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The strength of the 2023 Rule 5 Draft is starting pitching

The Tigers have the opportunity to add a pitcher who suits their developmental strengths in next month’s draft.

Arkansas Travelers v Amarillo Sod Poodles Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Friday afternoon was the final date to tender contracts to arbitration eligible players or release then. Teams had already added their prospects to their 40-man rosters to protect them from December’s Rule 5 draft. So, rosters are pretty well set for the draft, apart from whatever additions teams might make in the interim via trades or free agency.

The Tigers handled their roster setting as expected. In terms of prospects, they protected catcher Dillon Dingler and pitcher Wilmer Flores, joining pitcher Keider Montero who was added earlier to prevent him from leaving in minor league free agency.

The most notable Tigers prospects left exposed are reliever Andrew Magno, outfielder Roberto Campos, and utility man Trei Cruz. They also chose not to keep lefty pitcher Jack O'Loughlin from becoming a free agent, although we thought he may have merited a 40-man roster spot. He immediately received a flurry of "over 15 offers" and signed with Oakland just a day later. The Tigers’ roster stands at 37 players right now, so they’re pretty well set to add in the offseason and still take a player in the Rule 5 draft.

Players selected are required to spend the entire season on the active roster of the team who selects them and can only be optioned to the minors during the season if their rights are acquired in a subsequent trade. Selected players are returned to their original team should the claiming team chose to release them to clear an active roster spot during the season.

As a result, teams are often drawn to players they think can be hidden on the bench, meaning the most commonly selected demographic are power armed relievers or backend starter types deployed as mop-up duty swingmen. Typically, the few interesting position players in any Rule 5 draft are snapped up early, as in the case of the Tigers’ selection of Akil Baddoo prior to the 2021 season.

This year's class of available players heavily features starting pitching among its most talented, which is good news for the Tigers. A player made available in the December draft will be often have a mismatch between their talent and results — either overperforming their true talent or failing to meet expectations. Detroit has made a lot of hay in recent seasons by connecting those dots for pitchers with a broken fastball, and may find an opportunity to do that again here. Most starters taken in the Rule 5 start their careers as relievers, so don’t expect the holes in the rotation to be plugged, but a year or two down the line, a wise pick here could bear fruit nicely.

This offseason’s Winter Meetings are set for December 3-6, with the Rule 5 draft taking place on the final day of the industry meet-up. Let’s take a look at a sampling of interesting players the Tigers may consider selecting.

RHP Cole Wilcox, Tampa Bay Rays

San Diego paid Wilcox a boatload of money to sign as a third rounder in 2020, but promptly traded him to Tampa Bay for Blake Snell. That means two high ranking executives — Mark Conner and Rob Metzler — were separately involved with a braintrust who pulled the trigger on acquiring Wilcox at a substantial cost. They have the chance to do it again if they haven't lost the faith, but this time buying low.

No one can question his potency when Wilcox is at the hight of his powers. He throws an ultra high powered sinker and has been clocked at 100 mph on occasion. Hitters struggle to lift the ball against him and he induced an exceptional 54 percent groundball rate in 2023. With a big frame, a power slider, and a tumbling changeup backing up that velocity, he's long been pegged as an obvious starter type.

The trouble is that hitters nickel and dimed Wilcox to death in his return from Tommy John surgery last year. He wound up allowing a 5.23 ERA, along with a matching 4.96 FIP and less than a strikeout per inning. He wasn't the victim of bad luck, or at least, that's what his .281 BABIP-against would indicate.

I've searched everywhere I can think to find an explanation, but there's none to be had except that he's taking longer than expected to reacclimate to live pitching. If it's true, that's fine; TJS isn't the career killer it might have been four decades ago, but it still impacts every player differently. A somewhat scarier possibility is the toll surgery and rehab may have taken on his mental approach. He was open about changing his process to avoid ever going through a major rehab process again and if (that "if" is carrying a ton of water here) that's causing him to hold back from tapping into his high gear, the road back to his old self will be uncertain.

