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2023 Rule 5 Draft Preview

There are a number of interesting pitchers that the Cardinals should consider with their open 40-man spot.

MLB: Winter Meetings Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re asking why I’m devoting an entire article and a lot of research to something as measly of the Rule 5 draft, it’s because I’m a weirdo who enjoys such things. Is the Rule 5 Draft the highlight of the winter meetings for me? I can’t say...but yes.

The Rule 5 draft isn’t a huge event because, frankly, it’s not all that meaningful. Most of the players that are drafted end up returning to their original teams but there are some that don’t and that is what I find interesting. The event offers teams a chance to fill in some holes on their roster at a minimal price and take some fliers on guys with upside. As a minor league enthusiast, it’s hard for me to not get excited about the Rule 5 draft.

So I’ve spent probably way too much time identifying some potential targets for the St. Louis Cardinals and that’s what I want to write about today. But first, a little background.

What is the Rule 5 Draft?

Here’s what you need to know (from mlb.com):

Held each December, the Rule 5 Draft allows clubs without a full 40-man roster to select certain non-40-man roster players from other clubs. Clubs draft in reverse order of the standings from the previous season. Players signed at age 18 or younger need to be added to their club’s 40-Man roster within five seasons or they become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Players who signed at age 19 or older need to be protected within four seasons.

Not every club will make a selection, but those that do pick a player must pay $100,000 to the club from which said player was selected. Rule 5 Draft picks are assigned directly to the drafting club’s 26-man roster and must be placed on outright waivers in order to be removed from the 26-man roster in the subsequent season. Should the player clear waivers, he must be offered back to his previous team for $50,000 and can be outrighted to the Minors only if his original club does not wish to reacquire him. A Rule 5 Draft pick can be placed on the Major League injured list, but he must be active for a minimum of 90 days to avoid being subject to the aforementioned roster restrictions in the next campaign.

Clubs may trade a player selected in the Rule 5 Draft, but the same restrictions apply to the player’s new organization. However, a club may also work out a trade with the Rule 5 pick’s original club to acquire his full rights, thereby allowing him to be optioned to the Minors under traditional circumstances.

Will the Cardinals Make a Selection?

Who knows? The Cardinals typically aren’t active when it comes to the major league portion of the Rule 5 Draft (there is a minor league portion but I’m not worried about that right now and it’s impossible to predict). The team did select Wilking Rodriguez last year and he remains in the organization but, if memory serves, the last Rule 5 draft selection the Cardinals made was way back in 2015 when the team chose Matt Bowman. I would say that pick turned out okay.

So perhaps the Cardinals aren’t particularly likely to make a selection given their history. I’ll argue that they should for two reasons. The first is that a selection costs $100K. That’s nothing to an MLB team. If would behoove them to shoot for upside and see if a player can stick in the majors. If he can’t, they’re only down $100K but if he can then they’ve gained a legitimate player to help the team. It’s all upside and no downside.

I should qualify that last statement though because the downside is that a team needs to have a free 40-man spot to make a pick. The good news is that the Cardinals do have a free 40-man spot so that’s not a concern right now.

The other reason the Cardinals should make a pick is because they need bullpen help. Where’s the harm in snagging an upside reliever and taking him to camp to see if he can make the team? There isn’t any. If the Cardinals need his 40-man spot during the offseason, they can always just send their selection back to his original team or they can choose to DFA a number of other players on the 40-man roster.

Oh, and there’s a third reason. The Rule 5 draft rules (I’m sorry) so the Cardinals should participate in it.

So, to summarize my thoughts, MAKE A PICK!

Who Could the Cardinals Lose?

We now know that the Cardinals should make a pick but other teams will also be making picks which means that the Cardinals could lose a player or two in the draft. So who might that be?

Well there are a number of candidates but two of them stand out to me. The first is Ian Bedell, a starter with a 2.44 ERA and 3.50 FIP in High-A this year.

