This is an original MLBTR article produced by contributor Dan Lumpkin and the MLBTR staff. To read more recent MLBTR originals, click here.
Ender Inciarte and Odubel Herrera will long be linked due to their status as division-rival center fielders who inked extremely similar five-year extensions within two weeks of one another. They’re also linked, however, by the Rule 5 Draft altering their career trajectories.
Oddly enough, it was the Phillies who selected Inciarte out of the Diamondbacks organization back in 2012. Although he didn’t stick with the team all season and was eventually shipped back to the D-backs, Inciarte tells MLBTR he’s not sure he’d be playing in the Majors today were it not for the Phillies’ show of faith.
“You know, I could say I was very under-the-radar in Arizona,” the 2016 Gold Glove winner said. “Not underrated but very under-the radar.”
Inciarte was not seen as a prospect for his organization initially but was invited to play in Winter Ball during the 2012 offseason, and that’s where Phillies scouts got a good look at him and determined that Inciarte might be able to cut it in the big leagues.
“As soon as [the Phillies] picked me it took me by surprise, to be honest,” Inciarte said. “Then I realized what [the Rule 5 Draft] was and what it meant. It really worked great for me. It doesn’t work the same for everybody because some people don’t get to play and others get to play a lot.”
Inciarte played with the Phillies in his first big league Spring Training and did well despite the Phillies’ manager mistaking him for a clubhouse employee on his first day with the team.
“When I got there on the first day, I got there at like 5:00am, and Charlie Manuel didn’t even know who I was,” Inciarte recalled. “He asked me to go get something like his shoes or his hat and I told him, ‘I’m not a clubbie, I’m the Rule 5 kid.”
Inciarte found his way with the big league club, and many of the Phillies veterans saw his ability and encouraged him throughout Spring Training. This, Inciarte said, is what made him play with confidence.
“When I was there, I was playing with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Halladay,” Inciarte said. “I could see all those guys up close. I felt like I was living a dream, right there. All those guys got to talk to me and said, ‘Hey man, you are part of this team. Don’t think because you are a Rule 5 it isn’t going to happen.’ It gave me a lot of confidence. I had a great time there.’”
Inciarte had a good Spring Training and actually made the Opening Day roster for the Phillies as a bench player. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t in the Opening Day lineup, which would prove to be his only chance to suit up for the Phillies that year. Following the first game of the season, the Phillies signed Ezequiel Carrera, and it was Inciarte who lost his roster spot in a corresponding move. Inciarte was returned to the Diamondbacks.
Though some players might consider it a demotion and a disappointment to just barely sniff the Major Leagues in that manner, Inciarte views his brief stay in the Phillies organization as a turning point.
“For me, it was great because a lot of teams got to see me play and when I got back to Arizona they sent me to Double-A when I was supposed to go to Single-A,” he explained. “Everyone started paying more attention to me. I got more chances to play and prove myself. It was for the best but I know it’s not the same for everybody. When I got back Kevin Towers went to go see me play in Mobile, Alabama. He didn’t know who I was (before the draft). After the Rule 5 is when they started paying more attention to me. If it weren’t for the Phillies, I probably would not even have a chance to play in the big leagues so I’m very grateful for what happened to me.”
Inciarte’s experience with the Rule 5 process is typical — especially for position players. While it’s not uncommon to see a relief pitcher survive a season as the seventh man in a big league bullpen, there are fewer spots to stash position players on a Major League roster. That reality makes Odubel Herrera’s accomplishment of not only sticking on the Phillies’ roster all season but thriving and becoming a key long-term cog all the more impressive.
Herrera split the 2014 season between the Rangers’ Class-A Advanced and Double-A affiliates and put together a strong season. In 545 plate appearances as a 22-year-old, he batted a combined .315/.383/.388 with two home runs and 21 stolen bases. But it wasn’t enough to land him on the Rangers’ 40-man roster, and the Phillies reaped the benefits. Though Herrera had spent nearly his entire career playing second base, the Phils plucked him in the Rule 5 and shifted him to center field.
