Major League Baseball's Rule 5 draft is scheduled for December 10th, and with only 37 players on their 40-man roster, the Texas Rangers appear likely to make a selection. While it is rare for Rule 5 draft picks to develop into more than league-average players, it is worth noting that Josh Hamilton, Dan Uggla, Joakim Soria, Shane Victorino, and Darren O'Day were all drafted in the past five years.
During that same time period, more than 30 percent of Rule 5 draft picks wound up with either the team that selected them or a team to whom they were traded. From last year's Rule 5 draft, six of the 21 players who were selected ultimately became the property of a new organization [Everth Cabrera (selected #3), Donald Veal (#4), David Patton (#7), James Skelton (#11), Darren O'Day (#15), and Miguel Gonzalez (#18)].
The Rangers are currently scheduled to draft ninth after the Mets, Astros, Athletics, White Sox, Brewers, Cubs, Mariners and Braves. Teams tend to select pitchers in the Rule 5 draft (70 percent of the picks in the last five years have been pitchers and 16 of the 21 picks were pitchers in 2008). Ten pitchers whom the Rangers might consider selecting are presented below.
RHP Aneury Rodriguez (Rays)
21 years old, 6' 3", 180 lb.
● Durable pitcher who has moved through the minors at a rate of one level per year while being young for each league including this year when he pitched in AA at the age of 21. Rodriguez has combined good control with above-average strikeout rates. He posted the best batting average against (.231) of his career in 2009. His relatively high fly ball and corresponding homerun rates are a concern.
● Rodriguez has only pitched as a starter in his professional career. It is possible that his stuff will be more effective if he is used in 1-2 inning stints as a reliever.
● Given his age, fastball velocity, and control, Rodriguez is perhaps the most intriguing player available in the Rule 5 draft. He could potentially develop into a major league starting pitcher, though it is unlikely that he could be more than a league-average reliever in 2010.
RHP Kevin Whelan (Yankees)
25 years old, 6' 0", 200 lb.
● Whelan was a catcher in college. He battled injuries in 2008 and has struggled to command his fastball throughout his professional career. Whelan's strikeout pitch is his split-finger fastball and he generates mid-90's velocity on his fastball with excellent arm speed (video). Opponents have hit .170 against him in the minor leagues and just .151 in AAA in 2009.
● "Whelan has classic closer stuff. His four-seam fastball tops out at 96 mph, and his two-seamer has wicked sink. When he widens his grip on the two-seamer, it morphs into a mid-80s splitter that buries hitters. His delivery has some deception as well, complicating matters for hitters even more. He's a dogged competitor." (John Manuel, Baseball America)
● Whelan's profile is reminiscent of Pedro Strop -- outstanding stuff that he struggles to control. Walks could prevent Whelan from sticking in a major league bullpen for the duration of the 2010 season, but if he can learn to command his fastball he could develop into a major league closer.
RHP Neil Wagner (Indians)
25 years old, 6' 0", 195 lb.
● Wagner's strikeout rates have been outstanding in each of his four minor league seasons. He showed outstanding control while pitching in the lower levels of the minors, but he struggled in AA with 3.6 BB/9 in 2008 and 4.7 BB/9 in 2009.
● Wagner probably has the best fastball of any of the Rule 5-eligible pitchers. The pitch, which has been described as explosive, sits at 93-95 mph and touches 98 mph (video). Unfortunately, it appears that Wagner has yet to develop a reliable second pitch.
● Wagner could potentially survive as a one-pitch reliever in the major leagues. The addition of a decent second pitch might allow Wagner to develop into a legitimate late-inning reliever.
RHP Jon Link (White Sox)
25 years old, 6' 1", 175 lb.
● Link posted 10.5 K/9 in AA in 2008 and in AAA in 2009. Prior to 2008, he had displayed outstanding control, but in the past two seasons he's tallied back-to-back walk rates of 4.3 BB/9.
● Link has a low-90s fastball with sink and his slider was ranked No. 1 in the White Sox system by Baseball America in 2009. Link's change-up has apparently developed into a decent pitch, though he has had trouble throughout his career with left-handed hitters (.271 BAA, including a .310 BAA in 2009).
● Link offers the best combination of ground balls and strikeouts among the pitchers who are eligible for the Rule 5 draft. A relatively high walk rate and difficulty with left-handed hitters might limit his ability to be an effective major league pitcher in 2010 and beyond.
LHP Chuck Lofgren (Indians)
23 years old, 6' 3", 205 lb.
● Former 4th round draft pick (2004) was rated the 54th-best prospect in baseball in 2007 and the 71st-best prospect in 2008 by Baseball America. Lofgren has improved his control as he has advanced through the minors but he's failed to maintain the higher strikeout rates that he had at the lower levels.
