Readers might note this edition of Toolshed does not come with a Dallas dateline. Like so many events in 2020, baseball's Winter Meetings are being held virtually this year rather than from deep in the heart of Texas.
That, of course, includes the Rule 5 Draft. The annual event typically takes place on the final day of the Winter Meetings as a capper to the week's events. Shortly before flying home, journalists and front-office execs -- breakfast items of choice in hand -- file into a large convention room to hear all 30 organizations pick or pass on eligible Rule 5 players. It's typically a simple process. No mentions of clubs being "on the clock" or large delays in picks. Just the naming of players who will get the biggest opportunities of their careers to stick with a new Major League club after previously getting passed over for the 40-man roster.
Again, simple but potentially life-changing.
To prepare for this year's Rule 5 Draft, Toolshed previews what to expect ahead of the selection process coming at noon ET on Thursday.
Basics: Before we get into the changes that could be coming to the 2020 Rule 5 Draft, let's focus on the constants.
Only certain players are eligible to be taken. As tempting as it would be to nab Wander Franco and try to make him stick in the Majors for a whole season, it's not as simple as including all players off their respective 40-man rosters. Rule 5-eligible players are considered to be those signed when they were 18 or younger and have five seasons of professional experience or those signed when they were 19 or older with four seasons of experience in pro ball. While there was no Minor League Baseball played this summer, 2020 does count as a season for the purposes of Rule 5 eligibility.
For some broad examples, a junior-college or college player taken and signed in the 2017 Draft is eligible this year. High-school players selected in 2016 are eligible for the first time, and international players signed during or before the 2016 season (including those on July 2) could be taken in this year's event.
Players were protected from the Rule 5 Draft if they were added to their respective organization's 40-man roster before the Nov. 20 deadline. Toolshed previewed which ranked prospects were eligible this year a few weeks ago in this column, and MiLB.com recapped the biggest names who were protected in this table.
On Thursday, teams will go in reverse order with the opportunity to select any of the Rule 5-eligible players left unprotected last month. The clubs do not necessarily have to take a player, and it's also possible they could make multiple selections. By choosing a player, the organization pays $100,000 to the player's original team. That player must stick on the 26-man Major League roster for the duration of the following season or he will be offered back to his previous club for $50,000. If a player requires time on the injured list, then he must be active for at least 90 days before the Rule 5 roster requirements are lifted.
This whole process is meant to give full Major League chances to younger players who might be overlooked in their current situations. Roberto Clemente is the most successful Rule 5 pick of all time, and there have been others like Johan Santana, Shane Victorino, Jose Bautista and Josh Hamilton.
There is also a Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft, featuring players not protected on the Triple-A rosters of their current organizations. Minor League Rule 5 picks cost $24,000 and do not come with any roster requirements. Players protected from this phase can be found on the roster pages of each organization's Triple-A affiliate for 2020. (Note: That does not incorporate any changes in affiliation coming next season.) For example, the Mets' roster of Triple-A protected players can be found on the Syracuse roster page.
Audio of the event will be streamed Thursday on MLB.com.
The situation in 2020: Nothing about the Rule 5 process has changed in 2020, other than the announcement of picks virtually rather than in the same room. But baseball is in a different place than it was during last year's event in San Diego, and that should have some effects on the proceedings this time around.
Start with the lack of a Minor League season due to the coronavirus pandemic. With the few exceptions of those who played in the Majors, Rule 5-eligible players weren't afforded in-game action in 2020 following the cancellation of play for the lower levels. Sure, there were other opportunities like alternate-site workouts and instructs, but only the latter involved scouts from other organizations. Even then, not every club allowed scouts to view their players in instructional league play. For the most part, any organization looking to make a Rule 5 pick this week will be relying on 2019 stats and reports or, at best, brief looks from the fall. The lack of recent information could lead to clubs to shy away from the Rule 5 process.
On the other side of the coin, each Major League team only played 60 games during the regular season, none of which involved fans. As such, teams are claiming financial losses and could be looking to build their Major League rosters on the cheap. A $100,000 Rule 5 pick (along with the player's salary) is certainly a cheaper alternative than a seven-figure free-agent addition. Some clubs could consider the Rule 5 route for roster construction and perhaps be willing to make multiple picks, as the Orioles did in 2019, the O's, Royals and Giants did in 2018 and the Padres famously did with three in 2016.
