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Top Choices for Upcoming Rule 5 Draft

Thursday’s Rule 5 draft offers a mix of complementary, big league-ready players and upside plays

San Diego Padres On Deck Game v Texas Rangers

The interest generated by Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 draft is a testament to the intensity of its fans, as it is largely an exercise in mid-range prospects changing hands. That said, each year teams strike on successful big leaguers, and the performance of Rule 5 picks seems to have trended up in recent history. The 2019 draft, which will take place on December 12 at the upcoming Winter Meetings, will mirror the order of the June 2020 draft, so the Marlins hold the third overall pick.

For those unfamiliar, the Rule 5 draft allows teams to select players who have been signed for 4-5 seasons, depending on their age at signing, who have not been placed on their club’s 40-man roster. Selected players must remain on their new team’s active roster for the entirety of the next season, or they are returned to their previous team, who is then free to assign them to any level. With active rosters expanding to 26 players next season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more picks than usual as Rule 5 selections will be a bit easier to hold onto.

Generally, the pool of available players in the Rule 5 is composed of a mix of lower-upside, big league-ready talent, and toolsy players that have progressed slowly, with weaker performance. Historically, the latter group has not performed especially well—such players often end up being returned, and even those who are able to stick for a full season and then return to the minors the following year haven’t had much success, but that doesn’t stop teams from occasionally being enticed and taking a stab. Some examples of highly successful selections in recent history are Marwin Gonzalez, Delino DeShields Jr. and Joakim Soria.

The profiles that hit most frequently in the Rule 5 draft tend to be relief pitchers with arm strength (often recent conversions from the rotation who had progressed slowly as starters), back-end type starting pitchers with lesser stuff that miss the 40-man cut, and reserve-type position players who stand out with either present offense, defense or baserunning ability and are adequate in the other areas.

Here’s a look at a few potential options from each of those groups who will be available to the Marlins this week.

Upside Plays

Esteury Ruiz, 2B, Padres—If I were to pick a most talented player available, it would be Ruiz, who possesses above-average foot speed and raw power thanks to impressive bat speed. A heady baserunner, Ruiz has swiped 83 bags over the last two minor league seasons. However, there have been persistent swing and miss issues that have prevented his power from manifesting in games, and his defense is pretty rough at this point as well. Ruiz needs quite a bit of work before he’ll truly be ready to contribute at the big league level, but if he can hone his approach, he has the potential to stick in the majors eventually. Without present defensive value, Ruiz would really only project to provide baserunning value at the big league level in 2020, as he couldn’t be expected to hit higher than the low .200s range.

Lolo Sanchez, OF, Pirates—A speedy center fielder, Sanchez was looking like a prospect on the rise in the first half of 2019, as he put up a .301/.377/.451 line with 20 steals in 61 games at the Low-A level at age 20.

While Sanchez wasn’t completely overmatched at the plate after a promotion to High-A Bradenton (15.9 K%/9.2 BB%), he had trouble hitting the ball with authority and posted a weak .196/.300/.270 line. Down the line, Sanchez could be a potential top-of-the-order option as he commands the strike zone well and has speed on the basepaths. He needs to add strength to make more meaningful contact before he’s ready to contribute offensively. Unlike Ruiz, Sanchez is already solid in the field, which makes him a bit easier to carry.

Zack Brown, RHP, Brewers—After a 2018 season in which he put together a 2.44 ERA at the Double-A level with 116 strikeouts, 36 walks and a 56% ground ball rate, some evaluators ranked Brown as a top 100 prospect with long term rotation potential. His curveball looked like an out pitch at times, he was sitting low 90s, and his changeup was a legitimate offering, giving him mid-rotation upside if everything really clicked. Moving to the ultra-high offense environment in 2019, Brown struggled, with all of the aforementioned markers moving in the wrong direction. Brown seemed to pitch less aggressively due to the new baseball, and the results weren’t pretty. Teams could use Brown in long relief with the hope of using him as a starting pitcher again eventually, or shift him to the pen where he could lean on his fastball/curveball combination.

TJ Friedl, OF, Reds—A player who could fit into a couple different categories on this list, Friedl is more advanced than the other names he’s listed amongst here. A plus-plus runner, Friedl has generated excitement in Reds circles in the past with his combination of speed, defense and control of the strike zone. The ultimate pop-up prospect, Friedl took an unorthodox route to pro ball detailed in this FanGraphs piece, but quickly established himself as a name to watch once in pro ball. Friedl consistently posts strong OBP figures and stolen base rates, and has relatively tidy strikeout figures to boot. Injuries and a lack of power have kept his stock from reaching the next level, but there’s still an outside shot for Friedl to develop into a table-setting type of outfielder, even if a reserve role is most likely.

