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The Pirates Loaded 2015 Rule 5 Class Will Give Them Plenty of Trade Chips

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The Rule 5 draft is an event over the off-season that gets a lot of attention, although at times it might get more attention than it deserves. The big concern each year is a “roster crunch”, where the Pirates would have too many prospects to protect, and not enough room to protect them. The reality here is that the only guys who are ever at risk of being selected are fringe prospects like Andy Oliver, Nate Adcock, or the rare case with Wei-Chung Wang in 2014 — taken out of the GCL and straight to the majors by the Brewers, in a move that might have ruined any chance he had at a successful career.

The victims of the “roster crunch” are usually guys who project as future bench or bullpen guys. The top prospects are never at risk of being left unprotected, and as we saw with Willy Garcia last year, the mid-tier prospects with a few plus tools also aren’t really going to be at risk to be taken.

That said, the 2015 Rule 5 draft might present a challenge for the Pirates, to the point where they might actually have too much talent to protect, leading to a few players at-risk of being selected, including guys who have higher ceilings than bench and bullpen guys.

If you’re unfamiliar with the process, players are eligible for their fourth or fifth Rule 5 draft, depending on when they were signed or drafted. If a player was 18 or younger in his draft or signing year, he is eligible for his fifth Rule 5 draft. If a player is 19 or older, he is eligible for his fourth Rule 5 draft.

A mostly simple way to remember this for the 2015 season would be that college players drafted in 2012, prep players drafted in 2011, and international players signed in 2011 would be first time eligible this year. There are some exceptions, such as Luis Heredia, who signed in 2010, but signed after the 2010 DSL season, meaning his “Rule 5 Draft” count didn’t start until 2011 (making the 2015 draft his fifth one officially, despite it being the sixth since he has signed).

The thing about those years above is that the Pirates went heavy on each specific type of player in the respective year. In 2012 they took a lot of college players, mostly to make room for Mark Appel, who didn’t end up signing. They shattered a draft spending record in 2011 by spending $17 M loading up on prep players (with that record just broken by the Astros). They also added a few talented international players in 2011. The result is a perfect storm of prospects that are first time eligible. Here is a rundown of each group. I won’t list every player from each group, but only the most notable ones.

The 2012 College Players

Barrett Barnes – He’s been injured for a lot of his career so far, but is finally showing some glimpses of his hitting potential and is staying healthy this year. He has a .270/.354/.435 line in 200 at-bats with Bradenton this season, after getting 358 at-bats total from 2012-2014. Barnes will be an interesting case. His bat has a lot of upside, and he can play center field, but the injury history is scary. Still, in terms of talent, he’s a guy you gamble on.

Adrian Sampson – As Ryan Palencer noted yesterday, he has been struggling lately. However, he did put up a good outing last night. The Pirates like Sampson, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he will be protected.

Jacob Stallings – I don’t think Stallings gets taken, just because it would be hard to carry a third catcher on your roster all year, and I don’t think teams would view him as the backup catcher in the majors right now. I wanted to point him out because he has good defense, works well with the pitching staff, and has improved his offense this year. He probably won’t be an option to be protected, but could challenge for a MLB depth role in 2016 or beyond if this progress continues.

John Kuchno – He was one of the backup plans when Appel didn’t sign, receiving $150,000 in the 18th round. He has a 3.80 ERA in 42.2 innings in relief this year, which isn’t great, although his 67% ground ball rate is impressive. He’s a guy that might get selected if a team likes him enough, but probably doesn’t have the upside that you’d need to protect.

The 2011 Prep Players

Tyler Glasnow – They will absolutely protect him.

Josh Bell – See Glasnow, Tyler.

Clay Holmes – This is an interesting case. Holmes is returning from Tommy John surgery, which cost him the 2014 season and the first half of this season. He will make his 2015 debut with Bradenton tonight. Before the injury he looked like a guy with middle of the rotation upside, and there are no signs during his rehab that this has changed. The Pirates will have two months to evaluate him, but it wouldn’t be surprised if he gets protected. It’s hard to find tall right-handers with fastballs that hit mid-90s and good potential with their curve and change.

