HomeMLB Rumors2023 Rule 5 Update: April Edition

2023 Rule 5 Update: April Edition

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We’re three weeks into the 2024 season, and this year’s crop of Rule 5 picks has had an atypical amount of staying power. That’s perhaps in part due to the fact that only ten players were selected in the 2023 Rule 5 Draft, but as of this writing, only one Rule 5 selection has been returned to his original organization.

For those unfamiliar, in order to be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, a player must not be on his team’s 40-man roster and must have played in either parts of five professional seasons (if they signed at 18 or younger) or four professional seasons (if they signed at 19 or older). The deadline to protect players from the Rule 5 by selecting their contracts to the 40-man roster typically falls in mid-November and spurs a good deal of player movement as teams jettison borderline players and non-tender candidates from their roster in order to protect younger prospects.

A player who is selected in the Rule 5 Draft must spend the entire subsequent season on his new club’s Major League roster and cannot be optioned to the minors. The player can technically spend time on the injured list as well, but at least 90 days must be spent on the active roster. If not, the player’s Rule 5 status rolls into the following season until 90 days on the active roster have been accrued. If a team at any point decides it can no longer carry a Rule 5 selection, that player must be passed through waivers and subsequently offered back to his original organization. Any other club can claim the player via waivers, but the same Rule 5 restrictions will apply to the claiming team.

Broadly speaking, the Rule 5 Draft rarely produces impact players. There are plenty of exceptions over the years, though, with names like Johan SantanaDan UgglaShane VictorinoJoakim SoriaJosh Hamilton and, more recently, Garrett Whitlock and Trevor Stephan thriving in new organizations. The Rule 5 Draft dates back more than a century and has even produced a handful of Hall of Famers: Roberto Clemente, Hack Wilson and Christy Mathewson.

It’s unlikely we’ll see any Cooperstown-bound players come from this year’s crop, but the teams who opted to select a player will be content if any of these names become a viable reliever or role player for the next several seasons. Here’s a look at this year’s group of ten Rule 5 players and where they stand. We’ll do a few of these throughout the season, keeping tabs on which players survive the season and formally have their long-term rights transferred to their new clubs.

On a Major League Roster

Mitch Spence, RHP, Athletics (selected from Yankees)

Spence, 26 next month, was the first overall pick in this year’s Rule 5 Draft, and understandably so after the 2023 season he had. His 4.47 ERA might’ve been pedestrian, but the 2019 tenth-rounder led all Triple-A pitchers with 163 innings while delivering a nice blend of strikeouts (21.8%), walks (7.5%) and ground-balls (50%). For an A’s club desperately thin on starting pitching after the slew of rebuilding-driven trades for minor league arms have failed to produce much, adding a 25-year-old arm with that type of season held obvious appeal.

Spence made Oakland’s decision easy with a monster spring showing. He pitched 17 2/3 innings and allowed only six earned runs (3.06 ERA) on 15 hits and six walks with 21 punchouts. He’s worked out of the ’pen so far in Oakland but could very well find himself making starts later in the year. Through his first 11 2/3 MLB frames, Spence has yielded four earned runs on 10 hits and four walks with a 48.4% grounder rate. He’s not in danger of losing his spot anytime soon.

Matt Sauer, RHP, Royals (selected from Yankees)

Another 25-year-old righty out of the Yankees organization, Sauer came to his new club with a much heavier draft pedigree than his now-former teammate, Spence. The Yankees selected the 6’4″ righty with the No. 54 overall pick back in 2017, but Sauer didn’t develop as quickly as hoped. He was set back by 2019 Tommy John surgery and the canceled 2020 minor league season. He’s never topped 111 innings in a season, but Sauer rebuilt some prospect pedigree with a nice 2023 season that saw him pitch 68 1/3 innings of 3.42 ERA ball in Double-A. He whiffed 29.5% of his opponents, albeit against a less palatable 10.3% walk rate.

Like his former teammate, Sauer had a nice spring that made the decision relatively easy for his new club. In 10 2/3 innings, he held opponents to three earned runs (2.53 ERA) on 13 hits and three walks with 13 strikeouts. He opened the season in the Kansas City bullpen and has thus far pitched five innings, allowing a pair of runs in that time. Sauer has walked four of his 25 opponents and fanned just two thus far. It’s a small sample, of course, but he’ll need to reverse that early trend to hang onto his roster spot — especially if the Royals continue their hot start and find themselves contending into the summer.