Clubs might have left clues on how active the Rule 5 Draft will be in weighing the above conditions. This year, organizations protected 86 of MLB.com's ranked prospects from the Rule 5 Draft with 40-man additions before the deadline. That number was up a tick from 83 in 2019. If teams thought others would be scared away from a Rule 5 pick by the lack of a Minor League season, they may have not been as aggressive in protecting so many of their own players. The fact that they were means Thursday probably won't be completely quiet on the Rule 5 front, but we won't know until the process is complete.
Recent history: It may be tempting to throw out the book completely in an abnormal year, but it can never hurt to revisit history.
Over the last five Rule 5 Drafts, there have been an average of 15.4 players taken, ranging from 11 last year to 18 in both 2017 and 2016. The number of picks made has gone down in each of the last three events, and 11 represented the lowest number since nine were selected in 2013.
A reason for the dwindling number is the lack of impact in recent Rule 5 Drafts. Taking a player who went unprotected by the team that knows him best and thrusting that player into the Majors always comes with risk that things won't work out, but the payoff has been lower in recent years. After the 2018 Draft, only three of the 14 selected players stuck with their new Major League clubs --Richie Martin, Brandon Brennan and Elvis Luciano. A year later, those three combined to make a mere five appearances in the 2020 season. From the 2019 class, only Rony Garcia, Yohan Ramirez, Vimael Machin and Jonathan Arauz stuck during the 2020 campaign, and none of those four looked like barnburners out of the gate. You'd have to go back to Brad Keller from the 2017 crop to find the last Rule 5 pick who became an effective Major Leaguer right away and remains one to this day.
That said, the pull of the potential reward for picking the next Keller remains strong and keeps clubs coming back to the Rule 5 well.
Draft order: The order is set in reverse order of Major League record the previous season. As such, the 19-41 Pirates get the first selection. There is no fixed number of rounds in a Rule 5 Draft. Teams make one selection at a time and can conceivably keep going until they have a full 40-man roster or choose to pass on their pick.
The following is the order for the 2020 Rule 5 Draft. The amount of players on each club's 40-man roster as of Monday evening is included in parentheses. Teams can continue to make 40-man moves to free up space for a potential Rule 5 pick before Thursday's proceedings.
1. Pirates (38)
2. Rangers (38)
3. Tigers (39)
4. Red Sox (38)
5. Orioles (38)
6. D-backs (39)
7. Royals (36)
8. Rockies (38)
9. Angels (34)
10. Mets (34)
11. Nationals (34)
12. Mariners (38)
13. Phillies (38)
14. Giants (35)
15. Brewers (35)
16. Astros (38)
17. Marlins (38)
18. Reds (31)
19. Cardinals (37)
20. Blue Jays (40)
21. Yankees (39)
22. Cubs (34)
23. White Sox (38)
24. Indians (37)
25. Braves (38)
26. A's (35)
27. Twins (35)
28. Padres (39)
29. Rays (39)
30. Dodgers (37)
Possible picks: The Rule 5 Draft is notoriously difficult to predict, and the 2020 edition will be no different. That said, here are some prominent prospects who could hear their names called Thursday, listed alphabetically by last name:
Paul Campbell, RHP, Rays: One of the deeper repertoires among available prospects with three potentially above-average pitches in his fastball, cutter and change. Campbell also posted solid numbers at Double-A, where he posted a 3.36 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP with 63 strikeouts in 85 2/3 innings. The 25-year-old right-hander has experience as a starter, but Tampa Bay's No. 24 prospect might make sense as a piggyback candidate or long man out of the bullpen for a club considering him Thursday.
Brett de Geus, RHP, Dodgers: The only knock against the 2017 33rd-rounder is experience at this stage. The right-hander hasn't appeared above Class A Advanced yet, but he did dominate as a reliever there and at Class A in 2019, striking out 72 over 61 2/3 innings while posting a 1.75 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. His low- to mid-90s fastball has plus potential, as does his curve. The No. 27 Los Angeles prospect's cutter could be another above-average pitch. It'll be on clubs to believe that stuff could jump three levels in 2021.
Omar Estevez, INF, Dodgers: Clubs looking for a capable middle infielder off the bench could consider the Dodgers' No. 21 prospect. Estevez hit .291/.352/.431 and produced a 119 wRC+ from the right side over 336 plate appearances for Double-A Tulsa in 2019. He has split his time between second and short in the Minors and could expand that versatility if need be to stick in the Majors with a new team. Again, nothing plus here, but the bat is a better bet to transition to The Show than that of other Rule 5 infielders of recent years.