Jason Creasy – He’s dealt with control problems this year, which are rare for him. He doesn’t have much of an out pitch, and probably profiles more as a reliever in the future, with a chance to be a back of the rotation starter. Creasy can hit 95 MPH, but without the command he showed the last two years, he lacks the upside that would make him a must-protect, especially in this class.

The 2010/2011 International Players

Harold Ramirez – The Pirates paid him $1.05 M in 2011, which is their second biggest international bonus of all time. Ramirez has received high rankings the last few years, including being named the top prospect in the NYPL in 2013. After dealing with a skin infection that delayed the start to his 2015 season, he has been fantastic with Bradenton, hitting for a .356/.402/.477 line, showing off a strong arm in right field, and displaying the range to play center. He’s a guy who looks like a must-protect.

Luis Heredia – He received the biggest international bonus in team history, but Heredia’s stock has fallen. He came in to pro ball looking like a potential ace. Now he looks like a projectable prep pitcher a year removed from college. One thing that does get lost is that Heredia is still very young for his level — he’s only seven months older than Reese McGuire, who is also in Bradenton, and is also struggling a bit with his numbers, but gets a pass because he doesn’t have the curse of being around for what feels like forever. That’s not to excuse Heredia’s numbers. It’s just pointing out that he shouldn’t be written off. The numbers right now are poor, and that was true before last night’s outing where he gave up nine runs. Interestingly enough, I asked a scout during one of Heredia’s starts if he thought he would be at risk of being selected in the Rule 5 draft. The scout replied “Maybe in the Triple-A portion”, which is amusing when you consider that the Pirates would have to be extremely low on Heredia to expose him to that phase of the draft (I don’t think the scout was considering this when he made the comment). I don’t see him being at-risk of being selected in the MLB portion.

Jin-De Jhang – Jhang has shown some good hitting skills, but his bat has cooled a bit lately. He probably doesn’t have the stamina to be an everyday catcher, and profiles more as a backup or a DH if catching doesn’t work out. I don’t think he’ll be protected or drafted, but wanted to mention him since he got the biggest bonus for a hitter out of Taiwan.

Which New Players Will Be Protected?

I think that Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Harold Ramirez, and Adrian Sampson are locks to be protected. I also think that you can make strong cases for Barrett Barnes and Clay Holmes, giving six strong options to be protected.

Teams can definitely protect six players from the Rule 5 draft, although that might be difficult for a contending team to use that many 40-man spots on prospects, especially when the Pirates could still be protecting guys like Elias Diaz, Willy Garcia, Jameson Taillon, Nick Kingham, Casey Sadler, and Alen Hanson — at least at the start of the year for some of those guys.

UPDATE: I forgot to include Max Moroff on this list. He’s a rare case of a high school guy getting drafted at the age of 19. He was drafted in 2012, but since he was 19 when drafted, he is eligible this year, rather than next year when the rest of the 2012 prep guys will be eligible. And with his performance this year, along with the high scouting grades he’s received along the way, Moroff is a must-protect.

Things Get More Complicated…

We discussed the guys who are first time eligible, but what about the guys who were eligible in the past and saw their stock raised this year? The big names here are Jose Osuna, Angel Sanchez, Gift Ngoepe, Yhonathan Barrios, Stetson Allie, and Keon Broxton. My rule of thumb here is that unless a player significantly improved his stock, he’s probably going to go undrafted again.

For example, Gift Ngoepe has made it to Triple-A. He has hit a bit better this year. But he’s a guy who still profiles as a backup shortstop at best, and more likely to be strong defensive middle infield depth out of Triple-A. That’s the same as last year, and he didn’t get selected last year. Or there is Stetson Allie, who has a ton of raw power, but can’t hit for average and strikes out way too much.

