With the 2013 Rule 5 Draft on the horizon, the Astros have some decisions to make. Players on the 40-man roster are protected from being drafted and teams have until November 20th to adjust their rosters accordingly. Right now the Astros have nearly 50 minor league players in the organization that meet the requirements for Rule 5 eligibility.
Fifty players seems like a lot — because it is. Since being hired as General Manager in Houston, Jeff Luhnow has increased the overall numbers by acquiring two or three prospects almost every time he has traded away a veteran. With such a stockpiling of talent going on, it would seem as though the Astros are almost certain to lose a player or two to the Rule 5 Draft. But I don’t think that will be the case. The fact of the matter is, only a few of those players are likely to be drafted by other teams if left unprotected.
Teams are hesitant to gamble on unproven minor league players, especially considering the fact that Rule 5 draftees must remain on their major league roster for the entire season or be offered back to their original team. For example: last season 16 players were drafted, but only five of them stayed in the big leagues all year long. Four of the five were relief pitchers, including first overall selection Josh Fields of the Astros. The other was Nate Freiman, who was also drafted by Houston but claimed off waivers by Oakland prior to the start of the season.
In the previous year, a total of twelve players were selected and only five of them stayed with their new club. Two of those five were Houston’s Rhiner Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez. So, excluding the Astros (who have been both desperate for talent and picking in the #1 position), the last two years have produced only seven draftees that stayed with their new teams.
Top prospects are arguably the only players that need to be protected. But the Astros farm system is deeper than most, so there are a few players that fit that description. Two of the Astros top fifteen prospects will be Rule 5 eligible and, in my opinion, must be protected. Outfielder Domingo Santana and RHP Asher Wojciechowski should be added to the Astros 40-man roster as soon as space becomes available.
Santana stands 6′ 5″ tall and weighs in at around 235 pounds. He is an above average defender with a strong and accurate arm that makes him a natural rightfielder. Santana has plenty of tools and the biggest is his power. Domingo hit .252/.345/.498 with 25 homeruns and 12 stolen bases at AA Corpus Christi in 2013. Those numbers are even more impressive when considering the fact that Santana didn’t reach the legal drinking age until August. He could start the 2014 season back at Corpus or at AAA Oklahoma City. If he continues to progress we could see Santana in Houston as early as September. Even if he hits some bumps in the road this season, I expect Santana to be a key contributor for the Astros by the second half of 2015.
Wojciechowski is a big right-hander who has been extremely impressive since coming over from the Toronto system in the 10-player mega-trade of July 2012. “Wojo” features a 94 m.p.h. fastball, as well as a plus curve and an improving changeup. A successful early run at AA earned Asher a promotion to Oklahoma City last season and he continued to shine. Wojo turns 25 in December and I expect to see him added to the roster and competing for a rotation spot in Spring Training.
The next group of players are the ones that may need to be protected just to be on the safe side. Right-hander Jake Buchanan is at the top of that list. After a lackluster 2012, Buchanan put together a solid campaign in 2013, posting a 2.96 ERA and a 1.099 WHIP in 158 & 1/3 innings between AA and AAA. Two of the 24-year old’s most appealing traits are his control (only 22 BB last year) and his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark (0.6 HR/9 IP career).
Big left-hander Colton Cain could be another candidate to be protected. The system is a bit short on left-handed starting pitchers and the 22-year old acquired in the Wandy Rodriguez trade should still be part of the Astros future plans.
Lefty Luis Cruz is another player that could be added to the 40-man. The 23-year old native of Puerto Rico is only 5′ 9″ tall and 170 pounds. But he is left-handed and seemed to find his strikeout pitch this season (10.4 K/9 IP). After a late season promotion to AA Corpus Christi, Cruz pitched well enough to earn a start in the playoffs.
Power hitting 1B/DH Erik Castro is next on the list. Castro was left unprotected last year after hitting 27 homers and driving in 108 runs at hitter friendly Lancaster of the High-A California League. This season the 25-year old left-handed hitter produced a .280/.368/.480 line at Corpus Christi. Castro might be worth a spot, depending on what the team plans on doing with Brett Wallace.
Reliever Jason Stoffel is another player that was left unprotected last year. Even though he had a decent season at AAA, I would suspect the Astros don’t fear losing the 25-year old. Control has been his biggest issue (3.9 BB/9 IP last year) and Stoffel’s future as a big leaguer is somewhat in question.
Third-baseman Jonathan Meyer is another interesting prospect. His numbers don’t jump off the page at you but he is a solid defender with some power potential. Meyer, who is currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, is likely to be left unprotected. His chances of being drafted (and kept) are slim. The same can probably be said for Telvin Nash. Once the Astros top power prospect, Nash spent his age 22 season repeating the High-A level. A career 512/164 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 347 games is cause for concern. Nash should be left available if any team wants to take a chance on him.
It will be interesting to see what strategy the Astros employ going into this year’s Rule 5 Draft. Once again, they will have the first overall pick. Will they continue to be aggressive and draft two more players? My guess is they only make one pick this year. That’s something we will be taking a closer look at as the winter meetings approach.