With the Winter Meetings beginning today, there is plenty of excitement surrounding the baseball world. There have already been some interesting trades, and the free agent market has been moving at a much quicker pace than last year. Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole, and Anthony Rendon are among the top players attracting attention on the free-agent market. Aside from the Major League spotlight, on the final day of the Winter Meetings (December 12), an event that draws less attention — but remains important — will occur: the Rule 5 Draft.
The Cardinals have a full 40-man roster, so they will not be able to make a selection in the draft unless they clear a spot before Thursday, which seems unlikely. However, the team will still be watching to see if other teams select any of their minor leaguers. In this article, I will profile a few players who I think are most susceptible to being selected by other teams in the Rule 5 draft.
One of these players is John Nogowski. The first baseman will be 27 years old in January, which is not great for any team looking for a younger, higher ceiling player. Nonetheless, the former 34th-round draft pick has been effective in the system for the past three seasons. Nogowski’s best asset is his ability to get on base; he walked at a rate of 14.9 percent in Memphis in 2019 and above 11 percent in the two seasons before that. This has led to Nogowski posting OBPs of .378 in 2017 (AA), .392 in 2018 (AA), and .413 in 2019 (AAA). In addition taking his walks, Nogowski has a remarkable ability to make contact, as he has struck out at a rate between just 10.5 and 11.7 percent in each of the past three seasons. This means that Nogowski has accomplished a rare feat in all three of these seasons by collecting more walks than strikeouts.
Nobody left exposed to the Rule 5 draft is perfect, and Nogowski’s limitation is a lack of power, especially for his position. He hit just 15 home runs in 117 games (463 plate appearances) in the Pacific Coast League after hitting 12 home runs in 83 games at AA Springfield. This is a decent amount of power. If his 2019 season was extrapolated over 162 games, Nogowski would have clubbed nearly 21 home runs. This is certainly not bad, but it is not great for a player who does not provide much defensive value, due to the position he plays. Triple-A also used the same ball as the MLB this season, so it could be seen as mildly disappointing that Nogowski did not hit more home runs.
Either way, for a player who has been remarkably consistent over the past three seasons and has such a refined eye at the plate, Nogowski could be a solid pickup for any team searching for a first baseman or a bench bat. While some regression can be expected, it appears that Nogowksi is likely to retain his status as a high-OBP player in the Majors with modest power — even if his age means that he likely lacks the upside that a 23 or 24-year-old would
The Rule 5 draft can be unpredictable though, and Nogowski was exposed to it last season and not selected, so it’s hard to say what will happen this year. However, his success last season came at the AA level. Now that he has experienced success at AAA, teams may be more willing to take a chance on him. If this happens, it would be good for his career as he looks blocked in St. Louis by Paul Goldschmidt, and possibly, to a much lesser extent, Rangel Ravelo, who seemed to earn the trust of Mike Shildt last season with semi-frequent pinch hitting opportunities.
Another intriguing prospect that the Cardinals left exposed is Connor Jones. While Nogowski appears to be more of a finished project, Jones is still trying to figure things out. When he does, Jones has the makings of a dangerous reliever or back-end starter. Jones is a former second-round pick out of the University of Virginia, a college baseball powerhouse. Despite being such a high draft pick — and being thought of as a fast riser — the 25-year-old has not yet experienced the success that many people thought he would. Jones was used as a starter in his first two full minor league seasons, but did not have much success. Jones recorded a 3.97 ERA with a 3.77 FIP and just 6.04 K/9 in 21 starts at A-Advanced Palm Beach, playing in a very pitcher-friendly park. The following season, Jones’ ERA dropped to 3.80, but his FIP rose to 4.51, primarily due to an increase of nearly one walk per nine innings (3.89 to 4.85) and a relatively consistent K/9 (6.27) in 17 AA starts. This led to a late season promotion to Memphis, where Jones did not fare well in four starts.
This season, Jones moved to the bullpen and saw a massive uptick in his strikeout rate (9.12 K/9), but also in his walk rate (6.52 BB/9). This led to a 4.66 ERA and a 5.13 FIP (although his xFIP was more optimistic at 4.36). While none of this seems too appealing, Jones actually brings potentially dominant stuff to the mound. According to his scouting report by Baseball Savant, Jones’ 70-grade sinker touches 98 MPH, and he supplements that with a solid, 55-grade, 12-to-6 curveball and an average changeup with splitter-like action. This profile has helped Jones post at least a 60 percent groundball rate in every season since he became a professional. If he improves his control, Jones’ ability to throw three pitches could allow him to move into the rotation. If that doesn't happen, Jones’ already-solid, sinker/curveball combo could allow him to be a reliable reliever. Jones seems like the kind of pitcher that a team would be willing to take a chance on, given his potentially dominant profile.
Admittedly, this one is a bit of a stretch, as Santos is 25 years old and spent the entire season at A-Advanced Palm Beach. However, after spending seven seasons in the Cardinals system, Santos broke out in his eighth year. The right-hander showed an ability to make multiple-inning appearances, as he tossed 57 innings in 34 games. This offers flexibility for any team that might select him in the Rule 5 draft. Santos also fanned batters at a rate of 10.26 K/9 this season after never posting a strikeout rate at or above 8.53 K/9 since 2013.
Santos also maintained decent (not great) control with 3.79 walks per nine innings. This led to a 3.00 ERA and a 3.08 FIP. While some of this success can be attributed to the fact that he was older than most of his competition, something changed this year for Santos. Overall, he became much more dominant.
Santos had a bit of hype when he was dominating the DSL in his first two professional seasons, but that hype has since faded. However, after such a strong year, even at a lower level, a team could take a chance that Santos’ improvement is legitimate and sustainable in the Majors.
It is possible that none of these players get selected, as the Rule 5 draft is notoriously unpredictable and this list is not nearly exhaustive. One interesting factor that could affect this year’s draft is that the MLB roster expands to 26 players next season, and that could allow some teams to be more aggressive in the draft. This is because there is now an extra spot where they could stash anyone that is selected without playing him too much.
However, regardless of what happens, the Rule 5 draft should be interesting to follow. And we will be hoping the Cardinals avoid any major losses.