The guys who might have improved their stock this year are Osuna (promoted to Double-A, hitting for a .772 OPS and showing some power), Sanchez (2.88 ERA in 25 IP so far with Indianapolis, and mentioned by Neal Huntington as rotation depth this year), Barrios (routinely hits 99 MPH out of the bullpen, and if he adds a strikeout pitch, he could be a future closer), and Broxton (made the jump to Triple-A, but struggling lately).

With the exception of Sanchez, who could be a short-term depth option, I don’t see any of these guys having a shot at being protected by the Pirates. And even Sanchez will have a hard time this year, despite the fact that he would probably be an easy guy to protect in previous years.

Making the Best Use of Their Depth

You may be wondering why I am writing about the Rule 5 draft in July, when the players don’t have to be protected until November, and the draft isn’t until December. The reason is due to the upcoming trade deadline.

Every time the Rule 5 conversation comes up, a few of the typical responses are along the lines of “they can’t keep everyone, so trade some of those guys for an upgrade”. The problem usually is that this idea isn’t realistic when you think about it. You’re not going to trade top prospects just to clear room and avoid losing potential bench and bullpen guys. That’s like throwing away steak to clear out room for grapes in the fridge. You may or may not even need to put the grapes in the fridge. I’m saying that in part as a metaphor for the 40-man roster and fringe Rule 5 guys, and in part because I honestly don’t know if you have to refrigerate grapes.

In most years, the guys you would trade have no value at all. You’re maybe looking at a player who you can deal in a PTBNL/cash considerations move, just to make it look like you’re not taking on a salary dump. At best, you’re looking at guys who can be the second or third piece in a trade, or a few guys you can group together to deal for a non-elite upgrade (think of the Wandy Rodriguez trade, which sent away Robbie Grossman, Rudy Owens, and Colton Cain — Grossman and Cain were eligible for the draft that off-season).

This year the Pirates have some talent that could get them a good bench or bullpen guy in a trade. Or they could piece together a few guys and get an upgrade somewhere else. You’re not getting Cole Hamels, but you could get a valuable addition.

Looking at the above list, there seems to be a zero percent chance that Jacob Stallings, John Kuchno, Jason Creasy, Luis Heredia, Jin-De Jhang, Jose Osuna, Angel Sanchez, Gift Ngoepe, Yhonathan Barrios, Stetson Allie, and/or Keon Broxton get protected by the Pirates. Some of those guys might end up being useful down the stretch for the team, but others will have no short-term value, and might be lost in the long-term. You’ve got a few guys who will be MLB players, and a few guys with enough intriguing upside that they might have some value.

But there’s also another unique situation this year, and that involves the strength of the Pirates’ system. In normal years it would be absurd to deal top prospects just because they’re Rule 5 eligible. But the Pirates have depth at some key positions, and a few of their top guys can be spared. I’m thinking specifically of Harold Ramirez and/or Barrett Barnes. The team seems set with their outfield of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco. Even if the worst fears of Polanco not reaching his upside are realized, they’ve got Austin Meadows in the minors, plus Ramirez and Barnes. And that’s not considering Willy Garcia, or the many other outfield options they have in the system. The Pirates could spare an outfielder or two — even a top prospect — and they wouldn’t be hurt in the short-term or long-term.

If the Pirates end up making a trade this year, it would not surprise me to see that trade coming from their Rule 5 options. They’ve got too many guys to protect, and some of the guys who are locks to be protected are excess in this system. That leads to the perfect situation where you can deal prospects, and not have to worry about the impact in the short- or long-term.

Tim Williams
Tim Williams
Tim is the owner, producer, editor, and lead writer of PiratesProspects.com. He has been running Pirates Prospects since 2009, becoming the first new media reporter and outlet covering the Pirates at the MLB level in 2011 and 2012. His work can also be found in Baseball America, where he has been a contributor since 2014 and the Pirates' correspondent since 2019.

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