In an offseason almost completely devoid of action, there are few points of interest for any team that isn't in the race for Shohei Ohtani or Giancarlo Stanton. The slow pace of the last few months has pushed subjects that border on minutiae into public interest — among them, the Rule 5 draft. Thankfully, by virtue of the worst record in baseball, the Detroit Tigers will pick first in the 2017 draft.
The two factors that come into play when deciding on a pick are current ability and long-term potential. Because the pick must remain on the 25-man roster all season, both are very important. Here are some names to keep an eye on when draft day rolls around.
John Norwood, OF, Miami Marlins
Undrafted out of college in 2014, Norwood hit well enough in the Cape Cod League to sign with the Marlins. Since then, he has done nothing but improve. An above average runner in the field, Norwood's speed works better on defense than the basepaths, and his glove isn't good enough to justify regular playing time in center. That isn't a major concern, though. He has the power that evaluators like to see from corner outfielders and his fielding will be more than enough to stick.
The 2017 season was a bit of a make-or-break season for the Norwood. A little old for his level, he had yet to prove himself against his peers and hit high-level breaking balls. He answered that question resoundingly, posting a 141 wRC+ in Double-A and upping his walk rate for the third year in a row.
Originally seen as a fourth outfielder long-term, Norwood's pattern of dramatic improvement may have changed that. Double-A is often the level that separates the good from the bad, and he had his best year yet there. He provides upside at the plate and can play center in a pinch, so putting him on the bench may be a decent solution to the Tigers' lack of passable players for their spacious outfield.
Kohl Stewart, RHP, Minnesota Twins
A star on multiple high school teams, Kohl Stewart was a can't miss talent entering the 2013 draft. He once featured a double-plus fastball and a curve that projected to be nearly as good, along with above-average grades for his slider, changeup, and command. If all the pieces came together, Stewart could have been a legitimate No. 2 starter. Instead, his stuff has taken a marked step backwards and the results have been mediocre.
Stewart spent parts of the 2016 and 2017 seasons at Double-A, and his numbers weren't overly kind. During his first stint in 2016, 92 innings yielded a 3.03 ERA, but his 4.49 FIP was almost 1 1⁄2 runs higher. Last season wasn't much different, and Stewart tallied a 4.09 ERA and 4.35 FIP. Middling strikeout and walk rates don't make the picture much better.
Despite this, there is still some appeal. While Stewart doesn't have the filthy stuff that he entered the pro ranks with, FanGraphs and MLB.com still rated his fastball as a potential plus pitch and his slider above-average. His curve is a topic on which they differ, with FanGraphs a little more optimistic. Meanwhile, his changeup and command are now projected to be below average. However, between his once lofty status, propensity for ground balls, and a profile that still looks like a mid-rotation starter, there is still reason to believe he could be a productive major leaguer.
Nick Burdi, RHP, Minnesota Twins
A victim of Tommy John surgery in 2017, this hard-throwing righthander is the brother of Chicago White Sox closer Zack Burdi. Before he went under the knife, Nick was absolutely dominant in Double-A. He pitched only 17 innings, but he struck out 20 hitters and posted an ERA and WHIP under 1.00.
Propelling him to that success is an absurd arsenal of pitches. Given 80-grade potential by both MLB.com and FanGraphs' Eric Logenagen, his fastball reaches the high-90s with regularity and has scraped 101 miles per hour. He pairs it with a wipeout slider that receives rave reviews from scouts, graded at double-plus by FanGraphs and 65 by MLB.com.
Burdi isn't without his flaws, however. His changeup is far behind his other two pitches, and he may never develop league average control. Neither of those should hurt him much in a relief role, but the matter could be exacerbated by his surgery. If he is unable to recapture his previous velocity or loses his command altogether, it would be tough for him to carve out a stable role in a contender's bullpen. He is already throwing up to 75 feet, though, so these concerns are minimal.
45 ft ✅, 60 ft ✅, 75 ft ✅ throwing progression is moving in the right direction with no pain pic.twitter.com/UtVewTdSBd— Nick Burdi (@NickyBurdi19) December 4, 2017
Nick Ciuffo, C, Tampa Bay Rays
Over the last few years, there has been a complete paradigm shift in the way that people view this backstop. His star has faded a little in the batter's box, but his glove has come to the forefront. In their overview of Tampa Bay's system, FanGraphs made remarks like "He’s retained the pleasing aspects of his defensive profile that have scouts on him," and "He’s a good receiver with an above-average arm and is sneakily agile."
Despite losing quite a bit of offensive stock, Ciuffo had his best season yet in Double-A. Posting a 102 wRC+ in 2017, his batting average came down a tick but he showed a far better approach at the plate and hit for more power than the season before. His bat may fit in nicely with the Tigers' roster — he hits righties far better than lefties, a nice contrast with James McCann. Ciuffo’s long-term ceiling may be that of a backup, but selecting him would give Detroit a bit more roster flexibility.
Montana DuRapau, RHP, Pittsburgh Pirates
This small righthander has had all odds against him at every stage of his career. A 32nd round selection in the 2014 draft, he was picked as a senior from Bethune-Cookman University and was almost immediately converted to a relief role. Despite all of those obstacles, DuRapau has risen quickly through Pittsburgh's minor league ranks, finishing the 2017 season in Triple-A.
DuRapau completely reinvented himself on the mound at the Double-A level in 2016. His ground ball rate dropped by about 10 percent and he started walking more batters, but his strikeout rate improved significantly. That was a good first step, but it still led to middling results. The pieces all came together in 2017, and he managed a 1.49 ERA and 2.32 FIP. A promotion to Triple-A proved to be no problem either, and he bumped up strikeout rate even further, albeit in a small sample size.
If the Tigers decide to go for a safer player, don't be surprised if they opt for DuRapau. He is a low-risk, low-reward proposition in the vein of their last Rule 5 pick, lefty Daniel Stumpf. While DuRapau doesn't offer Detroit much upside, he would be a welcome addition to an organization almost completely devoid of competent relievers.
Others of Note:
Travis Demeritte, 2B/3B, Atlanta Braves: While his stock has dropped a bit over the last few years, he still offers a solid glove and quite a bit of upside in the batter’s box. There are holes in his swing, but the power is there and he could serve in a utility role.
Max Pentacost, C, Toronto Blue Jays: The victim of a nightmarish string of injuries, this catcher draws praise for his bat and should be an adequate defender.
Jose Cardona, OF, Texas Rangers: Reminiscent of recent Tigers signee Leonys Martin, Cardona will likely be a useful player based on his contact skills and defense alone. In fact, Steamer projects that he will have a higher wRC+ than Martin.
Jake Cosart, RHP, Boston Red Sox: One of the more questionable guys on this list, Cosart has the ability to strike out just about anyone. Once the ball leaves his hand, however, he rarely knows where it's headed. He sports a 99 mile-per-hour fastball, an average curve, and in lieu of a standard third pitch, he tosses a good splitter.
Jose Almonte, RHP, Arizona Diamondbacks: A starter with decent stuff who posted good numbers in High-A, a team will probably stash him in the bullpen for mop-up duty and send him to Double-A in 2019 to continue his development for a starting role.
Carlos Tocci, OF, Philadelphia Phillies: An excellent defender with decent contact skills and very little power, he will likely serve as a fourth outfielder. How early he is picked will rely upon how much faith teams have in his bat.