Shervyen Newton, SS, Mets—A 6’4” shortstop with plus raw power from both sides of the plate, Newton had an impressive .280/.408/.449 line in the Appy League in 2018. While it did come with a 31.6% strikeout rate, evaluators were nonetheless impressed with his patience and power and were confident he could fit somewhere on the left side of the infield. In his jump to full-season ball, things fell apart a bit for Newton, as his timing at the plate seemed off for much of the year and he hit just .209/.283/.330 in 423 PAs. Newton would be completely hopeless at the plate at the big league level right now, but his tools are among the best available, if not the best.

Moises Gomez, RF, Rays—While he stands just 5’11”, Gomez has a powerful frame, above average arm strength and runs well, allowing him to project favorably to right field. His raw power is plus, and he already gets to it fairly well in games. Gomez came into the year ranked 11th in a deep Rays system by FanGraphs, but didn’t progress as hoped in 2019. After hitting .280/.328/.503 with 19 home runs at the Low-A level in 2018, Gomez managed just a .220/.297/.402 line in a jump to the Carolina League, with his K rate ballooning by almost 8%. Gomez is just 21 and has time to work out his swing and miss issues, but is a tough sell in the big leagues right now barring some rapid progression.

Advanced Starting Pitchers

Griffin Jax, RHP, Twins—With plus command of a below-average fastball and a pair of solid offspeed offerrings, Jax is close to ready to be given a trial as a fifth starter. Now 25 years old, the righty generally sits around 89 with his heater and commands an average slider and a change-up that is seen as his best pitch.

He projects a bit more favorably to the rotation, though that could change if he were to gain significant velocity in shorter stints. While he has just 16 career Triple-A innings, Jax’s advanced command should allow him to stick as a Rule 5 selection.

Sterling Sharp, RHP, Nationals—One of the more athletic hurlers in the minors, Sharp is a long-limbed 6’4”, and uses his lanky frame to generate downward plane on a high-80s sinker that has become very effective for him. He was limited to just nine starts at Double-A last season but had strong results, with a 2.59 FIP, 21.0% K rate and a tidy 6.5% BB rate. Sharp has a slider and change in addition to his sinker, and has posted impressive ground ball rates over the last few seasons. Like Jax, Sharp projects as a #5 starter or middle relief type, but could potentially be a bit more.

Brandon Bailey, RHP, Astros—Originally a sixth-round pick of the A’s out of Gonzaga in 2016, Bailey stands just 5’10” but has three above-average pitches in his fastball, changeup and curve. Bailey generally sits around 92-93 with his fastball, but it has plus life that allows the velocity to play up, and it sets up the aforementioned offspeed pitches beautifully, generating a lot of swings and misses. The ceiling for Bailey is that of a #4 starter, though it might be difficult for him to handle a traditional starter’s workload with his frame—he missed some time with injury in 2019 and threw just 92 23 innings. As a Rule 5 selection, Bailey could be used in long or short relief, or as an opener or multi-inning reliever, and I think he’d have a good chance to stick.

Potential Late-Inning Relievers

Joe Barlow, RHP, Rangers—The Rangers tend to do a good job discovering and developing potential big league bullpen arms, and as a result they’ve been forced to leave a promising one unprotected this winter. An 11th-round pick in 2016, Barlow has pitched exclusively as a reliever as a pro and has consistently posted huge strikeout numbers. They’ve tended to come with pretty large walk numbers too, but has had stretches of very manageable BB rates at times also. Barlow can run his heater into the upper 90s, and has a breaking ball that can induce swings and misses also. He’ll need to locate consistently at the big league level, but his stuff gives him the chance to be a long term setup man.

Yohan Ramirez, RHP, Astros—A volatile but tantalizing relief prospect, Ramirez actually threw over 100 innings in the Houston organization last season, picking up 15 starts along the way. A bit of a late bloomer, Ramirez has lost time in his pro career to injury but worked his way onto Astros organizational lists by striking out 148 batters and showing premium stuff this past season. With a high-octane fastball and swing-and-miss breaking ball, Ramirez ability to induce whiffs should carry all the way up the ladder—the question will be if he can locate consistently enough to be effective. The stuff here is outstanding and worth the gamble- I’ve seen him compared to Darwinzon Hernandez, and think that the comp makes a great deal of sense.

Jordan Sheffield, RHP, Dodgers—Endlessly athletic, Sheffield was the 36th overall pick in the 2016 draft by Los Angeles thanks to his plus velocity and curveball, and has had little difficulty generating strikeouts as a pro. Unfortunately, command and injury trouble derailed his career as a starting pitcher, and in a move to the bullpen, his location has worsened. That came to a head last year when he posted an 18.7% walk rate in Triple-A, but the 5’10” righty continues to show the same top flight stuff that made him a high selection years ago. The upside here might be higher than with any other pure reliever available, but he may also be the most risky.

Andre Scrubb, RHP, Astros—The Astros acquired Scrubb in a midseason trade for Tyler White, but weren’t able to protect him from the Rule 5 draft so he may have his second new home of the year quite soon. At 6’4”, 265 lbs, Scrubb is an imposing presence on the mound and uses his size to generate a downward angle on his stuff. He has a mid-90s heater, and backs that up with an above average curveball, pitches which have allowed him to post impressive strikeout numbers as a pro. While not quite as explosive as the names mentioned above, Scrubb has adequate (if below average) present command and should be easy to hold onto throughout the season. There’s a bit less ceiling than with Barlow, Ramirez or Sheffield, but Scrubb has been able to reach more of his potential to date.

