The Rule 5 draft may be two months away, however, anticipation mounts as we wonder which Astros players may be left unprotected and possibly picked by other teams. Several Top 30 Astros prospects are eligible, and could be lost if not protected.
Astros minor league prospects Joseph Musgrove and Chris Devenski are among the group of players that could be chosen by other teams if the Astros don’t protect them by placing them on the 40-man roster. With both pitchers exhibiting skills that could earn them Major League chances soon, they should be put on the protected roster. Including Musgrove and Devenski, eleven of the Astros Top 30 prospects are eligible this year.
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The point of this draft is to prevent teams from gathering too many prospects and keeping them in the minor leagues. The rule is designed to keep young talent moving up, and often forces teams to make difficult decisions – which players to protect, and which players to risk losing. Not all minor leaguers are eligible to be chosen, and not all players left unprotected will be taken by other teams.
The rule states in part, according to MLB.com: “Players who were signed when they were 19 or older and have played in professional baseball for four years are eligible, as are players who were signed at 18 and have played for five years.”
Eligible Astros farmhands include (but are not limited to) Musgrove (#9 prospect), Reymin Guduan (#16), Teoscar Hernandez (#17), Devenski (#18), David Paulino (#19), Danry Vasquez (#20), Brady Rodgers (#22), Andrew Aplin (#23), Nolan Fontana (#24), Jandel Gustave (#28), and Kyle Smith (#29). Musgrove and Devenski are the most likely to be drafted if not protected, based on the stellar seasons they had in 2015.
“We’re at the stage in our organizational development where we’ve got a lot of players other teams want. You can’t protect them all,” former Astros assistant general manager David Stearns said in December 2014 in this Brian McTaggart, MLB.com story.
The only way to ensure that an eligible player is not chosen is to put him on the 40-man roster. The Astros have room for perhaps a few of these players, risking the loss of some to other teams. Productive 2015 seasons by many of these players will hopefully convince the Astros to protect them. However, other teams have certainly seen the promise, and may be willing to take chances on those left vulnerable.
The rule also states that if chosen, the player must remain on the drafting team’s big league roster for the entire season, or the player must be offered back to the original team. Obviously, drafting a player via this rule is a considerable risk, as players picked usually have no Major League experience and are an unknown quantity at the top level. Big league teams cannot afford to spend a valuable roster spot for a player that cannot perform as a Major Leaguer, a key reason for the low number of players historically drafted by Rule 5. If the drafting team elects not to keep the draftee on the big league roster, they offer the player back to the original team at $25,000, half of the price they spent to draft him. If the original team refuses, the player is placed on waivers.
The most famous Rule 5 acquisition is the late Hall of Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente. He was signed as a free agent in 1954 by the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates later that year via Rule 5. Clearly, the Dodgers would like to have had that one back, but of course, hindsight is 20/20.
Current Blue Jays star outfielder Jose Bautista was drafted in 2000 by the Pirates, who then let him get away when Baltimore picked him by Rule 5. Josh Hamilton was the first pick in the 1999 amateur draft by the Tampa Bay Rays. Seven years later, the Chicago Cubs chose Hamilton. Other well-known players drafted in this way include R.A. Dickey, current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and former NFL running back Ricky Williams.
“You can’t protect them all.” – David Sterns.
The Atlanta Braves showed, in 2002, a perfect example of creative interpretation of the rule. According to this Alan Schwarz, Baseball America article, the Braves realized almost too late they had failed to protect Ben Rivera on their 40-man roster. The problem was solved when, with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, the Braves chose Rivera from their own roster. This is probably the only time such a thing happened, and you can bet other teams made a flurry of phone calls to the league office to verify this was actually legal.
The Astros have acquired and lost several players in recent years through Rule 5.
Houston signed pitcher Johan Santana in 1995 at age 16. Four years later, they did not protect him, and the Florida Marlins took him via Rule 5. He was traded on the same day to Minnesota, and he spent the 2000 season on the Twins roster. Santana won two Cy Young Awards for the Twins before moving on to the Mets, where he threw a no-hitter in 2012.
Former Astros prospect Delino DeShields, Jr. was left unprotected in 2014 and was chosen by the division rival Texas Rangers. The move has so far worked out for Texas, as DeShields became the starting centerfielder, hitting .263 in 112 games in 2015 as of this writing.
Houston acquisitions by Rule 5 include Marwin Gonzalez, who was chosen in 2011 by the Red Sox from the Cubs, and then traded to the Astros on the same day. Gonzalez has proven to be a valuable addition to the team. The Astros picked Willy Taveras in 2003 from Cleveland, and Wesley Wright in 2007 from the Dodgers. The most current Astro to arrive by Rule 5 is pitcher Josh Fields, drafted in 2012 from Boston.
Astros roster changes are anticipated once the season ends, and it is possible that several players will be removed from the 40-man protected list. Those that could be considered in danger of losing their spots include Chris Carter, Colby Rasmus, Matt Duffy, Max Stassi, Joe Thatcher, Jonathan Villar, and Robbie Grossman. Those most likely to be protected are Musgrove, Devenski, Paulino, and Aplin.
It is a bit of a chess game as Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and his staff make educated guesses as to which minor leaguers they can afford not to protect. It depends entirely on rival General Managers’ private assessments of the projected value of men in the Astros system; opinions at which Luhnow can only guess.
We can hope the Astros don’t lose any of their most promising players; men that are as of this writing, not yet protected.
Cover photo by Tammy Tucker.