SAN DIEGO -- Big free-agent deals and blockbuster trades are always possibilities at the annual Baseball Winter Meetings, but there's only one event that guarantees a batch of transactions in a condensed time frame.
The Rule 5 Draft is an opportunity for blocked Minor Leaguers to get their crack at the Majors, making it one of the most exciting days on the prospect calendar each year. To get fans primed for this year's edition, Toolshed provides a Rule 5 primer with some frequently asked questions, including what teams could be active this year and which prospects might hear their names called.
When is the Rule 5 Draft?
The Rule 5 Draft will take place at noon ET (9 a.m. PT) on Thursday, the final day of the Winter Meetings at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. There will be a live audio stream on MLB.com, and unlike other drafts in the sports landscape, this one moves pretty briskly. There are no war rooms -- team execs simply announce to the room (and the listening audience) their picks in quick succession.
What are the eligibility requirements?
Any player who first signed when he was 18 or younger and has been in pro ball for five or more seasons is eligible. Any player who signed when he was 19 or older and has been in pro ball for four or more seasons is also eligible. The only way for organizations to protect their eligible players from being selected was to place them on their 40-man roster by Nov. 20. Any player not protected can be drafted Thursday. The list of Top-30 prospects
added to each organization's 40-man roster can be found here.
What happens after a player is selected?
If a team makes a pick, they must pay the player's original team $100,000. That player must stick on the 25-man Major League roster for the duration of the 2020 season or be offered back to his previous organization for $50,000. A player can be on the injured list, but must be active for 90 days in order to meet the requirements to stick with his new team. These requirements can carry over to the following season if injuries prevent a player from meeting them with his new club in 2020.
Is there anything different about the Draft this year?
Not technically. The collective bargaining agreement that set the rules for the Rule 5 Draft is a few years old. It eliminated the old Double-A portion of the Draft and upped the compensation for a Major League pick from $50,000 to $100,000.
But the potential roster changes coming to Major League Baseball are new. Rosters are expected to be upped from 25 to a 26-man version (or 27 when there's a doubleheader). Also, it's widely expected pitchers will have to face at least three batters per outing or pitch to the end of the half-inning. Both changes could have an interesting impact on the Rule 5 Draft. Expanded rosters mean it's a bit easier to carry a Rule 5 player for the entire season, making it more likely that organizations stash long-term projects who otherwise would be tougher to hide. Additionally, relievers tend to be popular Rule 5 picks as clubs try to find less costly options for their bullpens. However, the new minimums could alter what kind of reliever teams are willing to select. It's going to be much tougher for pitchers with extreme lefty-righty splits to make the cut, while those who are more even overall could be looked at more favorably.
Which teams could be active?
Not every team has to make a Rule 5 pick. In fact, teams can only make Rule 5 picks if they have an open spot on their 40-man roster. However, they can make as many Rule 5 picks as they have open 40-man spots. So, in theory, a club with 10 openings could take 10 players. Below is the Rule 5 Draft order (the reverse of their 2019 winning percentages) along with the number of players currently on each team's 40-man roster, as of late Monday:
1. Tigers (37)
2. Orioles (38)
3. Marlins (39)
4. Royals (36)
5. Blue Jays (37)
6. Mariners (38)
7. Pirates (39)
8. Padres (40)
9. Rockies (40)
10. Angels (39)
11. White Sox (37)
12. Reds (38)
13. Giants (37)
14. Rangers (40)
15. Phillies (39)
16. Cubs (37)
17. Red Sox (36)
18. D-backs (38)
19. Mets (40)
20. Brewers (34)
21. Cardinals (40)
22. Nationals (33)
23. Indians (40)
24. Rays (38)
25. Braves (38)
26. Athletics (38)
27. Twins (36)
28. Yankees (40)
29. Dodgers (39)
30. Astros (38)
The Padres, Rockies, Rangers, Mets, Cardinals, Indians and Yankees all would have to make 40-man roster moves in order to make Rule 5 selections Thursday. That doesn't mean they won't -- the Marlins, for example, cleared a 40-man spot to get to 39 on Monday by losing Tyler Kinley on waivers to the Rockies -- but it's more of an uphill battle.