Dauris Valdez, RHP, Padres—If Andre Scrubb isn’t quite intimidating enough for you, Dauris Valdez might be your guy. The 24-year-old righty stands 6’8”, and on top of that throws his fastball in the 98-101 MPH range. He’s moved up the ladder a bit slowly, but the results have been mostly strong, though he did let up quite a few home runs in Double-A last season. Valdez doesn’t have a secondary offering that stands up to those of the other relievers mentioned here, but his slider is adequate for keeping hitters off balance. Even without a go-to offspeed pitch, Valdez can get by just fine with his combination of velocity and length, and could stick as a middle reliever or setup man, even if he does need a bit more refinement.

Advanced Position Players

Jose Rojas, INF, Angels—A 36th-round pick in 2016, Rojas has hit at every level on the ladder since being drafted, including a dazzling .293/.362/.577 line with 31 homers in Triple-A last year. The caveats? Rojas is already 26, and will play the 2020 season at 27, and his defense, while “versatile,” isn’t particularly strong at third or second base, the positions he has played most frequently as a pro. The bat is legit—Rojas shows a very advanced approach and has real raw power.

But limitations in his profile mean he’ll top out as an offensive minded utility player. There’s nothing wrong with that in the Rule 5, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a new home this week.

Eli White, SS, Rangers—White has consistently made an impact with his plus wheels as a pro in the Oakland and Texas organizations, racking up 56 stolen bases across his four seasons. He gives himself plenty of opportunities to use his speed with solid on base skills, and he showed some pop in Triple-A last (who didn’t, I know) with 14 homers. White is 25 and the ceiling here isn’t massive- his hit tool hasn’t proven to be quite as strong as some hoped at one point- but he’s nonetheless capable of controlling the strike zone, playing around the diamond and making noise on the basepaths. He’s drawn comparisons to players like Chris Taylor and Kevin Newman.

Roberto Ramos, 1B, Rockies—A left-handed corner slugger, Ramos is at the bottom of the scale defensively as a pure first baseman with very poor foot speed and below average arm strength and hands, but he has the most raw power available in the Rule 5 this year other than perhaps that of Seuly Matias. Unlike Matias, though, Ramos has shown enough contact ability for his power to play. It took him a bit of time to get rolling, but Ramos cracked 32 homers across High-A and Double-A in 2018 and followed that act with 30 more in Triple-A this past year. The power is very real- Ramos reportedly posts some of the bigger exit velocities in the minor leagues, and he’s shown he can put any version of the baseball that he might come in contact with into the seats. He’s not a terrific hitter for contact—his strikeout rates have generally hovered in the upper 20s—but he has a patient approach and is able to punish mistakes consistently. History tells us Ramos is likely a Quad-A slugger, but there’s a chance for him to hit his way into a 1B platoon role at the next level.

Whittling down the list of available names is no small task when taking into account the vastly disparate backgrounds of players eligible for the Rule 5. History tells us that more advanced players are a much smarter bet than gambling on potential, but there’s a possibility that roster expansion could push more teams in the other direction this time around. While the idea of getting a talent like Esteury Ruiz for next to no cost is certainly a tempting one, I’m not sure the Marlins are in the best position to try to hold such a player for a full year with a multitude of prospects already on the way who project to command big league playing time in 2020.

If the team wants to swing for the fences with their third overall selection, Zack Brown would look to be a strong choice. If he can regain his old form, he still has a chance to slot into the rotation at some point, and even if not there is more than enough there to turn him into a successful short reliever. Similarly, Brandon Bailey could be enticing as a long reliever in 2020 with the potential to move back to starting, multi-inning relief or short relief given the breadth of his skills. If ceiling isn’t weighted as heavily, Sharp looks to have a strong case to be ranked as best player available. His profile is a rare one nowadays, but his combination of athleticism and deception give me faith in him as a long term #5 starter. The smart money, however, is generally spent in the relief market. While there have been successful Rule 5 selections all over the diamond, the bullpen has the longest list of hits, and there is no shortage of good options available this season. Choosing between the available relief names will come down to how teams weight stuff and command—Barlow, Valdez and Scrubb show more feel for the plate than Ramirez and Sheffield, but the quality of their stuff isn’t quite as high.

Picking third overall, the Marlins will have plenty of options and should have good odds of coming away with a player who can stay with the club for the long term, unlike 2018 selection Riley Ferrell who had to be returned due to injury and a lack of control. Given their current positioning, the Marlins were able to fairly easily make room on their 40-man for their highly regarded Rule 5 eligible players, and should come out of things unscathed, though there’s an outside chance a team might take a shot on Will Stewart late in the action.