The Rule 5 occurs annually during baseball’s Winter Meetings in early December. The idea behind the draft is to prevent teams from stockpiling talent they will never use at the expense of other, less talent rich teams. It also, in theory, helps ensure that players who have put in their time in the minor leagues will get a shot at the big leagues should they happen to deserve it.
Any player who was signed at the age of 18 or younger and has been in the minor leagues for five or more years is eligible, as is any player who signed at the age of 19 or older and has been in the minor leagues for four or more years. Most years, the Cubs do not have very many players that they are at risk of losing to another team.
Unfortunately, this is not most years.
Joe projects that the Cubs should have six to eight open slots on the 40 man roster they could use to protect players from the draft. They may fill all those slots, or they may leave a few slots open to chose a few players themselves during the draft. I suspect the Cubs will go into the winter meetings with either 38 or 39 players on the 40 man roster, but I am not very confident in that projection. We just don’t have enough information about the new front office to be sure how they will handle decisions such as this.
Instead of trying to predict exactly what the Cubs will do, I’ve gone through the Cubs prospects who are eligible for the draft and ranked them in order of priority. The ones at the top of the list should be protected at all costs. Leaving those further down the list off the roster is less risky.
It is important to remember that any player chosen in the Rule 5 draft must remain on the 25 man roster for their new team the entire season, or else be offered back to their original team. That does limit the risk for the Cubs as they choose who to protect and who to leave exposed.
Matthew Szczur – OF. When the Cubs voided Szczur’s original deal to sign him to a new and bigger contract they not only guaranteed he’d choose baseball over the NFL, they also made him eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Any team that has a thin minor league system would love to grab Szczur and use him for a season a pinch runner and defensive replacement, particularly in the AL.
Josh Vitters – 3B, 1B, OF. I think Vitters is already good enough to hit .260 and put up an OPS of about .700. His ceiling, if he reaches it, looks more like .290 / .800. He has one of the best bats in the minors, but he is still learning the patience to really take advantage of it. Someone will grab him and gamble that they can find a way to keep him on the roster.
Jeff Beliveau – LHRP. Beliveau is a left handed reliever, and a good one. That’s really all that needs to be said. He is exactly the kind of player that teams look for in the Rule 5 draft.
Ryan Flaherty – Util. Flaherty has some power and the patience to put it to work, and he’s versatile in the field. He could easily be the Cubs third baseman next season, or he could spend the year coming off the bench at four different position. If he isn’t protected, he will spend the year coming off the bench for someone else.
Dae-Eun Rhee – RHSP. Rhee would be a bit of a gamble for a lot of teams, but he has one of the higher ceilings among the Cubs current crop of starting pitching prospects. He was slowed by arm surgery, but judging from his 2011 numbers he has put that behind him. For the Cubs, he could be a late season call up in 2012. If someone else claims him, he probably spends the year hidden in the middle of the bullpen.
Junior Lake – SS/3B. Lake’s talents have been on display for all to see in the AFL, and any team who did not know about him before is certainly aware of him now. He has that mix of power and speed that scouts love. If he stays with the Cubs, he could be the third baseman of the future. If he gets claimed, don’t be surprised to see him moved into the outfield for a season. His defense and his plate discipline need a lot of work, but the tools are there for Junior Lake to be one of the very good ones.
Jeffry Antigua – LHRP. Another quality left handed reliever. Although I don’t think he’s as polished as Beliveau, I still think he would be claimed and stashed in the middle of a bullpen. Long term, he might yet be a starter for the Cubs. Short term, he needs to be protected.
Those seven are, in my mind, the absolute minimum the Cubs should protect. One or more of them may be gone as a result of trades or compensation to Boston before the Rule 5 Draft arrives, but if they are all still Cubs, I think they have to be on the 40 man roster.
Ryan Searle – RHSP. Searle had some good starts for the Australian National Team this summer, and that makes me worried. He was a solid, but not spectacular, starter for the Smokies this season. I think he has a bit of a shot to sneak into the Cubs rotation out of spring training, if he’s still on the roster. I don’t think he’ll project much higher than a number five starter, but the Cubs are thin on pitching right now. I’d rather keep him. I think it is likely Searle is left unprotected and is claimed, but I also think it is likely that the Cubs would get him back.
Jay Jackson – RHSP. Jackson could be a major league starting pitcher from Opening Day… and he might still be for the Cubs. If Jackson is left off the roster, he will be picked up by someone. If the Cubs are confident they can flesh out a starting rotation without him, he may be left off. I think he has a good shot to be sent to Boston in the compensation talks before the draft arrives.
Rebel Ridling – 1B/OF. So why am I listing an older player who may have only beat up on AA pitching because of his age? Because of the way in which he beat up on AA pitching. Ridling has a good shot to fly under the radar and not be claimed in the Rule 5 Draft, but I also think he has a good shot to become a major league regular. I would be surprised if the Cubs protected him, but I would not be surprised if he were claimed. He could yet evolve into a pretty decent left fielder for someone.
Marwin Gonzalez – SS. If it were not for Starlin Castro, this guy would be the talk of Cub fans. He’s a switch hitting shortstop who reached AAA Iowa at the ripe old age of 22. His defense needs work and I’m not sure his bat projects any higher than a major league backup, but then again I’ve underestimated this kid before. In the Cubs system he is blocked by Castro, but I could see him having a future with another team, or with the Cubs if he can hit enough to play second. Odds are good he gets claimed, but I am not sure his bat or his glove will produce enough for even a rebuilding team to keep him on the 25 man roster all season.
Larry Suarez – RHRP. Suarez is probably the most raw of any pitcher on this list, but his strikeout numbers are pretty good. I can see someone taking a gamble on him in the hopes that he harnesses his stuff and turns into a strikeout artist. He has shown flashes already, but only flashes. It may be another year or two before the Cubs really need to start worrying about losing this guy.