A week ago today, the Pittsburgh Pirates made the decision to add Clay Holmes to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. At the same time, they also made the decision not to protect other players. Leaving Barrett Barnes off got some attention, but the main focus has been the decision not to protect third baseman Eric Wood. Part of that focus came from the fact that Wood was still playing, taking part in the Arizona Fall League. He wasn’t just playing though, he was one of the best hitters in the league. That leaves us to wonder why Eric Wood wasn’t protected.
We start by how he got to the point that he was even in the conversation to be protected. Wood played for Altoona in 2015 and was slightly over his head in the league. In 101 games, he hit .237/.303/.305, while looking average at best defensively at third base. He was 22 years old though, so it’s a young age for Double-A. Still, even taking age into consideration, this is someone who put up a .739 OPS in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League the season before, so he clearly took a step back.
We cut to 2016, where Wood had his breakout season at the plate. He never had an alarming strikeout rate in his first four seasons of pro ball, but it was an area where he could make an improvement. He struck out 88 times in both 2015 and 2016, with the difference being that he had 91 more plate appearances this year. Wood also set a career high with 52 walks in 2016.
The area of improvement that got the most notice was his power. Wood homered 16 times during the regular season, and added another three in the AFL, which is not a league where you see many home runs. Coming into this season, Wood had 15 career homers over four seasons. He was more of a line drive hitter, who used the entire field and occasionally got a hold of one.
So he added power, while showing more patience at the plate and making more consistent contact. He did it at age 23, which still made him more than a year younger than the average player in the Eastern League this season. Those who saw him a lot and had a base comparison for his defense, noticed he was a much better third baseman. Wood has a strong arm and good hands. He isn’t someone you would consider a Gold Glove candidate at this point, but he is better than average, especially for Double-A. The managers and coaches in the Eastern League took notice of those improvements, naming him the best defensive third baseman in the league.
When you add up the improvements on offense and defense and the fact he did it in Double-A at 23 years old, then had success in the AFL, it would seem like Wood should have been protected from the Rule 5 draft this winter. To his credit, Wood didn’t waste anytime continuing his season by going to the Dominican to play winter ball. While he likes being with the Pirates, if it gives scouts an extra chance to see him and decide to take him in the draft, then the trip down there and the extended season will be well worth it.
Before I get into the reasons that I think the Pirates took the risk of letting him go, I’ll point out that anything could happen in the Rule 5 draft. We saw the Pirates take Gustavo Nunez one year, who had the glove to play in the majors, but five seasons later, his bat still hasn’t got him to the highest level. We also saw the Pirates lose Deolis Guerra last year, in an odd pick, because he was just signed as a minor league free agent right before the draft. If the Angels liked him enough to pick him, why didn’t they like him a couple weeks earlier when he didn’t cost them a guaranteed 25-man spot and an extra $50,000 for the pick?
We also saw the Pirates lose Andy Oliver the year before, then when the Phillies decided they didn’t want him, the Pirates wisely passed on giving them half of their money back ($25,000) to get him back. Basically, anything can happen.
One other thing to note is that the Pirates didn’t necessarily decide to keep one player over Wood, other than the guys they protected this year. I haven’t heard anyone argue that they thought Wood was a better choice to protect over Holmes, plus they added Dovydas Neverauskas and Jose Osuna the week before. Those last two don’t exactly work the same as Holmes, because they would have been free agents if they weren’t added to the 40-man roster. They are taking a chance of losing Eric Wood in the draft, but those other two would have definitely been gone.
You also have the argument of the players who are on the 40-man roster right now, who seem expendable. There will be players cut from the 40-man during the off-season, but they will also add players. If you add Wood now, then that limits the potential moves. A team has a great idea what they need to add, who will leave the roster, and how many spots they want open for the off-season. So while you can come up with players who you think should have been cut so they could protect Wood, just remember that those players will likely leave later in the off-season and have their spot filled by a free agent signing, or a waiver pickup.
