Thursday, December 06, 2007

Rule 5: See You Real Soon.

What I enjoy about the Rule 5 draft picks is the scrutiny that must (or at least should) take place within an organization prior to their selection. Everybody knows the stories of how one team recognized the talent in Kevin Cameron, Josh Hamilton, Dan Uggla, Johan Santana and Bobby Bonilla that their previous owners failed to capitalize on. Your Rays, Pirates, Royals and Nationals should all benefit from having the opportunity to at least sample on a trial basis some of the either forgotten or overlooked talent. The worse your team finishes, the better chance you have of obtain the one or two quality players available during the draft. But first, you must have a opening somewhere on your roster for a player that another organization has deemed not in their top-40. Then you go shopping hoping to obtain something useful from the bottom of the barrel. Finally you have to determine whether the draft pick is worth the space on your roster during spring training or risk losing $25,000 dollars when sending him back. If you think about it, it could be a hell of a reality show on ESPN.

Which brings me to the Minnesota Twins. While I suspect none of the players will not amount to a hill of beans and most likely make their way back to our farm system like cows out for a mid-afternoon stroll, it is telling that 10% of the total Rule 5 draft picks (major and minor leagues) had been developed by the Minnesota Twins (11.6% if you include former draft pick cum Tampa Bay Ray Evan Meek ). Scouting Director Mike Radcliff told the Pioneer Press's Phil Miller that “it’s a glass-half-full sort of thing. We’re disappointed to lose players we’ve invested in, but it means we have talent in our organization.” Talent that went unrecognized. Part of what a franchise needs to do is monitoring the market and gauging the interest of other clubs for players that might not be in the organization's long-term plans and work a trade. With holes in the infield and outfield, the Twins could have potentially traded Cameron prior to the Rule 5 draft in 2006 for a similar caliber player that could develop into a major league centerfielder. What one team ignores, another might value. It speaks volumes that we may have internally ignored 3 of the 18 players drafted.

The three that were selected in the major league portion (thankfully none named Yohan Pino) are as follows:

1st Pick (1st player drafted): Rays take yet another Twins pitcher (but immediately trade him to Cubs ). Tampa had a prearranged deal with the Cubs for $150,000 ($100,000 after the $50,000 draft fee) for the Rays to select Lahey then hand him over. "He's got real good sink with a ground ball ratio of almost 3-to-1 and the makings of a pretty good slider," Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita said. "It's amazing—I think he has 178, 179 innings and has less than a hit per inning pitched. That's pretty good for a guy who just got converted. We're excited to see him." In the 20th round of the 2004 amateur draft the Twins selected catcher Timothy Lahey from Princeton. After finishing 2004 in Elizabethton with 84 at-bats and a weak .202/.317/.333 line, the Twins decided to move him from behind the plate and onto the mound (inviting plenty of comparisons to Troy Percival). Lahey threw 25.1 innings with Elizabethton and struckout 30 while saving 15 games in 2005. The following season Lahey was moved to High-A Fort Myers where he pitched in 44 games. Facing 315 batters, Lahey had a 18.1% strikeout rate and a 8.6% walk rate and managed to get hitters to beat the ball into the ground 65% of balls-in-play. Scouts began saying he was throwing a "heavy ball" and was deceptive due to the short-armed, catcher-style motion that Lahey had. Baseball America compared it to that of Keith Foulke's. In 2007, Lahey was escorted to Double-A New Britain where he faced more polished hitters. While his strikeout rate (16.3%) and walkrate (9.6%) remained consistent, he surrendered home runs in 8% of the balls-in-play and his groundball capabilities declined to 53%.

I am convinced that Lahey would not have been able to ascend to the Twins as a closer or even in mop-up duties. There were too many pitching prospects ahead of him. His stock may have escalated due to saves and caught the attention of several organizations. I would assume that there was a sentiment within the Twins organization that Lahey would be expendable. After all, he was not protected prior to this draft. Conversely, they also must have known that he possess some qualities in a pitcher that is highly sought after. Qualities that some teams, like the Cubs, who would be willing to trade a surplus of minor league outfielders for. Wish we had the opportunity to have a swap-meet.

15th Pick (12th player drafted): Mariners take Dickey. The Twins had just "passed" with their 11th overall selection followed by three more passes when Seattle snagged another Twins pitcher. The newly-anointed knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who the Twins signed to a minor league contract less than a month ago, was drafted by the Mariners. "It's a great opportunity for him [Dickey] because he got a roster spot out of it that he didn't have with us. He goes to their big league camp," Bill Smith told the AP. "We were a little disappointed because we were kind of excited to have him."

The 33-year-old Dickey had spent significant time in the Rangers organization and saw ample duty in both spot-starting and long relief. Dickey threw in over 221 innings with 151 strikeouts with the Rangers in 2003 and 2004. Last season the Brewers used Dickey as a starter for their Triple-A Nashville associate. That is when Dickey discovered the knuck. Facing 707 batters in 2007, Dickey struck out 16.8% of them and issued free-passes to 8.5%. His knuck was effective at getting the groundball on nearly 55% of balls-in-play. Despite the stigma of being over 30 years old Dickey reinvented himself as a knuckleballer coming into the 2007 where he ended up with a 13-6 record (but 10-2 and a 2.52 era after June 1st) in the Pacific Coast League. His final 3.72 era was almost a full earn run under the PCL's average of 4.68.

Even though it is more likely that Dickey will make his way back to the Twins after spring training, USS Mariner speculates what sort of hilarity could ensue after a flame-thrower like Felix Hernandez is replaced with a butterfly throwing reliever like Dickey. Even if Dickey was not selected in the Rule 5 he would have been a dark-horse to break camp with the Twins. Still I was looking forward to watching the knuckleballer at Hammond Field and the Mariners have stole that from me.

(Aside: Great New Yorker article about the lost art of the knuckleball.)

(17th player drafted): Nationals pick up yet another outfielder. In an attempt to have the only 25-man roster made up entirely of outfielders (Dukes, Logan, Kearns, Mo Pena, Langerhas, etc), the Washington Nationals grabbed 25-year-old Garrett Guzman. Baseball America describes him as Orlando Palmerio-ish: an undersized, left-handed fourth outfielder. Nats General Manager Jim Bowden agrees: "We think he can be a fourth outfielder in the big leagues right now. He's a quality kid who hits the ball hard, he goes the other way with it."

In New Britain in 2007, Guzman outperformed his career line (.290/.339/.439) with a .312/.359/.453 season. His 74 ops+ was his best since his 18-year-old rookie season of 326+. In subsequent seasons after his whopping .967 in the Gulf Coast League Guzman's production declined and leveled posting ops+ of 62, 58, 11 and 18 in Low-A, High-A and Double-A. This tells me that he had a gross inflation of production in 2007. His stock could not have been higher. The Twins's system was desperate for outfielders and probably read too much into some of his early statistics but ultimately decided that he might not have the same output as his 2007 season. At 25-years-old and facing Double-A pitching for the second straight year does not scream major league ready. They don't speak too highly of him in Washington neither.