● "Lofgren is a physical starting pitcher who has a good four-pitch mix led by a fastball that ranges from 90-93 mph but tops out at 95 mph. In addition to the fastball, Lofgren also throws a slow curveball that tops out at around 75 mph and a change-up and slider which sit in the low-80s." (Tony Lastoria, Indians Prospect Insider)
● Lofgren has been a starter throughout his minor league career, so there is a chance that his stuff will play up if he pitches out of the bullpen. Given his effectiveness against left-handed batters (.240 BAA, 8.8 K/9 in his career and .170 BAA, 7.0 K/9 in 2009), it appears likely that Lofgren could slot as a LOOGY in the major leagues as soon as 2010. His role could expand if he proves to be more effective against right-handers when pitching out of the bullpen.
LHP Zach Kroenke (Yankees)
25 years old, 6' 2", 210 lb.
● Former fifth-round draft pick (2005) showed good progression during his first four professional seasons (6.6 K/9 on 2005, 6.7 K/9 in 2006, 7.0 K/9 in 2007, and 9.1 K/9 in 2008). In 2009, Kroenke's strikeout rate dropped back to pre-2008 levels (6.8 K/9) while pitching in AAA, but his other stats were better than his career averages.
● During the Arizona Fall League, Kroenke combined a 91-93 mph fastball with a 81-84 mph slider that produced 14 strikeouts in 15.1 innings.
● Kroenke has a 3.76 FIP and 9.0 K/9 vs. left-handed hitters in 110 career minor league innings. Left-handed batters hit just .213 and .196 against him in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Like Lofgren, Kroenke could possibly contribute at the major league level in 2010 as a LOOGY.
RHP Grant Duff (Yankees)
26 years old, 6' 6" 210 lb.
● Duff was a relatively uninteresting reliever in the Yankees system until this season, when his fastball velocity increased to the mid-90s and he began to demonstrate an ability to strike out opposing hitters. Duff was especially impressive following his promotion to AA, where he posted a strikeout rate of 9.2 K/9 in 36.1 innings. His height and high release point creates very good downward motion on his fastball.
● Pitching in the Arizona Fall League, Duff's fastball was 91-95 MPH fastball and his slider was 83-87 MPH with good movement.
● Duff is a wild card coming into the Rule 5 draft. His control is not particularly good (career 4.4 BB/9 and 4.0 BB/9 in AA-ball in 2009) and he has pitched just 36 innings in the upper minors. If he continues to build upon the improvements that he made in 2009, then it is possible that he could develop into an above-average major league reliever.
RHP Steven Wright (Indians)
25 years old, 6' 1", 210 lb.
● Wright has exhibited outstanding control and decent ground ball rates since being selected in the second round of the 2006 amateur draft. He did little to distinguish himself as a starting pitcher through his first three minor league seasons. His switch to the bullpen in 2009 was a good one as he posted a 2.68 FIP with 7.6 K/9, 2.1 BB/9, and .221 BAA as a reliever in AA-ball and AAA-ball.
● "Wright throws a fastball that consistently clocks in at 89-91 mph and has topped out at 93 mph. In addition to the fastball he also throws a curveball, slider and change-up, with the best pitch in his arsenal being slider that grades out as a plus pitch." (Tony Lastoria, Indians Prospect Insider)
● Wright's success in the major leagues will depend on his ability to keep hitters off-balance by spotting three or four average pitchers. He seems unlikely to develop into much more than a middle-reliever, but he could provide a team with league-average production for less than $500,000 per year.
RHP Sean Watson (Reds)
24 years old, 6' 2", 215 lb.
● Watson was a second-round draft pick in 2006. He was primarily a starter in the Reds' system before being converted to the bullpen in 2008. He has demonstrated an ability to rack up strikeouts throughout his career, though that is balanced by relatively high walk and fly ball rates.
● Watson features a three-pitch mix and makes liberal use of his slider and change-up, As a reliever in the Arizona Fall League in 2009, his fastball was 90-92 mph, his slider was in the mid-80s, and his change-up was in the low-80s.
● Like Steven Wright, Watson appears unlikely to develop into much more than a league-average reliever.
RHP Will Inman (Padres)
22 years old, 6' 0" 200 lb.
● Prior to the 2007 season, Baseball America ranked Inman as the 91st-best prospect in baseball. They rated him the seventh-best prospect in the Padres system prior to 2008 and had the following to say: "While not overpowering, Inman controls his average fastball for strikes to any part of the zone. At his best, he pitches at 88-93 mph with a solid-average curveball and average changeup -- though the quality of his secondary stuff varies wildly from start to start. Inman added shape to his curveball this season, as it had previously resembled a slurve, and worked to incorporate more change-ups to his sequences. He's a fierce competitor who works ahead in the count and understands how to set up hitters." (Matt Eddy, Baseball America)
● Inman got his first taste of AAA in 2009 and he didn't like it (6.71 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, and 3.6 BB/9 in 63 innings). He's been fly ball-prone throughout his professional career, which is creating problems against the more mature hitters in the upper minors.
● Inman has been a starter throughout his professional career, but a switch to the bullpen seems to be in his future. He's been better in the early innings (3.68 FIP and .210 BAA in the first and second innings) than in the later innings (4.56 FIP and .250 BAA in the third and fourth innings). He could probably boost the velocity on his pitches by a couple of miles per hour as a reliever and allow his competitiveness to flourish. His unorthodox delivery (see video) might also play well in shorter stints.