If I type the hallowed words “Rule 5” in any article title, it’s a guarantee Pittsburgh Pirates fans will blow up that article and make it one of the highest read articles on the site that day.
I can work for hours thinking up an original article subject, writing out that article, editing it down for clarity, and I’ll feel like I’ve produced something that only I can produce.
What I will never experience with any of those original articles is the level of traffic generated by an article telling you that two Pirates are named as top Rule 5 prospects available. It doesn’t even matter if we tell you in the title that Blake Sabol is another player mentioned for the draft. Even removing the clickbait aspect of getting people to visit the site to see which players are mentioned, people still want to know about the players.
I think this is widespread around the league. It’s not unique to the Pirates. The rise of prospect coverage over the last decade put a big spotlight on the Rule 5 draft — especially after some big names were taken toward the end of the early-aughts.
Then, MLB changed the rules, and pushed the eligibility dates back. That gave teams an extra year to develop their prospects until they had to be protected from the draft. The change has largely made the Rule 5 draft insignificant, in terms of impact players being lost.
Ethan Hullihen did a great breakdown over the weekend, looking at the history of Pirates-related selections — both selected and lost — over the last ten years. The results weren’t great, and should ease your concerns about anything significantly detrimental happening this year.
It’s difficult to tell that to Pirates fans though, especially if they were around for the 2003 Rule 5 draft. That year, the Pirates were a spectacle, losing five of the first six picks — while having open space on their 40-man roster that they would use for veterans in a losing season.
Obviously, this is a scenario that the Pirates have found themselves in many times since 2003, though they’ve never made this mistake again. The draft also changed, so that it would be very difficult to make this mistake again.
Back in 2018, a young Alex Stumpf broke down that 2003 Rule 5 draft at Bucs Dugout, looking at how it was more humiliating than detrimental. I’d agree with that assessment, with a disclaimer that it was detrimental when the humiliation was that the General Manager at the time didn’t know how to manage a roster. The Pirates didn’t protect Jose Bautista, lost him, then had to trade for him as part of the Kris Benson deal that summer in their rebuild. Dave Littlefield traded for a guy he forgot to protect during their rebuild, which was the epitome of the Littlefield years — any progress, at best, was making up for their shortcomings.
I don’t think the Pirates have anything to worry about as a franchise. The best players who have been mentioned as notable names are bat-first corner players, and those players tend to not get selected.
In the current iteration of the Rule 5 draft, the picks are essentially cheap waiver claims, or a chance to add a free 45+ grade prospect that another team saw as a 35-40 grade guy who would never make it off the bench.
The Pirates have a few guys who I would classify into that 45+ role. If Matt Gorski, or Malcom Nunez, or Blake Sabol is drafted and lost, it would sting to lose value for nothing. From that combo, I think the Pirates could find a replacement at first base for Carlos Santana after the 2023 season.
Here’s the tricky part: Which one do you take? Which one of those guys do you bet on to be the future first baseman? You’ll settle for a bench player, but if you had to pick, which of those three guys would you take right now if you were another team with one pick today?
My pick would be Sabol, though I can’t tell you that I’m significantly more confident in him than the other two players.
This is the same choice that 29 other teams are going to have to make. Only, they will be picking those three out of hundreds of comparable players.
And even if one of those three gets picked, the odds are that they won’t stick in the big leagues all year to be lost for good.
So, why cover this event so closely?
There’s this need for urgent results, and the Rule 5 draft is another system which rewards quick progress.
Blake Sabol and Matt Gorski were draft picks out of college in 2019. Due to the pandemic, as of this point they’ve played two full seasons. Both showed a lot of progress in the second full season, along with a confidence boost and a comfortability in pro ball. Not enough for either to be protected.
I talked with both of these players during the 2022 season, and followed their development enough to think they both add valuable depth to the Pirates system as two people who have the skills and mindset to make the majors one day. I could see both maxing out as an average starter, spending a few years in the role before spending a few more on the bench.
There are a lot of those types of players in the minors, and only a limited amount of space in the majors. The Rule 5 draft allows us to draw a line.
Jared Triolo and Colin Selby were also drafted out of college in 2019, with the same timeframes. The Pirates protected these two players. They weren’t obvious choices on decision day this year like Endy Rodriguez or Mike Burrows.
If we’re drawing lines for tiers, we can say that Rodriguez and Burrows are in a higher tier, where everyone knew they were going to be protected. These are two of the best prospects in the system, and in the case of Rodriguez, one of the best in the game. These two are under the same Rule 5 eligibility as everyone else. They’ve just done a lot of developing in a small amount of time.
From there, the Pirates drew the next line. They decided that Triolo and Selby were worth protecting, and that Sabol and Gorski were not. These moves aren’t made in such a cold vacuum like I’m describing. I’m sure the Pirates would have liked to protect all four players if they had 40-man roster space.
Does this mean that Triolo and Selby are prospects, while Gorski and Sabol are not?
Not really, but kind of.
The reality is that Triolo and Selby were protected because they offer a greater chance of sticking in the majors right now. They might have the same upsides, but their floors are higher, which will allow them to stick in the majors longer to develop to their upsides.
Triolo plays Gold Glove defense at third base, with the athleticism to play shortstop and center field. He also has a promising bat that made strides in the second half last season. It would be easy to imagine a team interested in his profile.
Selby throws upper-90s with a ridiculous slider, and could be in Pittsburgh’s bullpen by the end of 2023. There are going to be a lot of comparable relievers today in terms of stuff, but the Pirates obviously felt there’s something about Selby that makes him stand out.
As for Gorski and Sabol, I could see them both hitting their way to the big leagues, with Gorski adding some defensive value in center field, and Sabol offering catching depth. I just don’t think they are there yet.
If you look at last year’s cancelled draft, the Pirates left Mason Martin and Cal Mitchell unprotected. They were similar value to what Sabol, Gorski, and Nunez are this year. We don’t know if Martin and Mitchell would have been selected.
Based on what we saw this past season, Martin probably wouldn’t have stuck in the majors all year. Mitchell, however, might have had a shot of being selected. I could have seen a scenario where the Pirates lost Mitchell for good if the Rule 5 draft was held last year.
If you look at the impact of that possibility this year, yes it would deplete outfield depth, but Mitchell hasn’t emerged as a starting answer — even with a lot of MLB time in 2022. He might be a good bench option, but his path to a starting role is still just as clouded as Sabol/Gorski/Nunez. And Triolo, for that matter.
This Rule 5 line that is drawn between players isn’t a true identifier of long-term talent. There’s still a lot of unknown with every human being that we identify with the label “prospect”.
This draft does offer us the opportunity to dig into those 40-45 grade prospects who don’t get this detail of coverage throughout the season. It allows us to ask the question that we ask about the highest rated prospects all the time: Are they ready for the majors right now? And, if not, is their upside worth sacrificing an MLB roster spot all year?
None of the players eligible today will lead the Pirates to a World Series, but some of the players who aren’t selected today will be on that next contending team.
The Rule 5 draft offers other teams a chance to poach those contributors for themselves, while allowing the Pirates to poach a 40-45+ grade guy from another organization.
That’s the final line. It’s where other teams get to come in and edit the line that the Pirates previously placed, to say that “No, this player should also be in the advanced tier.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of the Rule 5 draft. We speculate on player values all year, based on stats and skills, but we rarely get to see how teams value those players with actual decisions. We’ll get that chance today.
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.