Think of the Rule 5 draft as a bet Major League Baseball teams make on behalf of their future selves. It’s not a huge bet. Teams select players from other teams who are not on the 40-man rosters but have played at least five years in a minor league system if signed 18 or younger, or four years if signed 19 or older. So these are not, by definition, prospects their former teams have prioritized.
But the selecting team then needs to keep a Rule 5 pick on its active MLB roster for the entire subsequent season, or offer that player back to his original team for $50,000. One roster spot used on a player who wouldn’t otherwise be at the MLB level can be a significant handicap for a manager, and so it tends to be teams not necessarily planning to contend that usually roll the dice when the December draft rolls around.
Even so, there have been Rule 5 success stories for over a century, from Hack Wilson to Roberto Clemente to Johan Santana. And every Brad Keller start for the Royals is another reminder that players often find unconventional development paths.
Well, there’s been nothing more unconventional in recent baseball history (and, as I understand it, in larger society as well) than 2020, a year without a minor league season of any kind. And not coincidentally, MLB teams took the most Rule 5 selections1 since 2010, and 12 of them began the 2021 season on active rosters around the league.
|Garrett Whitlock||P||Red Sox||Yankees||✓||2.9|
|Brett de Geus||P||Rangers||Dodgers||✓||-1.7|
|Jose Alberto Rivera||P||Angels||Astros||—|
|Dany Jimenez||P||A’s||Blue Jays||—|
You may have heard of one of the names on the list: Akil Baddoo, outfielder for the Detroit Tigers, who was left unprotected by the Minnesota Twins. Early returns suggest he could join the ranks of the best Rule 5 picks in recent memory.
To be fair to Minnesota, Baddoo had advanced only as far as the high-A Florida State League by 2019, and he did not tear the FSL apart — posting just a .214/.290/.393 slash line over 131 plate appearances. The Twins didn’t even invite Baddoo to their alternate site in 2020 for the better prospects in the organization. Perhaps if they had, the Twins would have seen what he has become in the intervening months.
Baddoo earned a roster spot in Detroit on the strength of his spring performance, finishing with an absurd .325/.460/.750 line. But he wasn’t slated to start regularly, with his manager, A.J. Hinch, simply looking for ways to get him into some early games as a pinch-runner or pinch-hitter. In this way, he was the perfect Rule 5 addition. An end-of-bench player who can handle multiple positions and serve as an added dose of speed is more capable of holding on to a roster spot for a full season than a one-dimensional player.
But a funny thing happened on the way to “Akil Baddoo, fifth outfielder”: He started hitting, and he really hasn’t stopped. In his first game: a solo home run. In his second: a grand slam. In his third: a walk-off hit against, yes, the team that let him go.
A day later, patrolling left field, Baddoo threw out the speedy Andrelton Simmons attempting to take second base on a hit.
Entering Tuesday, Baddoo has played in 12 of Detroit’s first 16 games, earning starts at all three outfield positions. He’s up to four home runs, with a slash line of .263/.275/.684. Presumably, at some point, major league pitchers are going to stop challenging him so much, and then we’ll find out whether the plate discipline we saw this spring — 10 walks in 50 plate appearances, compared to one walk in 40 plate appearances so far in the regular season — is closer to the real Baddoo. That his swing percentage on balls out of the zone ranks in the upper half of the league — 93rd of 222 with minimum 40 plate appearances through April 19 — is an encouraging sign.
While Baddoo has been the most productive of the Rule 5 picks so far, he isn’t alone among his draft brethren in getting MLB time — so far, 11 others have joined him. Of those, 10 have been pitchers, and some of the early returns are quite promising: Garrett Whitlock has thrown nine scoreless innings, without a walk and with 11 strikeouts, for the surprising Red Sox. Jordan Sheffield has also not allowed a run through 3⅔ innings for the Rockies, though without the same peripherals as Whitlock. And Will Vest has a win and a sub-1.00 ERA in 9⅔ innings for the Mariners.
Not all of the Rule 5 picks are doing so well, of course. Zach Pop may have an elite baseball name, but the ERA — 14.54 so far for the Marlins — doesn’t yet match. The Pirates’ Luis Oviedo, who’s sporting a 9.45 ERA, isn’t far behind. And though center fielder Ka’ai Tom also pitched an inning for Oakland, giving the A’s a little more bang for their buck, his .063 average in 16 at-bats wasn’t enough to keep him on the roster, and he was designated for assignment on Monday.2
Even so, if Baddoo is the only long-term success story of this bunch, it will be another big win for the Rule 5 draft. And it’s easy to imagine teams, already emboldened heading into 2021, continuing to play the Rule 5 game.
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