Major League Baseball’s Rule 5 draft will take place on December 8, the final day of this year’s Winter Meetings. It doesn’t receive (or deserve) the same hype that June’s MLB amateur draft garners, but it can have a small impact on major league rosters from time to time. Remember Kyle Lobstein? He was a Rule 5 draft pick-up in 2012. Former Tigers Chris Shelton and Wilfredo Ledezma were also acquired via the Rule 5 draft.
If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of the Rule 5 draft, Patrick and Jacob collaborated on a how-to guide earlier this month. They also identified several players who the Tigers might protect in this year’s draft. Naturally, they were completely wrong.
The Tigers chose to protect just one prospect this year: right-handed pitcher Sandy Baez. In doing so, they left a spot open on their 40-man roster, which could be used to select a player from another club in this year’s Rule 5 draft. Here are a few prospects the Tigers might be interested in.
(Note: This post makes several references to FanGraphs’ KATOH minor league projection system. For more on KATOH, click here.)
C Tyler Heineman, Astros
Already identified by reader BrettOrange in an excellent fanpost, Heineman is a defense-first catcher who hits better against right-handed pitching than lefties. The Astros have little use for Heineman with Brian McCann now in the fold and prospect Max Stassi waiting in the wings, but it’s still somewhat surprising they left Heineman unprotected. He hit .259/.344/.351 in 272 plate appearances at Triple-A Fresno last season, and managed a solid .730 OPS against right-handed pitchers.
His defense is also a plus, and he could boost the Tigers’ woeful pitch framing numbers from 2016. Here’s what BrettOrange had to say about Heineman’s glove.
He is much more of a defense-first catcher, and has put up excellent defensive numbers in the minor leagues. Baseball Prospectus' framing metrics see him as an excellent receiver, giving him credit for 11 framing runs in 2016 and 11.2 in 2015. He also put up a whopping 15.7 fielding runs above average in 2016.
Heineman may be in high demand this year, and could potentially be selected before the Tigers’ pick. FanGraphs’ KATOH projection system has Heineman pegged for 3.1 WAR, best among this year’s Rule 5 eligible catchers. Given the Tigers’ need for a backup catcher and his high floor as a solid defender, Heineman could be a very cost-effective option behind the plate.
C Jeremy Dowdy, White Sox
Like Heineman, Dowdy is also a strong defender who graded highly as a pitch framer in 2016. According to Baseball Prospectus, the 26-year-old Dowdy was worth 10.2 framing runs last season, just shy of Heineman’s 11.0. Dowdy also put up comparable numbers, hitting .246/.337/.372 in a much more pitcher-friendly environment at Double-A Birmingham. Dowdy also hit better against right-handed pitching, with a .727 OPS against righties in 150 plate appearances. KATOH projects him to amass 1.7 WAR at the major league level.
However, given how bleak Chicago’s catching situation was at times in 2016, it’s a bit worrying that Dowdy was never called up to the majors. The White Sox were baseball’s worst pitch framing team in 2016 — don’t laugh, the Tigers were 29th — and a framer of Dowdy’s caliber probably would have helped. Dowdy made a brief stop at Triple-A Charlotte in 2015, but never made it out of the Southern League (AA) in 2016. He is also a right-handed hitter and posted more traditional platoon splits in 2015, which would not pair as well with current Tigers catcher James McCann.
OF Kyle Wren, Brewers
While the Brewers might soon return to contention, there are downsides to hoarding prospects during a rebuild. Notable among those is when there aren’t enough spots on a 40-man roster for everyone. One potential casualty to this numbers game could be Brewers outfielder Kyle Wren. He struggled in a lengthy stint at Triple-A Colorado Springs in 2015, hitting just .251/.298/.320 in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in baseball.
Wren rebounded in a big way last season, hitting a combined .322/.412/.412 in 471 plate appearances between Double and Triple-A. His lack of power (.092 ISO) in the Pacific Coast League is a bit of a concern, but he walked over 13 percent of the time and stolen 29 bases. Wren also played all three outfield positions, including 17 games in center field. Most scouts see him as a fourth outfielder, but if the Tigers aren’t going to add a proven center fielder this offseason, adding another lottery ticket to the mix couldn’t hurt. He is KATOH’s top projected outfielder, at 3.7 WAR.
