Pirates Prospects Daily: Who Do the Pirates Need to Protect From the Rule 5 Draft?

For years on this site, the Rule 5 draft has been a huge point of interest. There are a few reasons for this.

The biggest reason was that in 2003, the Pittsburgh Pirates lost five players in the first six picks. Those players: Chris Shelton (to the Tigers), Rich Thompson (to the Padres), Frank Brooks (to the Mets), Jeff Bennett (to the Brewers), and Jose Bautista (to the Orioles).

One of those names definitely stands out. The Pirates had to re-acquire Bautista by the end of the year as a Rule 5 pick from their own system in order to retain him. He later was traded to the Blue Jays when he was deemed to expensive for a bench bat/fringe-starter who couldn’t seem to tap into his power.

The rest is history.

The Rule 5 draft is a footnote in the Bautista saga. The draft came after the Pirates were forced to trade away Aramis Ramirez at the 2003 deadline, due to debt issues. The necessity of the trade, plus an injury to Kris Benson — the other high-priced player at the time — led to a low return. The Rule 5 draft was more notable for Shelton looking like Babe Ruth in April 2004, as the Pirates were in another rebuild. Long-term, the Pirates might have been able to develop Bautista better, but I honestly think the Rule 5 draft starting his career was best for him.

The other big reason why the Rule 5 draft is followed so much among Pirates fans is that the Pirates are a cash-poor team, and this is an area to find cheap MLB talent.

2022 Rule 5 Draft Results

We saw demonstrations of cheap talent acquisition in last year’s Rule 5 draft, when the Pirates landed left-handed reliever Jose Hernandez with the third pick. Hernandez made the jump from Double-A to the majors, and remained in the big leagues all year. That wasn’t just the Pirates hiding him. He emerged as a legitimate MLB arm from the start, with late-inning shutdown potential from the left side.

Unfortunately, the Pirates lost outfielder/catcher Blake Sabol last year with the fourth pick. The Giants used Sabol in the majors just as often as the Pirates used Hernandez. Sabol emerged as an outfielder for 271 innings, and catcher for 393 innings. His offense was one-note, geared for power, with 13 homers in 310 at-bats, and a 34% strikeout rate leading to a .235/.301/.394 line. I haven’t followed Sabol since the draft, but I felt he had the potential to be an interesting offensive option who you could stash behind the plate, as well as the outfield and first base. He would be great to add to the Endy Rodriguez/Henry Davis mix right now.

The loss of Sabol is a negative. The addition of Hernandez is a positive. They could have kept both, and in my pre-draft analysis last year, I isolated Sabol as the player to take in the system. He was also mentioned in pre-draft reports at Baseball America.

In the minor league phase, the Pirates lost a lot of players last year. It’s hard to say the long-term impact of that, but I think Joe Jacques, a left-handed reliever who had a 5.06 ERA in 26.2 innings in his age 28 season, is a prime example of the talent-level: Potential bench and bullpen guys at best. The players I liked the most who they lost from the minors were:

Domingo Gonzalez – In his age 23 season, he had a 4.19 ERA in 53.2 innings in Double-A last year with the Braves system, striking out 76 and walking 33. He could be an MLB reliever.

Yoyner Fajardo – In his age 24 season, at the Double-A level, he hit .305/.375/.446 with nine homers, eight triples, and 23 doubles in 527 at-bats for the Twins. Watching Fajardo in 2022, I felt he excelled at torque through his swing, generating strong pull-side power from the left-side, to go with speed and versatility in the field.

Fajardo might eventually reach the majors in a bench role. The Pirates certainly have enough players of his projected future. They also made one of the better picks in the minor league portion of the draft last year, landing Joshua Palacios in the second round. Palacios hit .239/.279/.413 in 247 at-bats, with ten homers and what seemed like an above-average amount of clutch hits.

At the end of the day, the minor league portion saw the Pirates add an outfielder in his age-27 season, and lose a lefty reliever in his age-28 season. Palacios has an upside similar to Sabol in terms of value, though he can’t offer the 3rd/4th catcher alternative. On the flip side, the Pirates lost an MLB lefty reliever in Jacques, but definitely got the better lefty reliever in Hernandez. In total, they added value to the system, with Hernandez and Palacios likely returning to the big league bullpen/bench next year.

Who Should the Pirates Protect in 2023?

The Pirates have 37 spots on their 40-man roster right now. They will need to have a spot open to make any picks in the 2023 Rule 5 draft, which takes place at 5:00 PM on Wednesday December 6th. Next Tuesday, they’ll have to protect players in their minor league system from next month’s draft. Ethan Hullihen has a great rundown of the players who need to be protected at Bucs on Deck. From that group, here is who I would protect:

Tsung-Che Cheng – He’s a must protect. I’ll have a feature on Cheng prior to the draft, but he’s a guy who can hit, play both middle infield spots, and his mental game is advanced. Every single pitch against Cheng is a challenge for opposing hitters. He doesn’t take a single at-bat off, and put together a few long hitting streaks in Altoona this year with his consistent approach.

Braxton Ashcraft – I’d also bump Ashcraft up to must-protect status. He returned from Tommy John this year, featuring upper 90s velocity, better command and control of his stuff, and a 10.4 K/9 across 20 innings in Altoona, over eight inning-restricted starts. He could easily be hidden by another team as a right-handed reliever. The Pirates could protect him, develop him as a starter, and see him arrive in 2025, or late-2024 in a best-case scenario.

Matt Gorski – Here’s where things start to get fringe, especially with three open spots on the 40-man. Gorski is talented all over the field. He hits for power at the plate, has speed on the bases, and his range and defensive instincts in center field could play in the big leagues. He had a .238 average and a .296 OBP in Double-A, often selling out to a power approach, led by a big leg kick across the plate that helps him rock his momentum back and forth for better reach on outside stuff. A center fielder with speed, power, and defense is always in demand. However, that other stuff is only valuable if they can do it while getting on base at a decent rate. Gorski hasn’t shown that he’s ready to play in the Majors right now. If he remains in the system, he could reach the majors this year in a bench role, after some upper-level development.

Jase Bowen – He’s a similar profile to Gorski, as an athletic player who can play center field, hit for power, and provide speed on the bases. Bowen hit .258/.333/.469 this year with Greensboro, with 23 homers and 24 steals in 493 plate appearances. He’s currently in the Arizona Fall League, batting .295/.362/.516, and falling short of the AFL Home Run Derby championship. At this point, I think Bowen is more likely to be selected than Gorski. I also think he’s worth protecting, as someone going into his age-23 season in the upper levels. Gorski is going into his age-26 season, with 621 plate appearances above A-ball.

Who Should the Pirates Protect Next Week?

I’d go Cheng, Ashcraft, and Bowen. Then, hope that Gorski remains in the system, to be developed as depth for the 2024 season.

From there, they would need to clear one spot on the 40-man in order to select a player on December 5th and go for a free talent addition.


I wrote about the Pirates roster entering the offseason, and where they need to add to win. I also recapped the recent transactions that got the 40-man down to 37.

This week, I’ll be publishing player features, starting with an article on top prospect Paul Skenes today.


There’s no comment section right now. If you need to reach me for anything, email tim@piratesprospects.com.

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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