The Many Non-Successes of the Rule 5 Draft

Dan Uggla is one of the few Rule 5 Draft success stories. (via Thomson 20192)

Every year at the Major League Baseball winter meetings, the Rule 5 Draft strives to help the competitive balance of baseball. But sometimes, the opposite happens.

In the draft, teams without a full 40-man roster are allowed to pick off players in other organizations who are not members of those team’s 40-man rosters. Generally, eligible players include those “who signed with their current club at age 18 or younger and have played professionally for at least five years,” as well as, “those who signed at 19 or older and have at least four years of professional experience,” according to the official MLB website.

If a team makes a pick in the draft, it must pay $100,000 for that player. The player selected must remain in the majors all season and on the active roster for at least 90 days (the rest can be on the disabled list). If the drafting team wants to take the player off its big league roster, he must be placed on outright waivers. If the player goes unclaimed, the team must offer him back to his previous team for $50,000. If the previous team does not want him, he can go to the minors.

Often, the players drafted are returned to their prior team before the end of spring training, but sometimes players emerge who help their teams win ballgames. MVP Josh Hamilton and three-time All-Star Dan Uggla are among the few Rule 5 picks who were immediately major league standouts.

In contrast, some players selected are not major league ready and forced to play against competition with which they are unable to compete. This leads to some disastrous performances from young players who are immediately given a demotion—of two or three levels—once the season is over.

Here are some examples of this over the years on rebuilding major league clubs.

San Diego Shakeup

The most prominent illustration is the 2017 San Diego Padres. They struggled to a fourth-place finish (71-91) in the National League West, carrying three underdeveloped Rule 5 draft picks on their roster all season.

On Opening Day, their roster featured four catchers, including 20-year-old Luis Torrens, who had split time between the Single-A Charleston RiverDogs and the short-season-A Staten Island Yankees in 2016. He cracked the roster alongside Austin Hedges, Hector Sanchez and Christian Bethancourt, who had a short-lived tenure as both a pitcher and catcher.

One of their backup infielders was 21-year-old Allen Cordoba, a rookie-advanced level Appalachian League player in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2016. Plus, 22-year-old Miguel Diaz, a swing man for Milwaukee’s Single-A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, cracked a spot in the back end of their bullpen.

Since none of the three had experience above Single-A ball, they predictably struggled in the majors.

With his bat and defense not ready for big league action, Torrens played sparingly. He batted .163 with a .446 OPS in 56 games (31 starts) for the Padres his rookie year, posting a -1.3 fWAR. Cordoba, a utility player, appeared in 100 games (42 starts) and hit .208 with a .579 OPS and -1.1 fWAR. In August and September, Cordoba had only 24 plate appearances.

Diaz’ season was no better (-0.7 fWAR); pitching in 31 games (including three starts), he posted a 7.34 ERA over 41.2 innings and surrendered 11 home runs.

The following season, the Padres had no obligation to keep any of them on the major league roster, and they did not. Instead, Torrens and Cordoba were teammates once again — for the advanced Single-A Lake Elsinore Storm. Following the 2018 season, the Padres designated Cordoba for assignment, and in 2019, he played for the Storm again. Diaz primarily pitched for the Double-A San Antonio Missions in 2018. 

Not a Relief

Although the Rule 5 draft can be a good opportunity for teams to pick up overlooked minor league relievers and give them a chance to shine in the big leagues, it does not always work that way.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

In 2019, Elvis Luciano became the first player born in the 2000s to appear in a major league game. The Toronto Blue Jays took him in the December 2018 Rule 5 draft after the Kansas City Royals voided his contract due to a medical issue. His 2018 season consisted of 13 appearances (12 starts) split between the rookie-advanced Idaho Falls Chukars and Burlington Royals. In 2019, he was the last man the Blue Jays (67-95) went to in their bullpen.

Luciano, 19, appeared in 25 games for the Blue Jays, and the team’s combined record in those contests was 4-21. He posted a 5.35 ERA, walking 24 batters in 33.2 innings (-0.2 fWAR). Luciano likely will start the 2020 season with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

In 2001, the Tampa Bay made a similar move, picking up left-handed reliever Steven Kent in December from the Seattle Mariners despite Kent having no experience above advanced Single-A ball.

Kent cracked the Devil Rays’ Opening Day roster and pitched in 34 games for the team; the Rays went 4-30 in those games, indicating he was a garbage-time hurler for the 55-106 team. Kent logged 57.1 innings and posted a 5.65 ERA  (-0.2 fWAR). Following the season, the Mariners claimed him back off waivers, and the Florida Marlins claimed him in March of 2003. He split the 2003 season between advanced Single-A and Double-A and never made it back to the majors.

The Chicago Cubs’ failed experiment with Lendy Castillo in 2012 mirrors this decision making. Castillo had pitched well for the Philadelphia Phillies’  Single-A affiliate, the Lakewood Blue Claws, in 2011, but the move backfired on the 61-101 Cubs. Not only did Castillo struggle (7.88 ERA in 13 relief appearances), but the Cubs lost their pick in the 2013 Rule 5 draft because of the way they handled him.

To prevent teams from cheating the system by putting players on the disabled list, a Rule 5 player must be on a major league roster for at least 90 days of the big league season. The Cubs had Castillo on theirs for 92 days and on the disabled list for 91 days with a groin injury. During his disabled list tenure, Castillo made minor league pitching appearances between  Single-A Kane County and advanced Single-A Daytona and posted a 5.87 ERA. Following 2012, Castillo never progressed above Double-A. He spent the 2019 season with the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Can-Am League.

