Every year we keep track of the upcoming Rule 5 eligible players, tracking who the Pittsburgh Pirates will have to protect the following off-season. The term typically used is “The Rule 5 Roster Crunch”. That term has led to a big misconception about the Rule 5 draft.
The Pirates are at risk of losing players every year in the Rule 5 draft. They lost Nathan Adcock in the 2010 draft, and Brett Lorin this past year (although they eventually traded him for Robby Rowland). In the past, when people have talked about the Roster Crunch, the talk usually surrounds top players. The Pirates aren’t at risk of losing top players. They can easily find spaces on the 40-man roster to protect those players.
The “Roster Crunch” refers to those players like Adcock or Lorin. They’re guys who profile as lesser prospects, who you risk exposing to the Rule 5 draft. Even when you lose one, like Adcock, it usually isn’t more than a back of the rotation starter or a strong bullpen guy. The only problem here is lost value. It doesn’t hurt in the long-term to lose someone like Adcock, but you’re losing him for nothing. Why not try to deal some of those guys to get some sort of value in return?
With the trade deadline coming up, I decided to take a look at the upcoming Rule 5 candidates. I only focused on guys who I thought had a remote shot at being selected. I removed some guys who have upside, but probably wouldn’t be taken due to down numbers, such as Ramon Cabrera, Jarek Cunningham, and Jeff Inman. I didn’t remove anyone that I thought could be protected. For example, Robbie Grossman will certainly be protected, but he’s listed below.
Most of the values are low. Part of this is because they’re prospects, and prospect trade values are low compared to their potential upsides, since prospects aren’t a guarantee. Another part of this is because most of these guys aren’t top prospects. If they’re at risk of being exposed to the Rule 5 draft (where they could be taken for a small $50,000 fee), then they’re not going to carry much trade value on the market. The guys with good trade value are more likely to be protected, and would never be at risk of being drafted, thus there’s no immediate urge to deal them. With that in mind let’s look at the values, starting with guys who were previously eligible, then moving to guys who will be eligible for the first time this December.
Tim Alderson - Alderson was eligible last year, but wasn’t taken for obvious reasons. He has turned things around this year, moving back to the rotation in Altoona. He’s found some success, with a 3.86 ERA in 56 innings as a starter, along with a 40:18 K/BB ratio. Alderson is only 23 years old, so while it seems like he’s been around forever, he’s still very age appropriate for his current level. He has the chance to be a back of the rotation starter, making him a C-level pitching prospect. Estimated Trade Value: $1.5 M
Mike Colla - Colla probably wouldn’t be a very attractive trade piece, although he could provide bullpen depth for the Pirates next year. After Tim Alderson took up a new long tossing program, Colla followed suit. His results in the bullpen this year in Altoona have been great. The right-hander has a 1.24 ERA in 29 innings, with a 26:6 K/BB ratio. In the past he’s gotten his fastball up to the low-to-mid 90s in relief. A C-level prospect would be the maximum upside, and he probably has more value to the team as a Jared Hughes type reliever. Estimated Trade Value: $1.5 M
Quincy Latimore - Latimore got off to a rough start in April, hitting for a .179 average and a .479 OPS. He hit for a .275 average and an .801 OPS in May. In June he continued that hot hitting, with a .277 average and an .842 OPS. So far in July he has a .229 average, but an .884 OPS, thanks to three doubles, a triple, and two homers in 35 at-bats. The big calling card for Latimore is his power. Like Alderson, it seems like he’s been around for a while, but he’s only 23. He’s hitting better, but he’s still a Grade C hitter, putting his value pretty low. Estimated Trade Value: $0.5 M
Hunter Strickland - The Pirates moved Strickland up to Altoona and moved him to relief. If I had to guess, it would be to give him a look at the upper levels. So far he has a 6.60 ERA out of the bullpen in 15 innings, with an 11:4 K/BB ratio. The appeal with Strickland is his arm. He can throw his fastball 94-96 MPH as a starter. He’s dealt with a lot of injuries the last few years, derailing his career. He’s still 23, so he does have some value, with his ceiling right now looking like a Grade C pitcher. Estimated Trade Value: $1.5 M
There’s not a lot of value in this group. That should be expected. Teams could have had these guys for free last year in the Rule 5 draft. Granted, they’ve all improved their game since that point, but you can only make so many improvements. The guy on this list who probably has the most trade value is Alderson, considering his past prospect status. But even then, he’s probably the second part to a smaller deal, or a throw in for a bigger deal.