I’ve seen his name mentioned in some other Rule 5 Draft pieces but I’m not convinced that he’ll be chosen given the fact that he has yet to pitch in Double-A or Triple-A and lacks the high-end stuff that teams like to target.

He’s a solid overall pitcher though and projects as a starter going forward so a team who doesn’t care about results in 2024 could always snag him and stash him in the bullpen.

If I have to go on record I would bet against him being chosen but he is the most likely candidate and I won’t be shocked if his name is called.

The other name I have in mind in Leonardo Taveras. It may sound weird to list a 25-year-old reliever who spent 2023 in High-A but he also struck out 45.2% of the batters he faced this year prior to being suspended after testing positive for a performance enhancing drug.

Do I expect him to get selected? No. But, again, a team could make an upside play with him.

On the hitting side I’ll briefly list some unlikely targets. Matt Koperniak was highlighted by Baseball America in one of their Rule 5 draft previews, Chandler Redmond hit a ton of home runs this year and showed improvement at pulling his fly balls and Nick Dunn is a plate discipline and contact machine with good numbers but a limited defensive profile.

None of those guys are likely to get chosen, but who knows? We are talking about the Rule 5 draft after all.

Who Could the Cardinals Select?

Now we’re getting into the fun stuff. The Cardinals could select any number of players but I have a list of Rule 5 draft eligible pitchers that are interesting to me and could hear their names called on Wednesday. Note that I’m only covering pitchers because the Cardinals are actively looking to add to their bullpen. They don’t really need any more hitters so I won’t waste any time covering them.

Let’s get started.

Justin Slaten

Alright, full disclosure, I expect Justin Slaten to go in first 5-10 picks. The good news is that the Cardinals select 6th this year, which is all the more reason for them to use their pick.

Slaten has a pitch mix that I just love and he has the upper level success to back it up. His four-seamer gets 18.5 inches of ride, which would lead all Cardinals pitchers (Ryan Helsley is the only comparable pitcher with 18.4 inches of IVB on his fastball). The pitch also averaged 96 mph. That’s plus pitch if I’ve ever seen one and it’s one that generates a lot of whiffs.

Now, take a look at Slaten’s Fangraphs page again. Notice the change in his 2022 results and his 2023 results. What was the difference? I don’t want to oversimplify this as there were likely a number of things but the main change is that he added a cutter to his arsenal.

That was a good idea because he had two nasty pitches (fastball and slider) that didn’t tunnel well. The cutter acts as a bridge between the two.

Both pitches profile well and miss bats as Slaten’s cutter gets 6.6 inches of sweep and his slider gets 9.8 inches of sweep. It’s the cutter that splits the movement difference and the velocity difference between the fastball and the slider though and that has been huge for Slaten.

The righty also throws a curveball that gets really good depth (-15.6 IVB) and is thrown hard (81.3 mph). That’s a good profile considering it’s Slaten’s 4th pitch. Not only is Slaten’s arsenal a good one but it’s also a deep one and it’s an arsenal that gives him weapons against both lefties and righties which makes me like him even more.

I would say it’s likely that all 4 of his pitches would grade as above average according to Stuff+ and that kind of stuff will play in the majors. The control is questionable but we’re talking about Rule 5 prospects. Everyone of them has warts or else they would have been added to the 40-man earlier in the offseason.

Somebody will take chance on Slaten. I’m about 99% confident of that. I just hope that it’s the Cardinals.

Coleman Crow

I started with a reliever who looks like he could make an impact at the major league level in 2023. Now I want to continue with a reliever who almost certainly won’t and that’s Coleman Crow.

For starters, that’s an amazing name but the guy is also good at pitching. He was a 28th round pick out of high school in 2019 who signed because he was given 5th round money.

He didn’t pitch after being drafted and then didn’t pitch in 2020 because the minor league season was cancelled. Because of that, he was fast tracked a little bit and skipped High-A entirely, moving to Double-A in 2022 after pitching in Single-A in 2021.