RHP Taylor Dollard, Seattle Mariners

Dollard rose from an unremarkable relief prospect in the 2020 draft to one of the top starting pitchers in Double-A in 2022. His improbable career path was heading toward a major league debut if he hadn't suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in his third start of 2023. The M’s leaving him unprotected came as a bit of a surprise to me, but they’re likely counting on the fact that he isn’s a hard thrower and uncertainty around his injury to keep him safe.

A trio of very bendy offspeed pitches allow Dollard to pitch backwards, and he uses his low-90s fastball in on the hands to leave same-handed hitters reaching for the more potent slider outside. His curveball has a lot of downward movement, which makes it fun to look at, but neither FanGraphs nor MLB Pipeline has faith in it as a swing and miss pitch. It’s a functional change of pace, but tends to read as a curve pretty early out of the hand.

His last pitch is a split change that, although not as good as the slider, is probably his most interesting offering. Due to the splitterish nature of the pitch, it averages only 1200 RPM, sometimes dipping as low as to nearly touch 1000 RPM. He explained in an interview with The Couch GM that he switched from a traditional grip to the split grip because he tended to “baby” the traditional grip. By switching to the split grip, he is able to produce a more convincing arm action, with the low spin providing the diving action of a changeup.

RHP Chih-Jung Liu

The Red Sox signed Liu out of Taiwan in 2019, when he was already 20 years old. That means he’s older than the average international signee being considered in the Rule 5 draft, and will turn 25 years old not long after next season begins. FanGraphs called out Liu as the most likely of Boston’s unprotected guys to be selected on draft day. If he is picked, the plan will likely be to put him in relief to hide his mediocre command and hope that his stuff takes a jump.

The anchor of Liu’s pitch mix is his fastball. He’s an excellent on-mound athlete and he can rip it as high as 98 mph. It plays down a little from that velocity because he’s on the smaller side for a starting pitcher, but it’s still plenty enough to bust the chops of any hitter who gets too comfortable in the box. Between that high heat and a slider that is already bumping against plus grades, he struck out a ton of guys in Double-A and even threw a no-hitter in May.

What holds him back is largely feel-related. He came stateside with a splitter that flashed plenty of movement and upside, but he struggled to gain consistency with it. He shelved that in 2021 in favor of developing a curve or standard changeup, but neither of those really took hold, and he went back to his original three pitch mix. Liu will still utilize the occasional soft, loopy curve, but it doesn’t have a true place in his repertoire.

Additionally, while athleticism is generally a decent precursor for development of command, it never happened for Liu. His delivery, which involves a small head whack, is far from optimized for extension or repeatability. That means he leaves too many fastballs in the meat of the zone and doesn’t have the perceived velocity gain to get away with it. As a result, he got bullied in Double-A when his command was off with little help from his defense, finishing with a high walk rate and an inflated ERA.

RHP Ian Bedell, St. Louis Cardinals

Bedell lost most of the '21 and '22 season to a poorly timed UCL tear, meaning that last season was his first full year as a pro ballplayer. The Cardinals kept him in High-A for the duration, and looked the part of a future major leaguer. He came away with a glittering 2.44 ERA in 27 games, including 19 games started.

Bedell also came out of his rehab throwing his fastball at 92-94 mph, up from his draft year. In their report from May, FanGraphs was bullish about the pitch. "At times, the heater has had a ton of life, and Bedell has demonstrated a proficiency for spinning it, so he could be just a hand adjustment away from catching fire," they wrote.

With a repeatable delivery and secondary pitches that create a believable starter's projection, Bedell carries a whole lot less risk than the average player from low minors. His breaking ball action and fastball command are valuable enough to provide a fallback career path as a relief arm rather than a backend rotation guy. And, for what it’s worth, the reaction among St. Louis media carried the undertone of disapproval after the selection deadline passed and Bedell was left out of the party.