Speaking of which, Jason Garcia of the 2015 Baltimore Orioles might never make it past Double-A either. A 2014 Rule 5 draft selection, Garcia was not a top prospect in the Boston Red Sox organization; he was a three-time repeat with the Single-A Greenville Drive. Still, Garcia had a fastball that touched 97 miles per hour, so the 22-year-old pitched in 21 games in which his team went a combined 3-18. Before hitting the disabled list in May, Garcia had a 5.93 ERA with 11 walks in 13.2 innings. He came back in August and finished the season with a 4.25 ERA and -0.2 fWAR. Following 2015, Garcia’s only affiliated professional baseball experience is at the Double-A level. In three of those four seasons, he posted an ERA over 5.00.

Featherweights

Infielder Jose Morban had a forgettable tenure with the Baltimore Orioles (71-91) in 2003, when he played 61 games and registered just 77 plate appearances despite being on the roster the entire season.

A decent hitter in advanced Single-A (.260 batting average, .740 OPS in 2002), the 23-year-old’s bat was nowhere near major league ready. He batted .141 with a .187 on-base percentage and .412 OPS. Making only 16 starts, he primarily pinch ran. Although he stole eight bases, his presence on the team was not a net benefit (-0.4 fWAR). He split the following season between advanced Single-A and Double-A and never warranted another big league call-up.

Behind the plate, the 2015 Arizona Diamondbacks made it a point to use catcher Oscar Hernandez as little as possible; in 2014, he played for the Tampa Bay Rays’ Single-A affiliate, the Bowling Green Hot Rods. He initially was sidelined with a broken hamate bone in his left hand, but the Diamondbacks activated Hernandez just before the All-Star break — and rarely used him.

Hernandez made his season debut on July 12 and appeared in just 18 of the team’s final 76 regular-season games, making seven starts behind the plate. His .451 OPS in 36 plate appearances, coupled with a -1 DRS, resulted in him going down to advanced Single-A Advanced to start the 2016 season. While he stayed on the 40-man roster and appeared in four games for the 2016 Diamondbacks, the team designated him for assignment in June of 2017 as he struggled to hit Double-A pitching.

The now-26-year-old Hernandez has no big league experience over the past three seasons, and it is possible he never makes it back.

One Huge Success

A two-time Cy Young Award winner, Johan Santana is one of the greatest Rule 5 picks in history, but he belonged nowhere near a major league diamond his rookie season in 2000.

Selected by the struggling Florida Marlins from the Houston Astros in the 1999 Rule 5 draft as a 21-year-old prospect, he’d had a subpar season with the Single-A Michigan Battle Caps in 1999 (4.66 ERA in 27 outings). The Marlins then traded him and $25,000 to the Minnesota Twins for a player named Jared Camp, who never made it to the majors. 

Although he never went on the disabled list during the season, Santana only pitched 30 times (five starts) his rookie year in 2000 — and the 69-93 Twins went 2-28 in those games. He threw 86 innings, primarily in long relief, and posted a 6.49 ERA.

In 2001, an elbow injury limited him to 15 outings, and in 2002, he went back down to Triple-A to work as a starter and on his change-up, which helped him emerge into the standout pitcher he became.

Conclusion

With major league rosters set to expand to 26 players next season, every team will have one more player than usual from late March to August. It is unclear how exactly each team will use this extra spot, but presumably, teams will use it differently. The new rule makes it easier for teams to carry Rule 5 draft picks on their roster for the duration of a season.

It’s possible the new roster composition allows for more underqualified Rule 5 picks in the big leagues, diluting the talent of the major leagues. After all, in 2016, Ken Rosenthal noted that a 26-man roster would give teams “greater flexibility to carry picks all season,” referencing the Rule 5 draft.

Each team is free to make its own decisions. Since the Rule 5 draft does not state the player must be a huge asset to the team, some could use this to their advantage to make their teams better. However, others will look to stash prospects on the back end of their big league rosters who will resume their regularly scheduled player development in the low minors the following season. 

References & Resources


Tom is a freelance sportswriter based in southeastern Massachusetts who has covered professional baseball since 2013. He has written for ESPN, The Boston Globe, Newsday, USA Today, and many other outlets.
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MikeS
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MikeS

I may be remembering it wrong, but wasn’t Uggla left off Arizona’s 40 man roster because an agent negotiated that his client, a recent draftee, be placed on the 40 man roster immediately for some reason? I mean, there would have been other guys that Arizona could have left off who didn’t turn out as good, but that year by their estimation, Uggla got bumped from 40 to 41 for that kid who didn’t need to be protected yet.

JaysSaskatchewan
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JaysSaskatchewan

Luciano was pitching a lot of garbage inning for the Jays this year (his 1-0 record reflects this). I bet the team was losing by 5+ runs when he entered most of the games. There were probably a few appearances where the Jays were up a lot too.

The team’s record when he pitched has nothing to do with how well he pitched. He actually looked quite good at times and he is only 19.

Trotter76
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Trotter76

I think the author uses the team’s record in games he pitches to show that he is a garbage time pitcher, rather than to blame the kid for the losses. In other words, he is not a valuable or worthy member of the team (depending on how many times they are blown out and need that GT arm), but is kept on the roster because the system demands it.

JaysSaskatchewan
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JaysSaskatchewan

He was far from the worst pitcher on the team and was on the DL half the year. There wasn’t anyone better that he was blocking.

Trotter76
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Trotter76

Surprised to see an article about Rule 5 without mentioning Odubel Herrera. 10.4 WAR in the 3 years after being taken is nothing to sneeze at, even though he’s fallen off in the last 2 years. I’d wager he was one of the best Rule 5 picks of the decade.

Christopher Gore
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Christopher Gore

Mark Cahna and Brad Keller are also honorable mentions.

bly
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bly

What about Ortiz? worth all of 2.2 WAR over 6 years with the Twins. And he’s often listed as a success story!