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8 pitchers the Tigers could target in the Rule 5 Draft

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The Rule 5 draft is the next landmark date on MLB’s offseason calendar. Let’s take a look at who might pique the Tigers’ interest.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Winter Meetings, an early December standard for MLB teams expanding beyond living memory, will be held virtually this offseason as a heath and safety precaution. Despite the traditional smoky-room feel to the event being scuttled by the coronavirus, it will still serve as the hub for General Managers and agents from across the game to meet and work out transactions, including the Rule 5 draft. If you’re unfamiliar with how the Rule 5 draft works, take a look at this great primer by Patrick O’Kennedy.

The Tigers posture toward their 40-man roster this offseason remains opaque, as does the free agent market. Depending on how aggressive they expect to be, it’s possible that the club may even pass on making a Rule 5 selection. However, this season’s group of available pitchers is reasonably strong. The Tigers can probably find someone they believe is worth a look. In that spirit, let’s take a look at a handful of pitchers who the Tigers may consider selecting in this season’s Rule 5 draft.

RHP Pedro Avila, San Diego Padres

The Padres acquired the Avila from Washington in advance of the 2017 season, and under their stewardship, he blossomed into a likely backend starter. In most organizations, he would have been protected from the Rule 5 draft. However, between his 2019 Tommy John surgery and the Padres’ many mouths to feed, he wound up on the outside looking in. Avila’s fastball won’t blow anyone away, he sits in the low 90s, but he wins by keeping hitters off balance with a quality slider/changeup combination that he controls with finesse. Avila could be a decent innings eater for the Tigers right away if he’s healthy again. He’s only 23 years old, has scraped the mid-90s in the past, and pitchers often return from TJS with extra velocity, so there could also be more in the tank.

RHP Brett de Geus, Los Angeles Dodgers

The only pure reliever I oped to include on this list, de Geus was a hidden gem found by the Dodgers in the 33rd round of the 2017 draft. He’s emerged as a high-quality relief prospect because of a jump in velocity after moving to the bullpen and a jump in stuff after his arsenal was paired down a bit. He’s probably not going to be a high-leverage guy but he is close to being a finished product and there’s some behind the scenes whispers of impressive pitch data.

LHP Brendon Little, Chicago Cubs

One of the biggest surprises of the 2017 draft was Little, who rose from obscurity to become a first-round pick thanks to a huge gain in both velocity and stuff in junior college. Unfortunately for Little, the current Cubs regime has struggled to develop pitching talent, and his stuff took a big step back in pro ball. His fastball velocity was down to 90-93 miles per hour while rehabbing from a lat strain in 2019 and his professional results haven’t been great, even in the low minors. However, the Tigers are presumably very familiar with the Cubs’ farm system — they’re frequent trade partners with Chicago — and if they think they can restore either Little’s fastball or breaking ball to its 2017 form, he could become a capable middle reliever.

LHP Packy Naughton, Cincinnati Reds

Naughton, who joined the Reds as a ninth-round pick, has far outplayed initial expectations and become a legitimate prospect. He anchors his arsenal with a good changeup that he commands well, which is needed to make up for his poor fastball velocity. FanGraphs encapsulated his skills well, writing that Naughton is “funky and deceptive, hides the ball well, creates tough angle in on righties’ hands, and then drops that changeup on them.”

It’s not a great sign that the pitching starved Angels opted not to protect Naughton, who is generally considered a safe prospect. “Naughton is likely a low-velo, command-reliant swingman that is yet to test AAA,” said Rahul Setty of Crashing the Pearly Gates when we asked him about Naughton. “I doubt any team will burn a 25-man spot to roster a player whose caliber they already have in their org.” On the other hand, he’s basically free and selecting him comes with zero risk, so a team like Detroit who will need innings filled could pick him up just to give him a look in Spring Training and simply return him if he’s unimpressive.

RHP Riley Pint, Colorado Rockies

A top-5 draft pick in 2016, Riley Pint drew lofty comparisons to some of the most dynamic pitchers in the sport at the time, including Justin Verlander. With a well-built frame and power stuff, evaluators were dreaming of a future ace. In fact, despite his undeniably terrible results in pro ball, his stuff never really backed up. The problem here is that Pint’s body control is terrible and his violent delivery ruins any command he has over the ball. After a late growth spurt, he now stands at 6’7”, which will only make crafting a repeatable delivery more challenging.

Nevertheless, despite having the floor of a truly unplayable pitcher, Pint’s upside is impossible to miss. He throws triple digit heat and his hard breaking ball draws a bunch of ground balls as well. During the 2016 draft cycle, there was reporting that the Tigers would not pass up on the big high schooler if he fell to their pick at 9th overall. If Al Avila is still intrigued by Pint’s upside — remember, he’s barely 23 years old and could still be polished — this chance to add him on a flyer could be too much to resist.

RHP Luis Rijo, Minnesota Twins

Rijo isn’t well-known nationally, but he’s a fascinating young pitcher who Minnesota acquired at the 2018 trade deadline. His following full-season debut in 2019 was a roaring success, but he still flies under the radar. Even as a teenager, Rijo showed immaculate feel for pitching, and he has chewed up the low minors as a result. His fastball, which sits in the low 90s, isn’t a real weapon, but he commands it well. He also has feel for a changeup, which projects to be average with reps. It’s his nuke of a curveball that hitters need to fear. Take a look at this filth:

He’s not a finished product, but a creative pitch mix that heavily favors his curveball and limited innings in a relief role could be enough to shelter him from major league hitters. The Tigers haven’t sprung for developmental pitchers in the past, but they were patient enough with Victor Reyes to allow him to become a capable MLB player. They could have similar results with Rijo, who is still young enough at 22 to believe that development is possible.

RHP Jose Alberto Rivera, Houston Astros

Rivera, who has been developed as a starter by the Astros, was left off the roster due to the crowded 40-man situation in Houston. As lottery ticket prospects go, he’s just about as good as it gets. He has natural velocity and was dialing it up to 99 miles per hour in 2019 despite only being listed at 170 pounds. He backs that up with two good offspeed pitches — FanGraphs calls them a curve and splitter, whereas MLP Pipeline describe a slider and changeup. The command isn’t there yet, and perhaps it never will develop, but the idea of his heater in short stints is exciting as well. Rivera is probably the best pitching prospect left unprotected and would be an excellent choice for the Tigers as a developmental project.

RHP Josh Roberson, Miami Marlins

Roberson has been a slow burn since being drafted by Miami out of UNC Wilmington and his stuff has progressed immensely in pro ball. Like Rijo, he sits in the low 90s, has a nasty breaking ball, and has been developed as a starter in the minors. The trouble? He’s been pitching well below his age level for the entirely of his pro career and has yet to progress past Single-A. That’s influenced by the fact that he underwent Tommy John surgery shortly before the draft and has been dogged by injuries throughout his career.

Nonetheless, it’s a big red flag in his profile that we really don’t know how well his stuff will play against high level hitters. Roberson’s command and age may drive him to the bullpen long-term, where his slider would play up and he might get a velocity bump. He also has a non-zero chance to become a starter down the line if he can stay healthy and a team helps him unlock a new gear as a result.

Honorable Mentions
RHP Zack Brown, Milwaukee Brewers
RHP Paul Campbell, Tampa Bay Rays
RHP Maximo Castillo, Toronto Blue Jays
RHP Parker Dunshee, Oakland A’s
RHP Will Kincanon, Chicago White Sox
RHP Glenn Otto, New York Yankees
RHP Sterling Sharp, Washington Nationals
RHP Tyler Wells, Minnesota Twins