Anthony Molina, RHP, Rockies (selected from Rays)

The 22-year-old Molina worked as a starter in the Rays’ system last year, taking the ball 28 times (27 starts) and pitching 122 innings with a 4.50 ERA. The undersized righty has garnered praise for a solid-average heater and above-average changeup, and he showed good command in 2023 after struggling with walks earlier in his minor league career. Molina continued to show good command in spring training (in addition to a massive 60.5% grounder rate), but the regular season has been brutal for him thus far. In three appearances, he’s been tattooed for a dozen runs on 13 hits and four walks with just two strikeouts. The Rockies can afford to be as patient as they want. They’re 4-13 on the season and were never expected to contend. Still, Molina will need to improve on his early performance in order to stick on the roster.

Nasim Nunez, INF, Nationals (selected from Marlins)

The Nationals have effectively played the season thus far with a 25-man roster. Nunez made the Opening Day squad but has been M.I.A. since. He’s appeared in just five of Washington’s 16 games and received only two plate appearances, going hitless in that meaningless sample. Nunez is an all-glove and speed prospect who hit just .224/.341/.286 in Double-A last season. He did go 52-for-59 in stolen base attempts, and scouting reports have long touted his defensive excellence at shortstop. He hit just .152/.200/.182 in 35 spring plate appearances.

It’s fair to wonder how long the Nats can essentially punt a roster spot by keeping Nunez on the bench, but like the Rockies, they’re not expecting to contend this season anyhow. One would imagine that from a pure developmental standpoint, they need to find a way to get Nunez into some games and start getting him some playing time, but for now, the team appears content to just hide the 23-year-old on the bench.

Ryan Fernandez, RHP, Cardinals (selected from Red Sox)

Fernandez, 25, has just four appearances out of the St. Louis bullpen so far and has been understandably deployed in low-leverage spots while he acclimates to the majors. He’s pitched fairly well in sparse duty, holding opponents to three runs (two earned) in 5 2/3 innings. Fernandez has averaged just under 96 mph on his heater, fanned seven opponents and issued three walks. His swinging-strike rate isn’t close to where it’s been in his minor league work, but his wipeout slider has been strong thus far. Fernandez has finished off eight plate appearances with that pitch, picking up four strikeouts and yielding only one hit. Nothing he’s done so far makes it seem like he’ll be cut loose anytime soon.

Justin Slaten, RHP, Red Sox (selected by Mets from Rangers; traded to Red Sox for LHP Ryan Ammons)

While most Rule 5 relievers are eased into low-pressure spots, that hasn’t been the case with the Sox and Slaten. He held a four-run lead to pick up a seven-out save in the team’s fourth game of the season, and the 6’4″ righty has since tallied three holds out of Alex Cora’s bullpen. In 10 1/3 innings, Slaten has allowed only one run on three hits and a walk with eight strikeouts. Add in 6 1/3 shutout innings in spring training, and he’s looked more like a seasoned veteran than a 26-year-old who entered the season with all of 8 1/3 innings above the Double-A level. Slaten has immediately made himself an important part of Boston’s roster, and while a prolonged slump could always change things, he looks like a keeper right now.

Stephen Kolek, RHP, Padres (selected from Mariners)

Kolek, who’ll turn 27 tomorrow, began his big league tenure with four runs in 1 2/3 innings over his first two appearances. He’s since bounced back with 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball, fanning 11 hitters against three walks along the way. He punched out nearly a quarter of his opponents in Triple-A last year and did so with a huge 57.5% ground-ball rate. He hasn’t picked up grounders at such a strong level just yet (43.5%), but San Diego probably isn’t second-guessing their decision to select him. He’s already picked up a pair of holds, and his recent run of success has dropped his ERA to 4.35. Command has been a problem for Kolek in the past, but he’s only walked 8.9% of his opponents against a 26.7% strikeout rate so far.

On the Major League Injured List

Shane Drohan, LHP, White Sox (selected from Red Sox): Drohan underwent shoulder surgery in late February and is on the 60-day IL. There’s no telling yet when he’ll be medically cleared to return. As noted in the intro, Drohan needs 90 days on the active roster to shed his Rule 5 designation; even if he spends the entire 2024 campaign on the injured list, his Rule 5 status will carry over into 2025 until he picks up those 90 active days.

Carson Coleman, RHP, Rangers (selected from Yankees): Coleman is also on the 60-day injured list. Unlike Drohan, it was well known at the time of his selection that he’d be IL-bound to begin the year. Coleman had Tommy John surgery last year and is expected to be out until midsummer at the least.

Returned to Original Organization

Deyvison De Los Santos, INF, Guardians (returned to D-backs): De Los Santos has big raw power but a well below-average hit tool. The Guardians selected him on the heels of a 20-homer campaign in Double-A with the D-backs, but he hit just .227/.227/.318 in 44 spring appearances before being designated for assignment, clearing waivers and getting returned to the Snakes. He’s had a big performance in a return-trip to Double-A.

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