An injury in 2023 caused him to miss most of the season which means the Mets don’t quite know what they have with him. He held his own in Double-A at a young age and looked like he may have been ready for a breakout season in 2023 but then ended up on the shelf. He underwent Tommy John Surgery in August and isn’t likely to pitch at all in 2023.

That creates opportunity for the Cardinals. Had Crow been healthy, I feel fairly confident in saying that he likely would have been protected from the Rule 5 draft because he’s a good pitcher. His command and control are highly touted but it’s his arsenal that intrigues me.

The young righty has a good feel for spin and throws a mid 70s curveball and a low 80s slider that both look like solid pitches. He also throws a changeup with plenty of run to round out his secondary offerings.

The pitch that really intrigues me is his fastball because it sits right around the 93 mph range but has good riding life and comes out of a low arm slot with a flat vertical approach angle. Those are all things that help it play up in the zone.

A move to the bullpen could see him tick up to the mid-90s consistently which would help the profile even further. You can see the full arsenal on display below:

This isn’t an overpowering arsenal like the arsenals of some of the other pitchers on this list. Rather it’s “just” a good one but it’s 4 pitches deep with good command. The added benefit of Crow is something I mentioned earlier - he won’t pitch this year. That means that a team drafting him only has to carry him on the 40-man roster in the offseason before moving him onto the 60-day IL during the season.

Basically, that gives a team time to feel him out prior to the 2025 season and decide if they want to move forward with him in the bullpen. For teams that may not be looking to the Rule 5 draft for a contributor this season but still want to take a shot at some upside, Crow is the guy.

R.J. Dabovich

Yes I have a thing for pitchers with cool names. I regret nothing.

R.J. Dabovitch is another injured pitcher, which is likely why he was left unprotected, but, unlike Crow, he will actually pitch in 2024.

If there’s one thing you can see from his Fangraphs page it’s that he’s no stranger to whiffs. That’s because he throws a mid to high 90s cut/ride fastball that gets around 18 inches of induced vertical break and just 2 inches of run. He pairs that with a good hard curveball that sits in the mid 80s and flashes plenty of depth.

Both of those pitches probably grade out as at least above average in the majors but the main concern with Dabovitch is if he can step right back into his high octane stuff immediately after undergoing hip surgery in 2023. His command will also be a big question too after he really struggled with walks in Triple-A.

Again, though, I’m chasing upside here. That’s what the Rule 5 draft is for and Dabovitch has plenty of upside with his power curveball and rising fastball. He can miss bats and that’s what I’m looking for.

Juan Sanchez

With this next name we’re turning back to the Giants farm system for another relief pitcher so my apologies to the Giants if they get gutted. I’ll be honest, though, Sanchez isn’t a name I like all that much. He’s interesting and I wouldn’t complain if the Cardinals selected him but he’s not my favorite target.

I do love that he held his own in Triple-A at just 22 years old while managing to strike out more than a quarter of the hitters he faced (25.9 K%). What I don’t love is the arsenal. It’s not bad. It’s completely fine. It’s just not electric.

He’s mostly a sinkerballer with the occasional four-seamer and both pitches sit in the 92-94 range with average movement. Neither one was hit very hard, though, and Sanchez does do a good job of staying off the barrel overall so that is a plus.

What I do like are the secondaries, and his changeup in particular. The pitch averaged 16 inches of run and generated a 43.2% whiff rate and is his go-to bat missing pitch. And that’s what really draws me to Sanchez. I’m a sucker for a lefty with a nasty changeup and he falls into that category.

The other pitch in the arsenal is a decent looking 84 mph slider that missed bats at above a 40% rate in a small sample size in Triple-A. That gives him a weapon to use against lefties while he lets that beautiful changeup of his neutralize righties and the occasional lefty too.

