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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Five years ago, they were thought to be three of the more exciting bats entering the pro game. They were a trio of high school hitters with the kind of upside potential scouts love. Now, they are available to anyone willing to take a shot in the Rule 5 Draft, as their parent organizations left each of them off of the 40-man roster.
Chris Lubanski, Ryan Harvey and Eric Duncan were the Nos. 5, 6 and 27 picks overall in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft. The Royals, Cubs and Yankees all hoped they had found future cornerstones of their lineups. Lubanski was a left-handed-hitting outfielder with an enticing speed-power combination. Harvey, also an outfielder, had as much raw power as anyone in the draft class. Duncan was a young lefty hitter with an advanced idea at the plate, a guy who looked like he'd hit for average and power in the future.
Making it to the big leagues seemed inevitable. Not getting a spot on the 40-man roster to be protected from Rule 5 Draft would have been dismissed as crazy talk. Yet all three are now in that unprotected boat, where any other Major League team with room on its 40-man can select one of the former first-rounders and keep him for the bargain basement price of $50,000. The caveat, of course, is that he'll have to stay on the 25-man roster all season or be offered back to the original team.
The reactions from the trio range from surprise and disappointment to acceptance and understanding. Lubanski and Duncan, who once played on a traveling team together when they were in northeast high schools, agree that even if it's not how they dreamt of it happening, the Rule 5 Draft could provide them with opportunities to fulfill their ultimate goal of reaching the big leagues.
"I was surprised, very surprised," Lubanski admitted. "I thought I deserved it and had earned it. I thought I've had a pretty good career: I made two All-Star teams, I was an All-Star in Wichita, then got called up to Triple-A. I thought that was a good thing. So I was surprised."
"I'm realistic about it," Duncan said. "I knew it wasn't a for-sure thing. There are certain guys who have to be protected and only a certain amount of spots. There's no ill will. They did what they thought was best."
Lubanski, who turns 23 in March, has moved basically one station at a time through the Royals system, spending all year at one level until he received his first midseason promotion in 2007. A notorious slow starter, he became adept along the way at making adjustments and having terrific second halves. His best overall season came in 2005, when he batted .301 with 28 homers and 116 RBIs in the hitter-friendly California League. He was a California League All-Star and was named MiLB.com's Class A Best Playoff Performer after going 13-for-15 for High Desert.
This past season, he actually got off to good start, which helped him earn the bump up to Triple-A at the end of June. He struggled with the leap before heading to the Arizona Fall League, but the fact remains he was only 22 and in Triple-A and was usually among the youngest regular players at whatever level he was in at the time. The Royals certainly wouldn't be surprised, then, if someone took him in Thursday's draft. What they're hoping for is that whoever does won't be able to keep him on the big-league roster all season, allowing him to re-enter the Royals fold and get the further development time they feel Lubanski needs.
"It's pretty much a gamble, what they're doing with me," agreed Lubanski, who hails from eastern Pennsylvania. "I would think someone would take me. Then I just have to prove the world wrong and stay there all year.
"I don't see it as a setback or disappointment. I see it as an opportunity to reach my goal sooner than I would with the Royals. I'll prepare as much as I can for Spring Training and try to show a new team, if they take me, that I deserve to stay all year."
Duncan is of the same mind-set. The northern New Jersey native initially was pushed aggressively, reaching the Class A Advanced Florida State League at 19 and handling the challenge fairly well. Thanks to his excellent maturity and makeup, the Yankees didn't shy away from continuing to move him up the ladder. He spent all of the 2005 season playing in the Eastern League at 20, then went to Arizona and won AFL MVP honors. Partially due to some injuries, he has stalled out, reaching Triple-A in 2006, then having to go back to Double-A before spending all year with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2007. He played in only 88 games two seasons ago, improving that total to 113 this year.
"I think it's going to make me better, stronger for the future," said Duncan, who is primarily a first baseman after being drafted as a third baseman. "Failures, injuries, now going through this, it's another thing that's going to make it sweeter in the future. I still have all the confidence in the world. I still think the Yankees have confidence in me. I don't think they would've kept pushing me up -- I'm still at Triple-A at a young age -- if they weren't confident in me. A lot of guys had to be protected because of the Collective Bargaining Agreement."
That argument has some validity. The change in the CBA a year ago gave organizations an extra year before they had to protect players, pushing the time from four years to five for players 18 and younger, and from three to four for those 19 and older. As a result, some teams had more players to consider for protection, making decisions more difficult. While it's still surprising that these first-round picks did not make that cut, they are choosing to focus on the positives of what this could mean for their immediate futures.
"The Rule 5 Draft was created to aid the player," Duncan said. "Anyone who plays baseball dreams of making it to the big leagues. I hope it's with the Yankees, but if it's not to be, it's not meant to be. If someone takes a shot on me, it'd be a huge confidence boost."
"Everyone was talking 40-man and I felt pretty confident," Lubanski said. "I thought I had shown my stuff. No way they wouldn't protect me. I had the initial, 'Wow,' then realized it could be a blessing in disguise. Now I have the chance to start in the big leagues on April 1 instead of Triple-A."
Because of what they've accomplished and because they are now at a bit of a crossroads in their still-young careers, both Duncan and Lubanski are prime examples that there are no guarantees in this game. Both have good heads on their shoulders and understand that nothing, even for those early draft picks, arrives on a silver platter.
"You never want to think about not being protected," Duncan said. "When you think about what-ifs, you don't want to put this type of thing in your mind. But you don't want to take anything for granted. It's a long, hard road for most. There are bumps and I've grown to accept it."
"It proves how tough the game is," he said. "There's more that goes into it than just performance. The great thing about the Rule 5, it gives players like us a chance to open more doors.
"I believe all three of us will play in the big leagues. Will it be with the teams that drafted us? You learn pretty early the game is a business. We could get the chance to start our careers in the big leagues, which is what we all want."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.