RHP Angel Bastardo, Boston Red Sox

Bastardo went both unprotected and unselected in last year’s Rule 5 draft, but he had a breakout season in 2023 and deserves a second look. There were few starting pitchers anywhere in baseball who kept pace with Bastardo’s strikeout rates in 2023 (although fellow Red Sox prospect Chih-Jung Liu was one of the few who bested him in both K/9 and K%). He will not be immediately ready for a spot in an MLB rotation, but I have more faith in him eventually becoming a starter than most of the players I’ve talked about here already.

The first thing most people look to when collecting data on a pitching prospect is his velocity. Bastardo sits in the mid-90s and will consistently reach 97-98 mph with his fastball, but it’s really his changeup that is the money pitch. It’s about ten miles per hour slower than the fastball and it has similar armside run with late diving action. He also throws a 12-6 curveball that has counterintuitively low spin and a slider that he developed last offseason. Both pitches can get whiffs, but the curveball is more advanced.

Bastardo could benefit from adding a two-seam or sinker variation to his fastball. The high velocity version has too little movement to function on its own, which is why the changeup is so crucial to his success. Adding another pitch with a similar movement profile in a distinct velocity band — maybe sitting in the 91-93 mph range — could help keep hitters off balance.

The painfully slow development of RHP Matt Sauer (NYY) finally hit full speed in Double-A. He draws whiffs on his cutter and slider, but hitters don't have trouble lifting his mid-90s fastball. I think there's an MLB pitcher here, but the results likely wouldn't be pretty in 2024.

Teams are very shy about inexperienced catchers, making 20 year old C Christian Cerda (ARI) an extreme long shot. He has developing power, though, and took walks at an astonishing 20 percent rate in Low- and High-A in 2023, leading to a wRC+ north of 130 in High-A.

I don't want to like 2B Jared Serna (NYY) as much as I do, but his effortless swing keeps pulling me back in. Pitchers rarely fool him and he puts the ball in play often enough to be a serious pest. Serna is undersized and unlikely to strike the ball with authority in the majors. However, he was just one dinger off from a 20-30 season between Low- and High-A and his swing mechanics are just too darn pretty for me to quit on the idea.

The extreme consistency of RHP Coleman Crow (NYM) means he never misses in the zone. His complete self discipline helps him get the most from his slow fastball, spotting it on both edges of the strike zone and keeping hitters off his curveball, which ranges from a sweeperish pitch to big and bendy. He's unprotected because he underwent TJS in August.

The Tigers don't really have a use for OF Hudson Haskin (BAL) as the roster currently stands, but he's considered one of the top players left unprotected. If an outfield vacancy appears between now and draft day, he could make a nice substitute. He has basically average offensive tools, defense that plays in all three positions, and has dominated the minors when healthy.

Overaged and lowly drafted, 1B Troy Johnston (MIA) has played his way into prospect status by ripping every level of the minors to shreds. He's another poor fit with the roster and unless he can get to his power consistently (he does have some juice, check out this highlight) he probably won't stick around for long. Nevertheless, I can't help but be intrigued by his skyrocketing line drive rate in Triple-A — an almost unbelievable 41.1 percent by season's end.

There's a handful of reasons why RHP Jean Pinto (BAL) is a bad bet to stick as a starter. However, his unimpressive fastball (and accompanying shoddy command of the pitch) is at the root of those problems. He has two offspeed pitches that flash plus and was consistently good with a full starter's workload in High- and Double-A. Any MLB team picking Pinto will immediately 'pen him, and if his stuff pops, he should be a decent relief arm.

Hard-throwing relievers with severe command issues don’t interest me much, but they tend to be pretty popular in the R5. In that vein, I’ll just steal an idea from FanGraphs’ American League roster crunch article. LHP Christian Chamberlain (KCR) throws mid-90s fastball and a hard curve that could entice a team with a better development staff than what they’ve got in Kansas City, despite walk rates that imply something between blindness and reckless abandon.

Other right handed relief arms with a track record of drawing stikes include Justin Slaten (TEX), Braxton Roxby (CIN), Leon Hunter Jr. (SEA), Lazaro Estrada (TOR), and Nelson Alvarez (TBR).