On the other side, the Nationals and Brewers have the most 40-man openings with seven and six, respectively. Both are in win-now mode, however, and seem unlikely to take a roster risk on a Rule 5 player for the duration of the 2020 season. Additionally, both left some notable prospects unprotected when all they would cost is a 40-man roster spot without Major League stipulations. (Some of these are below.) Those are pretty good signs both will be quiet Thursday.
Among the rest, always look at rebuilding clubs to make Rule 5 picks, potentially several. The Tigers have three open 40-man spots, and they're a safe bet to put that No. 1 overall pick -- and potentially more -- to good use as they keep their eyes firmly fixed beyond 2020. The Orioles have made Rule 5 picks every year since 2006, including two last year shortly after Mike Elias was named GM. Expect that streak to continue. The Royals, who had success in 2017 with Brad Keller
, and the Mariners would make sense as active clubs as well.
Which prospects are worth keeping an eye on?Sterling Sharp, right-handed pitcher, Nationals:
Washington left its No. 13 prospect unprotected -- a bit of a headscratcher considering its 40-man space. The 24-year-old was limited to 58 2/3 innings during the regular season (mostly with Double-A Harrisburg) due to an oblique injury, but was a standout in the Arizona Fall League, where he posted a 1.50 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP with 24 strikeouts in 24 innings. When healthy, Sharp can be one of the best ground-ball pitchers in the Minors, thanks to a low-90s fastball featuring a lot of sink and spin (65 percent of batted balls against him were on the ground in 2019). With his AFL experience and time at Double-A, Sharp is closing in on Major League readiness and could be a back-end starting option right away. Of note: Sharp is a Michigan native who worked to raise money for the Detroit Police Athletic League this year. Could a return home with the Tigers be in the offing?Roberto Ramos, first baseman, Rockies:
There's no doubt that the Rockies' No. 27 prospect deserves a Major League look. The 24-year-old left-handed slugger hit .309/.400/.580 with 30 homers in 127 games after spending all of 2019 with Triple-A Albuquerque. Going back to his time at Class A Advanced and Double-A in 2018, Ramos has 62 homers over the past two seasons; only Jared Walsh
(65) has hit more in the Minor Leagues over that span. Ramos only plays first and has below-average speed, but he certainly has the pop and OBP that a team with a first-base opening could use, even if it's a platoon situation.Ljay Newsome, right-handed pitcher, Mariners:
Newsome enjoyed a breakout 2019, finishing with a 3.54 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, 169 strikeouts and only 17 walks in 155 innings, mostly at Class A Advanced Modesto and Double-A Arkansas. As that walk total indicates, Newsome thrives on his control, and his ability to spot the ball where he wants is easily his best asset. Stuff-wise, his arsenal is average with only his fastball and slider grading out at 50 or higher on the 20-80 scouting scale. But clubs don't find this level of command every day, and given how Newsome's stuff tracked up in 2019, a Rule 5 club could hope to build on those gains, even in the Majors.Zack Brown, right-handed pitcher, Brewers:
It's not often a club leaves its top pitching prospect open to the Rule 5 Draft. Then again, it's not often a club's top pitching prospect finishes a full season with a 5.79 ERA. Brown was especially hurt by the offensive explosion at Triple-A in 2019, particularly away from San Antonio, finishing with a 7.62 ERA and 12 homers allowed in 54 1/3 innings on the road. Before the downturn, the 24-year-old was well regarded for his low-90s fastball and plus curve, and a club could find enough to work with there, results aside. With a full Triple-A campaign under his belt, Brown also has experience on his side.Cristian Santana, third baseman, Dodgers:
Perhaps in another organization, Santana would've made for an easy 40-man decision. Instead, Los Angeles faced a bit of a roster crunch, already has Justin Turner and is considering going after other hot-corner targets like Anthony Rendon in free agency. Those factors aside, the 22-year-old right-handed slugger can bring value with a good bat and a plus arm. Santana is generally seen as having plus raw power, though he went deep only 10 times for Double-A Tulsa in 2019, and he finished with a .301 average and a .756 OPS -- each of which marked highs for him over a full season. Add in some defensive flexibility with experience at all four infield spots, and there could be enough to like here at the Rule 5 Draft.Jordan Sheffield, right-handed pitcher, Dodgers:
Another victim of a loaded Los Angeles' 40-man, Sheffield was the 36th overall pick in 2016 as a starter out of Vanderbilt, only to become an unprotected reliever this offseason. Control woes are the big concern, however. Sheffield walked 43 in 55 innings in 2019 between Class A Advanced and Double-A, but his stuff could be worth betting on. Sheffield can reach the upper-90s with his heater and sports a plus curve and above-average changeup. Those options are why he fanned 31.2 percent of batters last season. If a club thinks it's even a possibility Sheffield can throw strikes with some regularity, it should jump at the chance to add him to the Major League mix in 2020.Rafael Marchan, catcher, Phillies:
Every so often, organizations in need of a backup catcher are willing to take a chance on a good defensive youngster with little upper-level experience. The Padres did it with Luis Torrens
in the 2016 Rule 5 Draft, and the D-backs made Oscar Hernández
the first overall selection in 2014. Marchan could follow in those footsteps. The 20-year-old switch-hitting backstop earns above-average grades for his work behind the plate, both for his arm and glove. In today's game, with catching metrics on the rise, that could be even more valuable to the right team, especially one choosing to use the new 26th roster spot on a third catcher. However, he was unprotected because he's played only 22 games above Class A, hit .261/.333/.325 in 2019 and has yet to homer in 210 career Minor League contests. If Marchan does get picked Thursday, it's because a club really likes his defensive potential.Griffin Jax, right-handed pitcher, Twins:
It's not a perfect comparison, but consider Minnesota's No. 21 prospect to be Sharp Light in some ways. Jax thrives on getting ground balls with his low-90s sinking fastball and above-average changeup. He also sports plus control, walking only 27 batters over 127 1/3 innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019. His weakness is he doesn't get many swings-and-misses, fanning only 18 percent of batters faced last season. But after being limited earlier in his career because of Air Force duties, Jax also has a fresher arm than the typical 25-year-old Minor League pitcher and perhaps more room to grow as well.Thomas Burrows, left-handed pitcher, Braves:
Taken by the Mariners in the fourth round of the 2016 Draft out of Alabama, Burrows had all the makings of a quick-moving Minor League reliever -- a tough-to-pick-up fastball from his three-quarters delivery and a plus slider. That was true until he stalled out at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2019 and was demoted to Double-A twice over the summer. Burrows can struggle with control at times, though he seemed to iron that out during his time with Mississippi. But good left-handed relievers can be tough to find, especially ones with Burrows' ceiling. Even with the new rules, a club could be willing to bet on the stuff and not the results by bringing Burrows into the fold. Buddy Reed, outfielder, Padres:
San Diego's No. 25 prospect can do a couple of things really well. He's a plus-plus burner on the basepaths, and he's an impressive defender in all three outfield spots, both with his range and arm. Offensively, the 24-year-old switch-hitter is much more of a mystery. He has topped out at Double-A and hit only .213 with a .623 OPS in 164 career games there. His 29.7 percent strikeout rate is worrisome, and his .339 slugging percentage doesn't provide much hope that his pop can save him. Still, teams have used fourth-outfield spots on players with lesser tools than Reed's speed, glove and arm, and a picking club might want to limit him to pinch-run/defensive replacement duty for as long as possible before testing the bat against Major League arms.
Moises Gomez, outfielder, Rays: This is a gamble by Tampa Bay. Gomez is the No. 13 prospect in a loaded system and would definitely rank higher in basically every other organization, thanks to his power potential and good arm in the outfield. However, he went unprotected because he has only reached Class A Advanced and batted .220 with 164 strikeouts in 119 games there in 2019. Even by Florida State League standards, those are rough, and they would likely get worse at the top level. However, Gomez still managed to rank fourth on the pitcher-friendly circuit with 16 homers at age 20, and that number could go up with new parks and a new ball. With plenty of growth left at his age -- he only turned 21 in August -- Gomez gives Rule 5 clubs plenty of upside to buy, even if the present value would be low. He could be a great 26-man stash candidate.
Wander Javier, Shervyen Newton, Luis Oviedo, Seuly Matias: Perhaps longer shots than the players listed above, all four are worth mentioning since they were considered great prospects but lack upper-level experience. Javier also struggled coming off a shoulder injury that kept him out for all of 2018, and Matias -- who had a 31-homer season in 2018 -- dealt with a fractured hand this summer. At one point, all four could've been franchise cornerstones, and experience aside, a $100,000 transaction is a small investment for a closer look at a high-upside player who could impact a club's long-term future. These are the types of lottery tickets rebuilding clubs should be buying.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.