Home Sports MLB Rule 5 Draft preview: 10 unprotected players who could be on the move

MLB Rule 5 Draft preview: 10 unprotected players who could be on the move

by Atlanta Business Journal

Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings are occurring for the first time since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic and the owner-imposed lockout caused the last two events to be canceled. The return of the winter meetings also means the Rule 5 draft will again take place, canceled last year due to the aforementioned lockout.

As such, below you’ll find CBS Sports’ preview of this year’s Rule 5 class. We’ve highlighted 10 players who are notable for some reason or another: either they’re likely to be selected; they’re famous; or they’re simply interesting. Before we get to the good stuff, though, let us remind you about how this whole thing works.

Basically, the Rule 5 draft is a mechanism that attempts to prevent talent-hoarding. Every player who signs with a MLB organization has only so many years before they have to be added to the 40-player roster. If they aren’t protected by a certain point (the fifth Rule 5 draft for players who signed at 18 or younger; the fourth for players who signed at 19 or older), then they’re eligible to be selected. From there, teams can pay a small fee to pick players — the catch being that they have to keep said players on their active roster all season in order to fully gain the rights to that player’s services.

While it’s been some time since the Rule 5 draft produced a Johan Santana-like win, there have been a few clear success stories in recent years. The 2020 group, for example, included Garrett Whitlock, Trevor Stephan, and Zach Pop, each of whom has since solidified themselves as big-league contributors. Might this year prove to be as fruitful? Let’s find out together, folks.

1. Conor Grammes, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks

Grammes is the platonic ideal of a Rule-5 eligible reliever. If he were a house for sale, he’d have a beautiful high ceiling that the realtor showed off while dodging the holes in his floor. Grammes has high-leverage stuff to be certain, including a mid-90s fastball and two quality breaking balls. Unfortunately, he’s been plagued by availability issues since being drafted in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic and Tommy John surgery have teamed to limit him to 60 professional innings to date. Grammes has struggled with well-below-average command when he has pitched, issuing more than a walk every other frame. There’s no harm in a team bringing him to camp and getting a firsthand look. Just remember: most lottery tickets are losers for a reason.

2. Heriberto Hernandez, OF, Tampa Bay Rays

Hernandez is an exit-velocity darling who first came to Tampa Bay as part of the Nathaniel Lowe trade. The Rays left him unprotected this winter, gambling that he won’t be selected and/or kept around. It seems like a safe bet to us. Hernandez may develop into a plus hitter in due time, but at the present he offers as much value to a big-league team as an NFT — that is to say, none. He doesn’t provide any defensive or positional value, making it tough to bury him as an end-of-the-bench reserve, and last season he struck out in nearly a third of his trips to the plate against High-A competition. Realistically, selecting Hernandez this winter is condemning him to a year of constant inactivity and failure. Even if you’re enamored with his long-term upside, you have to concede that can’t be good for his chances of developing.  That’s why, as odd as it reads, the best outcome for Hernandez is probably going unpicked.

3. Antoine Kelly, LHP, Texas Rangers

Kelly, a lanky left-hander who the Brewers drafted in the second round in 2019, was sent to the Rangers last deadline in a three-player trade that also involved Matt Bush. Things didn’t go so well for either side afterward. Bush saw his ERA and home-run rate swell with the Brewers, while Kelly walked more than a batter per inning across seven outings (five of them starts). Nevertheless, Kelly’s promising fastball-slider pairing might tempt some team into picking him and throwing him in the bullpen. 

4. Jake Mangum, CF, New York Mets

Mangum is a switch-hitting speed-and-D outfielder who has been sidelined more often than not since being drafted in 2019. Indeed, he’s appeared in just over 200 professional games so far, with 53 of those coming the summer of his selection. (For those without a calculator handy, that means he’s averaged 78 appearances over the last two seasons.) Mangum will celebrate his 27th birthday next March, so he’s approaching an inflection point in his career. Is he a fourth or fifth outfielder, or is he destined for the Quad-A label (albeit not for performance reasons)? We’ll find out. 

5. Erik Miller, LHP, Philadelphia Phillies

Miller is a large southpaw who barely pitched in 2021 because of an injury. He made 32 appearances last season, in which he continued to showcase a frustrating combination of good stuff and bad command. Miller has a fastball that can touch into the upper-90s and an assortment of solid secondary offerings. What he doesn’t have is a firm grasp on where the ball is going. The Phillies bumped Miller to Triple-A late in the season, using him in a short-relief capacity. That didn’t stop him from issuing 14 walks in 12 innings, or, if you’d rather, one free pass for every 4.6 batters. 

6. Jayden Murray, RHP, Houston Astros

The Astros acquired Murray as part of the three-team trade with the Orioles and the Rays that also fetched them Trey Mancini. He went on to make six starts for their Double-A affiliate, yet they opted against protecting him. Fair enough. Murray looks like a future big-league pitcher all the same thanks to well-above-average control (he’s walked just over two batters per nine for his professional career) and a quality fastball-slider pairing. Some intrepid club could employ Murray as a multi-inning reliever next season with an eye on eventually shifting him back into starting.

7. Malcolm Nunez, 1B/3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Another player obtained at the deadline, Nunez came to Pittsburgh in the deal that sent José Quintana to the Cardinals. It may seem odd that a team occupying the “talent accumulation” phase of a rebuild would leave a recent addition unprotected, but it’s a reasonable gamble in our estimation. (Especially since the Pirates have already added three first basemen to their 40-player roster this winter, in Ji-Man Choi, Carlos Santana, and Lewin Díaz.) Although Nunez has played a lot of third base in his pro career, his best position is hitter. His second-best position is first base. He can hit a bit despite an odd hitch in his load, yet he’s probably not going to produce enough to be an everyday fixture at the cold corner. Nunez’s idealized future role, then, is likely as a bench-bat type who gets starts versus lefties at either infield corner position. There’s value in that, of course, just not so much that the Pirates felt obligated to protect him.

8. T.J. Sikkema, LHP, Kansas City Royals

Yet another player involved in a deadline swap, Sikkema was one of the four prospects the Royals received from the Yankees for Andrew Benintendi. He didn’t make a good first impression with his new team, posting a 7.44 ERA in eight Double-A starts. Other clubs might be willing to overlook his woeful performance if they think he’s capable of doing better in relief. Sikkema has a decent three-pitch mix, though his arm action has long suggested he’d likely end up in the bullpen. Not only does he have a wrist wrap and a high back elbow, he throws across his body from a low slot. It ain’t pretty, but then, it doesn’t have to be so long as he’s more effective at getting outs. 

9. Victor Vodnik, RHP, Atlanta Braves

Vodnik is a short right-hander with a cool name and a Statue-of-Liberty arm action. He relies heavily on generating swings-and-misses and grounders with his mid-90s fastball and changeup. Vodnik has been limited to fewer than 70 combined innings over the last two seasons, but that may work in his favor in a perverse sense, given that it’s easier to keep a player who’ll require a stint or two on the injured list. Vodnik’s erratic control, contrariwise, will work in favor of only his opposition. 

10. Thad Ward, RHP, Boston Red Sox

It wasn’t too long ago that Ward looked like a quick-moving, back-of-the-rotation starter. Alas, he’s missed most of the last two seasons undergoing and then recovering from Tommy John surgery. Ward did make 17 combined appearances between the regular season and Arizona Fall League, in which he showed off his broad, if not necessarily loud, arsenal. A team could pluck Ward and use him in a multi-inning relief role before later reintroducing him to the rotation. 

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