We're near the end of spring training, a time when there's plenty of news about players taken in the Rule 5 Draft, as teams decide whether to place those players on their 25-man rosters (and commit, at least in theory, to keeping them there the entire year) or to give them up, allowing other teams to claim them on waivers or allowing their original teams to buy them back.
Historically, some of the top players to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft include Roberto Clemente, Darrell Evans, Bobby Bonilla and George Bell. But let's begin our list of highlights from the Rule 5 with Johan Santana's selection in 1999, so that most of the players listed below are still active.
The talent in the Rule 5 Draft has been diluted in recent years since a 2006 change in Major League Baseball's CBA that allowed teams to protect their players from the Rule 5 process for an extra year without placing them on their 40-man rosters. These changes mean that, in the next 10 to 15 years, the Rule 5 will likely produce far less talent than it did from 1999 through 2005.
We may be reaching the point, in fact, where the damage the Rule 5 Draft can do to a player's career outstrips the benefit of having the draft at all. The draft is designed to prevent teams from hoarding MLB-ready players in the minors. But if the last few drafts are any indication, teams simply are not doing that very frequently (at least, not with players not already protected on 40-man rosters), as the Rule 5 has produced strikingly little talent since Josh Hamilton and Joakim Soria were selected in 2006.
Meanwhile, the Rule 5 process can create situations in which players who ought to be in the minors languish in the majors. Take the case of Donnie Veal, who the Pirates selected in the Rule 5 Draft in 2008. Veal had pitched that year in the Cubs system, demonstrating promising stuff but serious struggles with control. The Rule 5 Draft forced the Pirates to carry him on their active roster, but they had no confidence in his ability to retire major-league hitters, so they used him sparingly out of the bullpen, then placed him on the disabled list in order to allow him to play rehab games in the minors. (Pirates GM Neal Huntington characterized one of Veal's trips to the DL as "admittedly an aggressive placement.") Veal pitched only 16 1/3 innings for Pittsburgh that year, walking 20 batters in the process, and he added 27 1/3 innings in the minors. All told, Veal pitched over 100 fewer innings in 2009 than he did in 2008.
The Rule 5 system generally works well among competitive teams. A team that is actively trying to win will have a difficult time hiding a Rule 5 player on a roster the entire season unless he's truly ready. But for a non-competitive team like the 2009 Pirates or the 2012 Astros, there's little reason not to try to keep a player who has upside, even if he wouldn't ordinarily be in the majors. For example, the Astros drafted reliever Rhiner Cruz from the Mets in 2011, even though he had never played above Double-A and exhibited serious control issues even there. The Astros then kept Cruz the entire year, and he posted a 6.05 ERA and 4.75 BB/9. It's impossible to say for certain whether Cruz have been better served by pitching in the minors in 2012, but most teams would have placed him in Triple-A, or perhaps even Double-A.
Occasionally, a player will keep his head above water throughout his Rule 5 year, as Lucas Luetge did last year with the Mariners, or Joe Paterson did in 2011 with the Diamondbacks. But an argument could be made that the Rule 5 Draft now hurts as much as it helps.
Nonetheless, the Rule 5 Draft did produce a fair amount of talent — about one impact player per year — from 1999 through 2006, mostly before the change to the CBA. Here are some of the best players selected in the Rule 5 Draft since 1999. (We'll just look at the major-league portion, although, once in a blue moon, good players do come out of the minor-league portion — the Rangers got Alexi Ogando that way in 2005, for example.)
Johan Santana (1999). The Marlins plucked Santana from the Astros' Midwest League affiliate, then immediately shipped him to the Twins for minor-leaguer Jared Camp. Santana was then very raw, and he struggled in 2000, posting a 6.49 ERA. By 2002, though, he was the Twins' best pitcher, and in 2004, he won his first Cy Young award.
Derrick Turnbow (1999). The Angels picked Turnbow from the Phillies, and they allowed him to make 24 appearances in 2000 despite serious struggles with control. After his Rule 5 year, Turnbow spent several years in the minors before reemerging, briefly, as a flamethrowing closer for the Brewers.