“I feel very blessed that the Rangers didn’t protect me because I am now in the big leagues and I have a long-term deal with the Phillies,” said Herrera through an interpreter. “Once I found out that the Rangers didn’t protect me, I knew in my heart that another team would pick me up through the Rule 5. … I went to Spring Training feeling a little strange but as soon as I arrived in Clearwater, the manager gave me a lot of cheers and confidence from day one.”
While Herrera’s five-year deal with the Phillies may closely mirror Inciarte’s deal with the Braves, Herrera’s Rule 5 experience in many ways is more closely aligned with that of former Marlins/Braves slugger Dan Uggla. Like Herrera, Uggla was the rare position player to be selected in the Rule 5 and plugged immediately into his new team’s Opening Day lineup despite the fact that he (like Herrera) had never played a game above the Double-A level in his career.
“I was thinking about [the Rule 5 Draft] a lot, yeah,” said Uggla when asked about being left off the Diamondbacks’ roster back in 2005. “I had a good fall league and they left me off the 40 man, so that’s obviously what I was hoping for. I found out in the morning that I had been drafted by the Marlins and it was one of the coolest moments of my career. The coolest moment up to that point.”
That moment, of course, would soon be joined by a great many more exciting moments, as Uggla went on to appear in three All-Star Games and hit 235 home runs in parts of 10 big league seasons from 2006-15. But the rarity of the chance he was given by the Marlins is not lost on him to this day.
“They gave me the everyday starting second base job in the big leagues,” Uggla said. “For a guy in my position, that was unheard of. It involves an extreme amount of luck and timing. I could have gotten called up with any team and there’s a good chance I wouldn’t have got to play. Maybe a couple pinch hits or a spot-start against a really tough pitcher, maybe I would have gotten sent back down. But to be in that situation and to make the team and they just let you play everyday, that was pretty amazing.”
Uggla also credited timing as a significant factor in his opportunity to start playing in the Majors. During the offseason he was picked up, the Marlins were in the midst of a fire sale in which they traded several starting players to build up their farm system. This flurry of trades opened up the Marlins’ depth chart and created an opportunity for Uggla to prove himself against big league pitchers.
“They had just made a bunch of trades and started from scratch with a bunch of younger guys and rookies,” Uggla said. “It was cool. I got to walk in and be at the team meeting and I found my place on the team.”
Rebuilding clubs indeed have an easier time carrying a Rule 5 pick over a marathon regular season, and that was a large factor in Joakim Soria’s emergence in the Majors, as his agent, Oscar Suarez points out.
“As a pitcher, you go in with a second-tier team, like Joakim did with Kansas City at the time — they are no longer a second-tier team by any stretch of the imagination — but going in, they had no closer,” Suarez recalled. “Joakim was a starter, but they had no closer so they put him in the pen, and he beat everyone else out and before you know it, he was their closer. As an agent, yeah, you want any of your players to be Rule Fived, but you need to be realistic. What team are they going to go to? Like, if you are an infielder and you get Rule Fived by the Seattle Mariners, you say, ‘thank you for bringing me to your big league camp,’ but you know they aren’t going to keep you.”
That’s the reality that faces a handful of players each year following their selection in the Rule 5, but the opportunity with which they’re presented is one that is the envy of other players and agents throughout the game. This year, there were 18 players selected in the Rule 5 Draft, and if history is any indication, the vast majority of them will be returned to their original organization. A few may be picked up by other clubs along the way before being offered back, but it’s rare for a player to survive the season and even more rare for them to then emerge as regulars. For the select few who do, however, the Rule 5 Draft will always be looked at as a watershed moment in their career.
“It is a good thing for players like me that don’t get protected and because of that rule now, I’m a big leaguer,” said Herrera. “…I feel very grateful and very humble for the Rule 5 draft.”
Special thanks to Leo Nunez and Estefany Palacio for translation assistance.