All that being said, as a third baseman, Wood is in a group of players who don’t get picked often in the Rule 5 draft. Over the last 19 years, only three third basemen have been Rule 5 selections. Generally, Rule 5 picks are players up the middle, with the large majority being right-handed pitchers. That’s one of the reasons that Clay Holmes seemed like a no-brainer to add. Not only was he the best prospect, he’s in the group that is most likely to be picked.
Also being a third baseman, Wood doesn’t have a clear route to the majors with the Pirates. That was part of the reason the Pirates had him playing outfield in the Fall Instructional League this year, then he started playing some first base in the AFL. The added versatility could help his case for being picked in the Rule 5 draft, but we are only talking about two months between both spots, and he still took regular turns at third base. If a team selecting him wanted to add versatility, they could do the same thing during Spring Training. He just has a small head start in learning the positions.
The Pirates have Jung Ho Kang and David Freese at third base for the next three seasons if they pick up the 2019 option on both players. They could also put Max Moroff at third base, who looked strong defensively at the position this season. Because he had a down season, people are down on Moroff. It’s important to remember that he’s younger than Wood and has played a full season in Triple-A already, even getting a cup of coffee with the Pirates.
Moroff has better speed than Wood, already has defensive versatility at more important positions, and he led the International League in walks this season. With Chris Bostick now in the system, who is a second baseman, but has also played some third base, the Pirates could use Moroff regularly at third base this season. He will probably continue to move around for versatility, but the point is that they have that option.
One of the main factors in a decision to protect a player is whether he is ready for the majors. Basically, how easy would it be for him to stick. Another is the potential upside of that player. I see Wood as a solid defensive third baseman, who could hold a starting job if he reaches his ceiling. He wouldn’t be a potential All-Star, but someone who fits in well near the bottom of the order. That’s the ceiling, but he is more likely to be a utility player with some power off the bench. I don’t see him right now as someone who could hold his own in the majors if he was forced into that role in 2017. It’s a big jump from Triple-A to the majors, so going from Double-A to the show is quite a leap. While he had a strong season in 2016, he didn’t dominate the level.
There is one possibility that might hurt the Pirates in the Rule 5 with Wood, though you’ll see it could also help them. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement is due by December 1st. We have heard that there could be a lockout, but with the money coming into baseball at this point, I can’t see it being a long-term issue. There just seems to be some sticking points that need to be resolved. Assuming it all works out, one of those sticking points is adding a 26th man to the roster from Opening Day until rosters expand on September 1st.
If that happens, then it makes it easier to hide a Rule 5 draft pick on your roster. A position player like Wood, who has basically played one position his entire career, is tough to hide at the end of the bench. If you add an extra spot, then it makes it easier. That would also mean that it makes it easier for the Pirates to do the exact same thing, and they have the 13th pick in the Rule 5 draft. With many teams passing on making a pick (which might change with a 26th roster spot) that could mean that they will be able to pick up someone better than Wood in the draft. He was mentioned among 12 top names recently, but that wasn’t a complete list and he might not rank that high among the available players as far as the Pirates are concerned.
Wood clearly stepped up in the prospect ranks this year. He showed improvements on offense and defense, and he had a strong season in Double-A at a young age. He also plays a position that isn’t highly valued in the Rule 5 draft, so that limits the risk the Pirates took by leaving him unprotected. It’s a position that has a roadblock ahead of him in the majors for the next three seasons, and possibly beyond with Ke’Bryan Hayes, Connor Joe and Will Craig behind him. All they would need is one from that group to be ready by 2020, which Hayes being the most likely to stick at the spot.
The Pirates are taking a slight chance by leaving him unprotected, with odds that go up if baseball expands to a 26-man roster. That could also help them select a better player in the draft, with some interesting names on the pitching side available. They could lose Eric Wood in the Rule 5 draft and have just $50,000 to show for it, assuming his sticks on the roster for the entire year. That wouldn’t be getting a fair value for a prospect of his current value. Those chances of losing him seem to be slim though based on the selection history of the draft, so it’s a calculated risk. We will see on December 8th if that decision pays off.