Austin Pope

Austin Pope is an interesting case because he pitched for the Diamondbacks, whose Triple-A affiliate is the Reno Aces. That’s important because the Reno Aces home field has an elevation of 4,500 feet above sea level. For comparison’s sake, Coors Field sits at 5.200 feet above sea level.

That kind of elevation has an effect on a pitcher’s stuff. According to this excellent piece from Purple Row, the Rockies SB Nation site, the average four-seam fastball loses 3-4 inches of IVB at Coors Field.

Keep that in mind when I mention that Pope’s fastball averaged 15.1 inches of IVB in Reno. Add a couple inches and the pitch gets above average ride, and that’s paired with cut and a 94.5 mph average velocity.

That’s a playable fastball, which is a good thing because he throws it a ton.

The other three pitches in the arsenal are a low 80s curveball with good depth, a mid-80s slider with good two plane movement, and a low 90s cutter with a couple inches of cut.

Breaking balls tends to lose movement at higher altitudes too so I would expect to really see a jump in those pitches in a more normal environment.

So with that perspective, Pope didn’t just pitch well in Triple-A, he pitched extremely well. And he missed a good amount of bats. He’s not my favorite pick on this list but he is intriguing, especially if he shuffles his pitch mix a bit and goes less fastball heavy.

Evan Reifert

I want to end with a bit of a “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” kind of player. Reifert doesn’t have the kind of experience you would generally want to see from a player expected to stick in the majors but he does have mouthwatering stuff.

The guy just oozes strikeout potential. He may have the best slider in all of the minor leagues after the pitch generated a 70% whiff rate in 2022, according to Fangraphs’ David Laurila. I’ll say that again. 70%. That’s the definition of unhittable.

He then pairs that with a sinker that sits 94-96 mph and regularly generates over 18 inches of run. And when he’s not throwing his sinker he’s mixing in a four-seamer that gets plenty of ride in the mid-90s.

The guy seems like he was built in a lab for the sole purpose of missing bats. The problem is that he doesn’t have a lot of innings under his belt, has barely thrown above High-A and walks too many hitters (though he did improve his walk rate in 2022).

I don’t know if this is really a Cardinalsy player but someone has to take him, right? The Rays can’t be allowed to leave him exposed and not get punished for it. Teams that have deep systems tend to lose players in the Rule 5 Draft (this happens to the Dodgers every year) and that may be the case with the Rays this year.

Honorable Mentions

Tanner Burns - former 36th overall pick, tremendous ride on the fastball (over 20 inches of IVB) but low velocity and unconvincing arsenal of secondaries

Mitch Spence - low velocity cut/sink fastball that he throws too much, generates good sweep on his slider (15 inches) and a ton of spin on all his pitches, lots of Triple-A experience, velo bump from moving to the bullpen could be really helpful

Cam Sanders - lacks upper level success due to control issues but has an electric arsenal highlighted by a 95 mph fastball and a sweeper with a 59.4% whiff rate in Triple-A

Nelson Alvarez - Good success in Rays org, misses a lot of bats and keeps the ball on the ground, good slider, decent fastball, slider is his primary pitch

Matt Sauer - misses bats with a low-to-mid 90s riding fastball that probably ticks up with a move to the bullpen and sharp mid-80s slider

If I had the time to do a full breakdown of these guys down too then I would but I’ve already written over 3000 words about the Rule 5 draft so I’m stopping here.

Conclusion

There are players who will be taken in this year’s Rule 5 draft that make an impact in 2024. It happens every year. It’s now the Cardinals job to figure out who those players are.

The names I’ve listed in this piece are just a few that stand out to me and ones who could make an impact, or at least hold their own, in an MLB bullpen this year. Some of these guys might get chosen and flop and other names that I didn’t even mention might get chosen and hit. That’s just the nature of the Rule 5 Draft.

Regardless, I’m excited for Wednesday and I can’t wait to see what the Cardinals and the rest of the league decide to do.

Thanks for reading, VEB. Have a great Tuesday.