The best major leaguers $50,000 can buy

Every year, major league teams get the opportunity to pay $50,000 to acquire experienced minor leaguers that other teams have not protected on the 40-man roster. Roberto Clemente (selected from the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954) is the most accomplished Rule 5 pick, though Johan Santana threatens to change that. While it is uncommon to find future stars in the draft, there are plenty of useful players available. Dan Uggla, Josh Hamilton and Joakim Soria all played important roles on their new teams following the Rule 5 draft in recent seasons.

On Thursday, the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft resulted in 18 selections. As usual, most of the players profile as middle relief pitchers or backup position players. I have ranked my favorite selections among the relief pitchers and position players in the following two lists.

The Relief Pitchers

1. Randor Bierd
Selected by the Baltimore Orioles (No. 3 overall)

Year Level    IP   K  BB  HR   ERA
2006    A-  38.1  41  15   2  6.57
2007    A   22.0  29   6   8  2.05
2007   AA   45.2  52  10   0  3.35

My personal top choice among available pitching talent in the Rule 5 draft, Bierd’s 2.14 fielding-independent ERA ranked third among Eastern League pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched in 2007. That places him between Clay Buchholz (2.03) and Joba Chamberlain (2.56), though those top prospects achieved their dominance in starting roles. Bierd’s career was sidetracked by Tommy John surgery two years ago, but the 23-year-old has bounced back with great control and and his sinking fastball/slider combination should yield at least an average strikeout rate in the major leagues. While Bierd is likely slated for a middle relief role with the Orioles, he does have more than two pitches and experienced some success as a spot starter in the minor leagues.

2. Carlos Guevara
Selected by the Florida Marlins (No. 5 overall) and traded to the Padres

Year Level    IP   K  BB  HR   ERA
2006   AA   77.1  89  27   6  3.72
2007   AA   62.0  87  23   3  3.45

Guevara struck out one-third of all opposing batters this year. That strikeout rate will probably drop significantly against more experienced hitters who learn to lay off his screwball, but then again Eastern League hitters certainly had plenty of chances to adapt over the past two years. Cincinnati is investing a lot of resources in its bullpen, so it is difficult for me to understand why the Reds let an affordable middle relief option like Guevara go unprotected while later drafting Sergio Valenzuela, a reliever who has yet to pitch beyond Single-A ball.

3. Fernando Hernandez
Selected by the Oakland Athletics (No. 9 overall)

Year Level    IP   K  BB  HR   ERA
2006    A+  65.1  81  32   4  4.33
2007   AA   85.1  84  23   4  3.06

Hernandez cut his walk rate nearly in half while moving up a level to Double-A Birmingham this summer. Then, he dominated the hitter-friendly Arizona Fall League in 12 appearances this fall. Oakland has spots up for grabs in its bullpen, so Hernandez has a good chance of sticking with his new organization.

4. Tim Lahey
Selected by the Tampa Bay Rays (No. 1 overall) and traded to the Chicago Cubs

Year Level    IP   K  BB  HR   ERA
2006    A+  72.2  57  27   1  4.33
2007   AA   78.1  56  33   8  3.45
2007  AAA    3.0  3    2   0  9.00

Lahey, a converted catcher, is still relatively new to pitching. Converted pitchers can be intriguing Rule 5 picks because it’s rare to find 24-year-old pitchers who probably have not yet reached their peak ability. Lahey is rapidly improving and lowered his walk rate from 13% in April and May to 8% during the final two months of his season at Double-A New Britain. He doesn’t need to improve his ability to induce ground balls, however, because his fastball has always had exceptional sink. Fifty-eight percent of Lahey’s batted balls allowed were hit on the ground in 2007.

5. Steven Register
Selected by the New York Mets (No. 13 overall)

Year Level    IP   K  BB  HR   ERA
2006  AA   155.0  77  53  25  5.57
2007   AA   58.0  48  16   8  4.03

Register’s development stalled when he was a starting pitcher, so the Rockies gave him a chance to close for the Tulsa Drillers in 2007. The 24-year-old did have experience as a closer in college, and he improved in the role. He was hittable at times and his strikeout rate dipped and his walk rate rose toward the end of the season, so it remains to be seen if he has enough to stick with the Mets.

The Position Players

1. Brian Barton
Selected by the St. Louis Cardinals (No. 10 overall)

Year Level  AB  AVG  OBP  SLG
2006    A+  295 .308 .410 .515
2006   AA   151 .351 .415 .503
2007   AA   389 .314 .416 .440
2007  AAA    87 .264 .333 .333

Barton maintained an OBP above .400 at every major stop of his professional career, but his on-base rates have been boosted by unusually high batting average of balls in play at many points in his career, even though he doesn’t hit an above-average rate of line drives. If his batting average falls to .260 or so in the major leagues, it is likely that would still maintain an OBP of .340 or so with limited power. That’s So Taguchi‘s production at a fraction of the cost. And if his ailing knee doesn’t give him any more trouble, there is a chance that Barton could develop into an above-average fourth outfielder.

2. Callix Crabbe
Selected by the San Diego Padres (#17 overall)

Year Level  AB  AVG  OBP  SLG
2006   AA  472 .267 .368 .345
2007  AAA  457 .287 .377 .435

The Rule 5 draft was made for guys like Crabbe. He was blocked by players with higher upside in Milwaukee, but he could be the perfect low-cost utility player for another team. Crabbe mostly played second base for Triple-A Nashville, but he also logged innings at all three outfield positions. The speedy player doesn’t show much power at the plate, but his good on-base skills are supported by average contact skills and exceptional patience at the plate.

3. Garrett Guzman
Selected by the Washington Nationals (No. 16 overall)

Year Level  AB  AVG  OBP  SLG
2006    A+ 259 .274 .310 .409
2006   AA  222 .275 .333 .446
2007   AA  475 .312 .359 .453

A car accident slowed Guzman’s ascent to the major leagues two years ago, but he has developed into a strong fourth outfielder candidate since then. An exceptional contact hitter, Guzman will likely hit for a good batting average in the major leagues even though his rate of getting on base and power production will be average at best. Guzman’s role with the Nationals is unclear; they have already added outfielders Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge this month.

4. Matt Whitney
Selected by the Washington Nationals (No. 7 overall)

Year Level  AB  AVG  OBP  SLG
2006    A+ 345 .206 .294 .362
2007    A  286 .308 .377 .542
2007   AA  226 .288 .347 .549

He was facing less experienced pitchers in 2007 and doesn’t play a premium position, but 32 home runs is 32 home runs. Whitney is just a year removed from a .294 OBP and leading the Carolina League in strikeouts, so his story would be a remarkable one if he could stick with the Nationals.

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