Eligible in 2012
Nathan Baker - Baker struggled with his control this year in the starting rotation, with a 33:36 K/BB ratio in 58 innings. He moved to the bullpen, and has since dominated, with a 1.83 ERA in 19.2 innings, and an 18:7 K/BB ratio. The left-hander had good off-speed stuff, but his fastball command has always been an issue. As a starter his fastball sits 90-93 MPH. He’s an interesting left-handed relief option, although that makes him more of a Grade C prospect. Estimated Trade Value: $1.5 M
Victor Black - Black has put up a strong season as Altoona’s closer. He has a 1.42 ERA in 38 innings, with a 49:18 K/BB ratio. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he’s touched 98 MPH in the past. He gets some deception with his delivery, although he does still have some control issues. When I saw him last month, he sailed one pitch half way up the backstop. In that outing he walked one and struck out two in a shutout inning. He’s got the stuff to be a late inning reliever, but he’s still a C-level prospect for now. You could put him at a C+ and give him a value increase, although the increase wouldn’t be substantial. Estimated Trade Value: $1.5 M
Zack Dodson - Dodson was a year older than the rest of the 2009 prep pitchers, so he’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft one year sooner. The left-hander has seen his struggles this year in a return to low-A, with a 5.36 ERA in 84 innings, along with a 55:32 K/BB ratio. His stuff is good. He’s got a fastball that usually sits 88-92 MPH, but sometimes can be in the 90-93 MPH range on a consistent basis. He has a nice curveball, and needs to continue to develop a changeup to go with that two pitch mix. Dodson struggles with command, something that has hurt his numbers this year. He’s still got some upside, and because of his age (he turns 22 a week from today), he’s worth a bit more as a Grade C pitching prospect than the other guys on this list. Estimated Trade Value: $2.1 M
Robbie Grossman - Grossman is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but he would be one example of a guy the Pirates won’t have a problem protecting. He got off to a slow start in Double-A, but has been raking ever since a week-long suspension in early June. Since that point he is hitting for a .313/.448/.500 line in 112 at-bats, with four homers, a 19% walk rate and a 21% strikeout rate. It looks like the 2011 Grossman has returned, putting him back as a Grade B prospect or a borderline 76-100 prospect. The Pirates aren’t at risk of losing him in the Rule 5 draft, so there’s no need to deal him. However, he could bring a nice return. Estimated Trade Value: $5.5-10.43 M
Brock Holt - Holt has been putting up good numbers this year, with a .314/.376/.443 line in 309 at-bats in his second run through Double-A. Going forward, he profiles as more of a utility type, as he doesn’t have the power to be a starter. He’s more of a speedy leadoff type, and his best defensive position is second base. He can play shortstop, but not enough to start in the majors. That makes him a Grade C hitting prospect. Estimated Trade Value: $0.5 M
Phil Irwin - Irwin is the perfect example of a guy who the Pirates could deal, rather than protecting him in the Rule 5 draft. The right-hander is putting up nice numbers this year, with a 3.63 ERA in 74.1 innings, along with a 58:12 K/BB ratio. His upside is a number five starter, or a strong middle reliever. That puts him low on the depth charts for the Pirates, as he’s currently behind the Indianapolis left-handers in Triple-A, Gerrit Cole in Double-A, and he’s on the same level as guys like Tim Alderson and Brandon Cumpton in Altoona. He has value, but the Pirates wouldn’t miss him long-term. He’s a Grade C prospect, although unlike a lot of others, he’d be more valuable for the chance to be a starter. Estimated Trade Value: $1.5 M
Tony Sanchez - Sanchez will be Rule 5 eligible this year, and raises an interesting situation. The catcher has good defensive skills, but his bat the last two years has made him look more like a future strong defensive backup in the majors. Lately he has rediscovered his power, hitting for a .306/.405/.694 line in 36 at-bats over his last ten games, with four homers. Those homers are his first four of the year. They’re also one shy of his season total in 2011, over the span of 402 at-bats. The Pirates don’t have any other potential two-way catchers in the upper levels of the minors. They’d be better off protecting Sanchez and hoping he regains some value. As it stands right now, he’s a Grade C prospect, although his upside is a Grade B prospect if his bat returns. He’d have little value as a Grade C prospect, but would gain $5 M in value if he made that jump to B-status. Of course, he’d be more valuable to the Pirates if that happened, since they lack a long-term answer behind the plate. Estimated Trade Value: $0.5 M
The most valuable trade chip here would be Dodson. I don’t think he would be a risk to go in the Rule 5 draft, since that’s a pretty big jump to the majors. However, he does have some value due to his upside and his pitches. Just like the first group, the players in this group don’t bring a lot of trade value. The biggest value comes from Grossman, although the Pirates aren’t at risk of losing him.
You’re not going to get a Justin Upton with these guys. You might be able to use one of these players as a fourth piece in a big deal, but none of them will be primary pieces, with the potential exception of Grossman.
These players would be best used for the second piece in a rental trade, or the primary piece of a deal where the Pirates are giving up cash, rather than prospects (this year’s Derrek Lee for Aaron Baker). In a lot of cases, the Pirates would be better off holding on to these guys as upper level depth. For example, Nathan Baker has more value to the Pirates as a potential left-handed relief option in the majors. He could be a major league bullpen option at some point next season. That’s more valuable than a throw in for a trade.
The Pirates can’t keep all of these guys, and there’s a good chance that one of them will go in the Rule 5 draft. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to deal the guy that would have been drafted, but for some of these players, they wouldn’t be guys the Pirates would miss in the long-term. If the Pirates make a smaller move, this would be the ideal list to trade from.