Williams: Don’t Expect Much From the Minor League Rule 5 Draft

Shea Spitzbarth.

That’s the best case scenario for the Pirates in today’s minor league Rule 5 draft.

The Pirates drafted Spitzbarth last year in this same draft. A horrible 2021 team, a series of injuries, and a lack of depth at the end of the season led to him reaching the majors for five appearances. He has since hit free agency again.

That’s pretty much what you can hope for today.

Best case: A roster filler for a bad team.

Typical case: A roster filler for one of the full-season minor league teams.

If there wasn’t a lockout, we’d be wrapping up our third day of Winter Meetings news and rumors today. The Rule 5 draft would be tomorrow. And the minor league portion would be an afterthought to the MLB phase.

The MLB phase has been postponed due to the MLB lockout. That doesn’t impact minor league players, which brings us their draft at 2 PM EST today.

The minor league phase of the draft has been reduced in recent years. There used to be a Double-A and a Triple-A phase. Now, there’s just a Triple-A phase. That might be excessive at this point.

The entire Rule 5 draft is in place to prevent teams from hoarding minor league talent. In theory, a team could be loaded with top prospects, to the point where they would be stashing MLB-ready players in the minors, off the 40-man roster. That would work if not for the Rule 5 draft, which allows other teams to poach this talent and put those players in the majors immediately.

The reality is that there have been so many changes to the Rule 5 eligibility over the years that the entire draft, from top to bottom, is mostly about cheap depth. The fantasy of a team hoarding players in today’s MLB where every player is an asset and every team is an investment group seems absurd.

Consider that no team could benefit more from adding talent than the Pittsburgh Pirates this time last year.

What did they do in this draft last year? Added two hard-throwers who profile best as relievers long-term, while taking a minor leaguer who became a decent filler at the end of the season. They kept Luis Oviedo long-term, and parted ways with everyone else. At best, Oviedo might be a top 30 prospect in this system heading into 2022. Long-term, he could be a swingman starter, or a hard-throwing reliever. That’s not a bad get. Spitzbarth was a straight filler for the now.

I don’t think the 2022 Pirates season projects to be much different than the 2021 season. Therefore, we could see the Pirates target more cheap depth in the minor league phase today. Last year’s addition of Spitzbarth might have exposed an undervalued market for cheap depth: Post-prospects. Spitzbarth was in his age-26 season in 2021. He had yet to pitch in the majors, and was putting up solid numbers in the minors. At worst, he’s an upper-level filler for the bullpen. At best, he helps in the big leagues late in the season.

I could see the Pirates targeting a similar player for similar reasons. The draft looks heavier on pitching, according to Baseball America’s preview, and the Pirates need the most depth on the mound. It will be interesting to see if they look to add another post-prospect type.

Just keep in mind that we’re talking about Shea Spitzbarth 2.0 here.

If the spotlight wasn’t on this event due to the lockout, it would be an afterthought to the cherry on top of the overall sundae of a week that is the usual winter meetings.

But with no baseball, we’ll take anything we can get.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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