Jay Gibbons (2000).The Orioles snagged Gibbons from the Blue Jays after a .321/.404/.525 season at Double-A Tennessee, and he had a solid, if unspectacular, career in Baltimore, hitting 15 homers in his 2001 debut, and posting 20-plus homers in three seasons after that. The other notable in the 2000 draft was Endy Chavez, who was selected by the Royals from the Mets.
Shane Victorino (2002 and 2004). The Padres took Victorino in 2002 but returned him to the Dodgers in May. A year and a half later, the Phillies took Victorino, and again, he didn't stick. The Phillies offered him back to the Dodgers, meaning that the Dodgers would have had to return half the meager $50K the Phillies spent to select him, but, remarkably, former GM Paul DePodesta and the Dodgers declined, so the Phillies stashed Victorino in Triple-A Scranton, where he hit .310/.377/.534. Victorino earned a regular job in the Phillies outfield in 2005.
Jose Bautista (2003). Inexplicable management of their 40-man roster led the woeful Pirates to give up five of the first six picks in the 2003 Rule 5 Draft, leading to open laughter in the ballroom where the draft took place. Bautista was the sixth pick, and he headed to the Orioles. He was very raw at the time, having missed much of the previous season due to injury and having never played above Class A+. After the Orioles let him go, the Devil Rays and then the Royals claimed him. Kansas City shipped him to the Mets for Justin Huber, and the Mets sent him back to the Pirates in the Kris Benson deal. Other notables in the 2003 Rule 5 included Jason Grilli and Willy Taveras.
Dan Uggla (2005). Uggla hit .297/.378/.502 for the Diamondbacks' Double-A affiliate in 2005, but he was 25 at the time, so after the Marlins snagged him as a Rule 5 pick, it still came as a surprise when he hit 27 home runs and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting the following year.
Joakim Soria (2006). Soria's selection was a scouting coup for the Royals. In 2006, Soria had only pitched 11 2/3 innings in the states, all at Class A Fort Wayne in the Padres' system. The Royals selected him anyway, and he pitched a perfect game in the Mexican Pacific League two days later. Mere months later, he became one of baseball's best relievers.
Josh Hamilton (2006). On his way back from a long bout with drug addiction, Hamilton had only collected 50 pro at-bats since 2002 by the time of the 2006 Rule 5 Draft. Nonetheless, the Reds took a cheap gamble on the former first overall amateur draft pick, purchasing him after the Cubs selected him from the Rays in the Rule 5. Hamilton hit .292/.368/.554 for Cincinnati the following year.
Randy Wells (2007). The Blue Jays grabbed Wells but returned him to the Cubs two weeks into the 2008 season. Wells spent most of that season in the minors, then emerged as a mid-rotation starter for the Cubs, pitching fairly well in their rotation in 2009 and 2010.
R.A. Dickey (2007). Dickey was already 33 by the time the 2007 Rule 5 Draft took place, but it would be a couple more years before Dickey would harness his knuckleball and become a dominant major-leaguer. In the Rule 5, the Mariners drafted Dickey away from the Twins, then shipped minor-leaguer Jair Fernandez to Minnesota and sent Dickey to the minors. Dickey pitched 112 1/3 mediocre innings in the majors in 2008, then headed back to the Twins and on to the Mets, where he emerged as a star at age 35.
Everth Cabrera (2008). The Padres grabbed Cabrera out of Class A Asheville in the Rockies' system, and the shortstop has provided San Diego with good baserunning value since then.
Darren O'Day (2008). With 3.9 wins above replacement since the Mets drafted him out of the Angels system, O'Day has probably provided the best return on investment of any Rule 5 pick since 2006, although that's not saying much. (Dickey was two years and two teams removed from the Rule 5 process by the time he made an impact.) O'Day made four appearances with the Mets before being plucked off waivers by the Rangers, who made him a key part of their bullpen while he was still in his Rule 5 year.
Ivan Nova (2008). The Padres drafted Nova out of the Yankees system, then returned him right before the 2009 season began. The pitcher spent another year in the minors before making his big-league debut with New York in 2010.