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How MLB Teams Could Approach 2020 Rule 5 Draft Protections

Elvis Luciano Johncordesgetty

By 6 p.m. ET today, all 30 teams will have to set their 40-man rosters in advance of the upcoming Dec. 10 Rule 5 draft.

Just like any normal year, there will be the easy calls both in players to add and players who can be left off. And just like any normal season, there will be the much tougher decisions. Does a major league-ready backup or up-and-down reliever warrant a 40-man roster spot? Is it safe to leave a toolsy but far away prospect off the roster for a year?

KEY UPCOMING BASEBALL DATES:

Nov. 20, 6 p.m. ET: Protection deadline for players to be added to MLB 40-man rosters (and MiLB reserve rosters) in advance of the Rule 5 draft.

Dec. 2, 8 p.m. ET: Deadline to tender contracts to MLB players (non-tender deadline).

Dec. 10, 12 p.m. ET: 2020 MLB Rule 5 Draft

But the coronavirus pandemic has added a big additional question that has no obvious answer. How do you gauge the readiness of players after a year without a minor league season? If a player has yet to play above Class A, it is reasonable to think he can be carried on a major league roster all season?

Normally the answer to that question would be no. From decades of studying the Rule 5 draft, I would confidently tell you that even if a team were crazy enough to select a far-off player and managed to keep him on the roster all year, the payoff would not be worth it. The lost development time would be too much. Players sent back to the minors for further development never really found their way back.

That seems to be changing, however.

Three of the 11 players selected in the 2019 Rule 5 draft stuck on MLB rosters all season. One of those, Red Sox draftee infielder Jonathan Arauz, was a player who had played 28 games above Class A. 

Three of the 14 players selected in the 2018 Rule 5 draft stuck on their new teams. One of those, Blue Jays draftee Elvis Luciano, was a teenager who had never pitched in full-season ball. Once Luciano had fulfilled his necessary time on the MLB roster in 2019, he did not pitch a game for Toronto in 2020.

In 2016, the Padres had the first three picks in the Rule 5 draft. Two of them (Allen Cordoba and Luis Torrens) both went straight back to the minors as soon as their Rule 5 eligibility requirements had been met. In Torrens’ case, he was included in the 2020 deadline deal that brought Austin Nola from Seattle to San Diego.

So teams are showing more willingness to carry players who aren’t ready. But more importantly, there are now success stories. For a couple of decades, it was hard to find examples of players being stashed in the majors for their Rule 5 year, going back to the minors the next year and returning to find success. Now we have multiple examples.

The Orioles drafted Indians outfielder Anthony Santander knowing that he likely was not ready for the majors. They also knew that he had a shoulder injury that would cause him to miss significant time. Santander spent most of 2017 on the Orioles’ injured list or the bench. He returned to the big league roster for long enough early in 2018 to meet the remaining Rule 5 eligibility requirements before being demoted back to the minors.

Santander spent most of 2018 at Double-A Bowie and spent the first two months of the 2019 season at Triple-A Norfolk. Baltimore promoted Santander back to the majors in June 2019. Since then, he’s been one of the Orioles’ better power hitters. He hit 20 home runs with the Orioles in 2019 and hit .261/.315/.575 with 11 home runs in the shortened 2020 season. His slugging percentage led all O’s hitters.

Similarly, Tigers outfielder Victor Reyes was plucked out of the Braves’ farm system in the 2017 Rule 5 draft even though there was a belief he may need some further seasoning in the minors. Reyes had played a full season in Double-A, so it wasn’t as if he would have no value in his Rule 5 season. Reyes’ bat-to-ball skills, defense and baserunning made him a useful backup in 2018 for Detroit, but his bat wasn’t really ready and he hit .222/.239/.288.

He then was sent back to Triple-A Toledo in 2019. He returned to Detroit for good after a half season with the Mudhens and has been a regular in the Tigers lineup in center and left field ever since. He hit .304/.334/.481 for the Tigers in 2019. This year, he hit .277/.315/.391 while playing in 57 of the Tigers’ 60 games.

It’s likely that the lack of a minor league season in 2020 will lead some teams to be a little more aggressive about leaving talented but far-away youngsters unprotected.

But if recent history is any indication, that may be a little riskier than once was believed.

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