Every year in July, I do an early preview of the Rule 5 eligible players for the Pittsburgh Pirates. It might seem weird to look at this topic five months before the draft takes place, but there’s a good reason to take a look at this list in July. (Also, every year I add this same disclaimer, and maybe by 2019 I’ll just write it normal and everyone will be like “Oh, the annual July Rule 5 look is here!”)
The reason we take a look at this list early is because the Pirates tend to make a lot of their trades from this group. They did that in 2016 when they sent out Stephen Tarpley and Tito Polo in exchange for Ivan Nova. They did the same in 2015 when they traded Adrian Sampson for J.A. Happ, and Yhonathan Barrios for Aramis Ramirez. They even did this back in 2012 when they traded Robbie Grossman and Colton Cain as part of the Wandy Rodriguez trade.
The Rule 5 draft doesn’t create a situation where teams are at risk of losing top prospects. Typically, you can protect everyone who needs to be protected, and the guys you will lose will be bullpen guys or bench options who can be easily replaced. But teams generally prefer to get some value from their players, which means if a guy is on the fringe, they might as well try and get a trade return for him, rather than potentially losing him for nothing.
And thus, we take a look prior to the deadline each year at the upcoming Rule 5 guys, trying to get an idea of the type of trade depth the Pirates have for some minor deals. Here are the list of eligible players, with my notes at the bottom of each section.
In Our Mid-Season Top 50
Johan De Jesus
* = Eligible for minor league free agency at the end of the year.
Notes: Eric Wood and Eduardo Vera both made our top 30 in the recent top 50 update, but I’m not sure if either would be a guy to protect in the Rule 5 draft. Wood was ranked high more for his floor than ceiling, and wasn’t protected or drafted last year after a big year and an even bigger offseason. That could change as he continues putting up good numbers in Triple-A, although I could see him just getting added as depth at the end of the year. Vera is too low in the system right now, and while he has been throwing with a lot of velocity, he’s right-handed, which makes it unlikely he would be selected this offseason without success in higher levels.
Wyatt Mathisen has trimmed down this year, and is performing better, but I don’t see him being a risk of being selected. The same goes for Barrett Barnes, who continues having hamstring issues, and wasn’t selected in either of the previous two years.
Casey Sadler and Angel Sanchez are on the list, although both are eligible for free agency at the end of the year. I actually left this sentence in from last year, but it’s still true.
First Time Eligible in 2017
In Our Mid-Season Top 50
Julio De La Cruz
Michael De La Cruz
Notes: This is where most of the protected players will come from, and where most of the trades have come from in previous years. Austin Meadows will obviously be protected. Jordan Luplow is reportedly about to be called up, which would also protect him. The Pirates have also already protected Edgar Santana. From that point forward, the list gets questionable.
Luis Escobar has a lot of upside, and was showcased in the Future’s Game. However, he’s a long way from the majors, and I’m not sure if he would be considered for the draft when you look at his inconsistent performances in the low levels. He’s still young, so that’s not as big of an issue for his prospect status. It does create a challenge in terms of adding him to the 40-man or drafting him to play in the majors all year.
Adrian Valerio is another talented player who is unlikely to be drafted, simply due to age and inexperience. He ranks high due to his skills and age relative to his level, but again, that doesn’t translate to a good player to put on the 40-man.
The Pirates then have some pitching depth options, such as Tyler Eppler, Dario Agrazal, Jake Brentz, Alex McRae, and Yeudy Garcia. All of these guys profile as relievers, with a few of them having a chance to be back of the rotation starters, or depth options out of Triple-A. However, the depth here means the Pirates don’t have to protect any of these guys, as they’ll still have plenty of options (and the list goes beyond these five) if they lose one or trade one away.
I’m not sure that Connor Joe would be selected at this point, since corner players don’t typically get drafted, even if they’re putting up strong numbers, which Joe isn’t doing. Jeremias Portorreal is another international guy who is probably too low to be selected.
The Top Prospects and How to Handle Them
When I did this article in 2015, one of the guys I suggested would be worthy of being protected was Adrian Sampson. He was traded that month for J.A. Happ. I also had Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Harold Ramirez, and Max Moroff as guys who should be protected, and they were all protected that offseason. The Pirates also traded Rule 5 eligible pitcher Yhonathan Barrios to get Aramis Ramirez.
Last year my list of “Must Protect” guys were Steven Brault, Trevor Williams, Stephen Tarpley, Tito Polo, and Clay Holmes, with Dovydas Neverauskas and Jose Osuna on the fringe at the time. They ended up promoting Brault and Williams during the season, traded Tarpley and Polo for Ivan Nova, and protected Neverauskas and Osuna after the season to keep them around.
It’s difficult to come up with a “Must Protect” list this year. Austin Meadows is obviously on that list. Edgar Santana and Jordan Luplow would have otherwise been on the list, but both have been or will be added to the 40-man.
Beyond those three, there are a lot of talented players who are very low in the system, and not yet putting it all together. Luis Escobar, Adrian Valerio, and Eduardo Vera would be the top guys on my list as fringe guys to protect. Eric Wood and Tyler Eppler would be guys to protect in the upper levels when looking at a high floor, and I could see both being added by the end of the season as depth. But the Pirates can’t keep that many players on their 40-man roster, especially when Escobar/Valerio/Vera would need at least 2-3 more years in the minors.
I could see the Pirates making some trades from the Rule 5 group, trading from the fringe guys in the lower levels, and the pitching depth in the upper levels. You’re not getting Sonny Gray with that type of return, but as we’ve seen the last two years, guys like Happ and Nova can be just as good, and accessible for these types of prospects.