepaths, but the Giants have allowed me to play my style of baseball," Velez said. "I consider myself to be a good runner, and I've finally found a spot where they allow me to just run."
Velez's ascension through the system was interrupted a bit during Spring Training when he suffered a wrist injury in an in-game collision.
"Initially I thought I wasn't going to play at all this year because I didn't quite know how serious it was," Velez recalled. "I already had my mind on being home all year. But I decided if I worked hard and did all my treatment and made sure it healed properly, I could come back and make up for the time I lost when I got back."
Thanks to that mindset, Velez was able to return to action earlier than expected, joining the Double-A Connecticut Defenders before Memorial Day.
By the time the Eastern League All-Star Game rolled around six weeks later, he'd already earned himself a spot on the club and batted .298 with 49 stolen bases in just 96 games before joining Triple-A Fresno for a handful of games and then getting the callup to San Francisco.
"That was unbelievable, my childhood dream come true," said Velez, who hit .273 in his September stint, primarily as a pinch-hitter. "I couldn't believe it when I was there with Barry Bonds and Barry Zito."
Velez finished up his '07 by making up for the early lost time in the Arizona Fall League, batting .303 in 17 games for the Scottsdale Scorpions and leading the league in steals with 14 steals before he was sidelined Nov. 1 with a fractured wrist.
The injury is not believed to be serious and all indications point to Velez being ready for Spring Training 2008, where he is expected to be a serious contender for the Opening Day roster.
Day signed with the Blue Jays as a draft-and-follow selection out of Southern University. Drafted in the 26th round of 2002, he made his pro debut in 2003 with Pulaski. There he collected 12 saves and posted a 1.80 ERA, striking out 26 in 30 innings while walking nine, limiting Appalachian League hitters to a .184 average.
The next year he moved up a level to Class A Short-Season Auburn in the New York-Penn League and had similar success, with a 1.50 ERA, 28 strikeouts over 24 innings and eight saves for the Doubledays.
Elbow trouble, however, sidelined the 6-foot-4 right-hander the next summer as he tore his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and spent most of the summer rehabbing it. Although it had been reported and was in his official Toronto bio that he underwent Tommy John surgery, he actually did not.
Day pitched just 16 1/3 innings that summer, starting the year back in short-season for the third time, so he was not surprised when he was not added to the Jays' 40-man roster that fall. He had been disappointed not to have been activated earlier, in hopes of being able to at least showcase himself, and was hoping to get "Rule 5'd" but also knew that it was unlikely because of his limited time and elbow trouble.
So when one of his friends called him on the morning of the draft and told him he'd been taken by the White Sox in the Rule 5, he immediately rushed to check the Internet.
"I looked at it and was like, 'Dude, I was the last person taken!'" recalled Day with a laugh.
Indeed, Day's name was the last one called, with the final pick in the Double-A phase. For $4,000, the White Sox took a flyer on the hard-throwing reliever, not knowing if anything would come of it other than another arm to fill a bullpen spot in A ball the next spring.
While checking the draft, Day immediately took note that Velez had also been taken in the Minor League phase of the draft, as were two other 2003 Pulaski teammates of the pair, Jayce Tingler and Joey Reiman.
Day began his White Sox career in the bullpen at Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, where his manager was former Mets shortstop Rafael Santana, for whom he would also pitch in 2007 with Double-A Birmingham and then in the Arizona Fall League with the champion Phoenix Desert Dogs.
In 40 games out of the Warthogs 'pen, Day posted a 3.40 ERA and struck out 63 batters over 47 2/3 innings, collecting eight saves.
And that year, he didn't have to worry about the Rule 5 Draft.
One memorable morning in November 2006 he got the call from farm director Alan Regier that he'd been added to the Chicago White Sox's 40-man roster.
"I was in tears," admitted Day, 27.
He began the '07 campaign at Birmingham, where he posted a 3.60 ERA in 25 innings, striking out 48. He got off to one of the hottest starts in the Minors, striking out 22 in his first 9 2/3 innings (in his first four games, all but one of his recorded outs were via strikeout).
Right before Memorial Day, he got another call from Regier that again reduced him to tears.
He was sitting in a local Barnes & Noble when Regier's name and number popped up on his cell phone so he left the bookstore to go out to his car to return the call. He knew he'd been throwing the ball well so he hoped it might mean a summons to Triple-A Charlotte.
"He made some small talk and then asked if I had a passport," Day recalled. "My mom had just gotten mine in the mail a few days earlier so I told him I did and he said, 'You're going to need it because when you leave Minnesota you go to Toronto.'"
Day wasn't sure he'd heard him correctly at first.
"I'm just sitting there like, 'What?' and he said 'Welcome to the big leagues!' Day said. "And yeah, I cried, and then called my mom hyperventilating. I was in Birmingham and I'm from Jackson, three hours away, so my parents drove me my passport."
Day joined the club in Minnesota and the day he got there, he received a text message from none other than his former Toronto bullpen-mate Aaron Tressler reminding him of their 2005 conversation.
"I'll never forget that," Day said. "I didn't even know he had my number."
His trip to the big leagues was a mixed bag over two months, showing flashes of his electric stuff but also some control problems. He also had a stint on the DL and eventually returned to the Minors, this time to Triple-A Charlotte.
He made up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League where he posted an impressive 1.38 ERA in 11 games, striking out 17 while walking just four over 13 innings for the four-time champion Desert Dogs. He heads into 2008 in the possible big-league bullpen mix.
Like Velez, Day is grateful for the opportunity that the Minor League Rule 5 Draft gave him to be able to move to an organization where he felt he'd be a better fit.
"I don't know if it's beating the odds but I just feel like I got saved," he said. "One year I'm back in rookie ball for a third season, the next year I'm on a 40-man roster and the next year I'm in the big leagues.
"I love the Rule 5 Draft."
And Tressler? He posted an impressive 3.72 ERA in relief at Class A Advanced Dunedin in 2007 but when his playing career is through, he might want to consider going into scouting.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.