OF John Andreoli, Cubs
In two seasons at Triple-A Iowa, Andreoli has produced a .373 on-base percentage. This type of production is somewhat blunted by his environment in the Pacific Coast League, but Iowa doesn’t play its home games at altitude like most of their PCL brethren. Either way, Andreoli’s 15.2 percent walk rate and 43 stolen bases in 2016 are quite impressive. He also made 52 starts in center field, and has the chops to handle the position at the major league level.
There are drawbacks, though. Andreoli has struck out in 24.3 percent of plate appearances at the Triple-A level, a much higher rate than he managed in the lower minors. He also has just 20 home runs in six minor league seasons, and Steamer projects him for a paltry .100 ISO at the major league level. The Cubs are also leaving Andreoli unprotected despite losing current center fielder Dexter Fowler to free agency, an ominous sign for the 26-year-old’s future. KATOH projects Andreoli for 3.7 WAR.
RHP Justin Haley, Red Sox
Used primarily as a starter in the minor leagues, Haley’s fielding independent numbers aren’t all that impressive. He struck out just 19.8 percent of hitters in 85 1⁄3 innings at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2016, and his 2.67 FIP at Double-A was deflated by an unsustainably low home run rate. However, Baseball America’s J.J. Hooper identified some deception in Haley’s delivery that could help him keep hitters off balance at the major league level.
Haley is the owner of possibly the coolest pre-pitch setups in the minors. He sets up on the third-base side of the rubber, with his other foot straddling the rubber. With the ball in his glove raised in front of his face, he looks in for the sign with his pitching hand cocked at his waist, fingers dancing back and forth like Wyatt Earp ready to draw. He gets the sign for the pitch and then locks, loads and fires.
Haley could be an interesting pick-up for the Tigers as a mid-to-long reliever. His velocity may perk up a bit out of the bullpen, and he could add valuable depth if the Tigers part with either Anibal Sanchez or Mike Pelfrey. Haley could also be used as a spot starter if and when injuries strike. KATOH projects Haley to produce 1.9 WAR.
RHP Yimmi Brasoban, Padres
KATOH didn’t identify Brasoban as a potential Rule 5 pick-up, but he was the first name on J.J. Cooper’s list at Baseball America.
The Padres’ system is significantly deeper this year, but it is still a surprise that San Diego left the hard-throwing righthander unprotected as he has two major league pitches (a 95-98 mph fastball and an excellent slider) and he has Double-A experience. Brasoban’s control wavers at times, but with an ability to eat up righthanded hitters (who hit .190/.292/.238 against him in Double-A), he is a very intriguing potential pick.
Of particular note here is the high-octane fastball, something that will likely draw the Tigers’ interest. Brasoban also struck out 23.8 percent of hitters in 35 2⁄3 innings at Double-A San Antonio as a 22-year-old. He has the same control problems that we see from so many players with premier velocity, but is overpowering minor league hitters at every level when he hits the strike zone. Minor League Ball’s John Sickels identified Brasoban as San Diego’s No. 19 prospect prior to last season.
RHP J.B. Wendelken, Athletics
If you’re going on Wendelken’s MLB stats alone, this looks like an awful pick. However, the 23-year-old righthander only made eight appearances for the A’s last season and held opponents scoreless in half of them. He was also dominant at Triple-A, striking out 65 batters in 46 innings. Originally a White Sox prospect, Wendelken’s fastball averaged nearly 94 miles per hour in MLB action last year. He threw his low-80s changeup 25 percent of the time and also mixed in a curveball that sat right around 80 miles per hour.
There’s a wrinkle, though. Wendelken was slated for Tommy John surgery last October — he was seeking a second opinion, last we heard — and likely won’t pitch in 2017. If the Tigers are interested, they could exploit one of the Rule 5 draft’s loopholes to keep Wendelken. Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper explains how.
Players have to have spent 90 days on the active big league roster to fulfill Rule 5 eligibility requirements. It’s easy to carry anyone on the expanded rosters of September, which means a player can fulfill more than a third of the active roster requirement at a time when a team isn’t really penalized for carrying a player who can’t really contribute.
The Tigers could stash Wendelken on the DL for the season, recall him when September rosters expand, and eat a chunk of that 90 days in 2017. Wendelken would still be subject to Rule 5 rules in 2018 — if he’s demoted, the Tigers have to offer him back to Oakland — but could spend another chunk of that on rehab assignment before joining the Tigers’ active roster when healthy. It’s a convoluted way to nab a player, but it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.