Payton Henry, C, Brewers: Milwaukee's No. 15 prospect showed some pop with 14 homers for Class A Advanced Carolina in 2019, and he has earned praise for his defensive work when it comes to throwing, blocking and receiving behind the plate. The overall hit tool remains a question, and the distance from the Carolina League to the Majors may be a stretch too far. At least that's what the Brewers bet on by leaving Henry vulnerable.
Brian Howard, RHP, Athletics: Start with the size at 6-foot-9. That's intimidating in itself. The fact that Howard can control the ball as well as he can -- as shown by 39 walks in 130 innings at Double-A in 2019 -- is impressive. But Oakland's No. 25 prospect doesn't feature the overbearing stuff to match the physical profile. Howard's cutter could be his only above-average pitch, and his fastball typically sits in the low 90s. Still, a Rule 5 club could try to mold the large right-hander from a solid starter into a Major League reliever.
Marshall Kasowski, RHP, Dodgers: If he gets taken, expect to hear a lot about how Kasowski bounced back from a major car accident while at West Texas A&M to arrive at the doorstep of the Majors. The 25-year-old right-hander is more than just a good story, of course. He has struck out 177 batters over 107 2/3 innings in the Minors and was last seen at Double-A Tulsa, where he had a 2.45 ERA in 27 appearances out of the bullpen. Kasowski also throws with an extreme over-the-top delivery that can be difficult to pick up for hitters. Offseason elbow surgery could make him an easier stash candidate, though a club would be betting on the swing-and-miss stuff returning post-operation.
Riley Pint, RHP, Rockies: Look, we have to include Pint here just as a reminder that he is eligible to be taken. The 2016 fourth overall pick has gone through a bumpy road through the Rockies system to say the least, one that's been plagued by forearm and oblique injuries and severe control problems. But on his day, Pint might have the best stuff of anyone available in this year's Draft, highlighted by a plus-plus fastball and plus curve. Any club thinking of taking Colorado's No. 26 prospect would overlook the 124 walks in 156 innings and see what it can do with those positives in the profile. Just don't bet on it.
Jose Alberto Rivera, RHP, Astros: Upper-90s heat with the possibility to hit 100 mph will always get a pitcher Rule 5 consideration. Rivera's changeup also has shown above-average potential, so there could be enough to make him into a Major League reliever right away. Even though he's yet to appear above Class A, the Astros' No. 14 prospect does have experience as a piggyback starter and likely wouldn't be uncomfortable working out of the bullpen in some manner if given a Major League shot.
Julio Rodriguez, C, Cardinals: If you're going to take a catcher in the Rule 5 Draft, it's likely going to be one whose best present skills are on the defensive end. That fits Rodriguez to a tee. The 23-year-old backstop's arm could fit in the Majors quickly, and his glovework behind the plate always seemed like it would give him a good shot at reaching the game's top level. That said, the No. 15 St. Louis prospect doesn't stand out for his offensive work, though he did produce a 115 wRC+ at Class A Advanced Palm Beach in 2019. He is the everyday catcher for Escogido presently in the Dominican Winter League, giving scouts one last look before the Draft.
Kevin Smith, INF, Blue Jays: It's been an up-and-down career for Smith since he was a fourth-round pick out of Maryland in 2017. The up was a 25-homer, 29-steal season in 2018. The down was a 2019 season in which he hit just .209 and produced a 93 wRC+ over a full season at Double-A. (A rough Arizona Fall League didn't help matters either.) Still, Smith has experience at shortstop, second and third, and his glove could do the job for a big league club off the bench. Toronto's No. 20 prospect would need to show the hit tool concerns were just blips to stick.
Jose Soriano, RHP, Angels: All the classic pieces are here. A 70-grade fastball that can touch triple-digits but typically sits around the mid-90s marks. An above-average curve that could potentially work as a second pitch out of the bullpen. Tommy John surgery that would have knocked Soriano for all of 2020 and will make him a stash candidate next season. The knocks are the questions that still come after surgery, some rough control even at the Class A level and dearth of experience at Class A Advanced or above for Los Angeles' No. 13 prospect.
Garrett Whitlock, RHP, Yankees: One last member of the Tommy John club. Whitlock entered the 2019 season as the Yankees' No. 16 prospect, but the surgery caused him to drop out of the top 30. Beforehand, he thrived on a plus sinking fastball and above-average slider that produced a ton of ground balls. His 55.9 percent ground-ball rate was fourth-best in Double-A in 2019, and he paired that with a 3.07 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP over 70 1/3 innings with Trenton. The 24-year-old right-hander underwent the surgery in July 2019 and has shared video on social media of himself throwing 94 this fall. A team picking him could stash him on the injured list and lower the sticking requirement to 90 days.
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.