It’s time to find some hidden gems.
The annual Rule 5 draft is just a few weeks away now that every Major League Baseball team has firmed up its 40-man roster for the winter. For about 10 years now — first as an unpaid blogger and later as a prospect scribe for FanGraphs — I’ve written about the draft and have seen its popularity grow even as the available talent has dwindled due to new roster rules that now allows clubs more time to evaluate their own prospects before having to make the difficult decision to protect or not to protect.
Originally, players under the age of 19 (usually high school draft picks and international free agents) had to be added to the 40-man roster after four professional seasons and players 19 or over (usually college players) were required to be protected after just three seasons. In late 2006, Major League Baseball and the players union came to an agreement that gave each group an extra year to establish themselves before they were either protected or exposed to the wolves. The catch, as you may or may not know, is that a player who is selected in the draft must remain on his new organization’s 25-man big league roster all season or be placed through waivers and, if unclaimed, be offered back to his original team.
Notable players that have been claimed through the Rule 5 process include Johan Santana, Jose Bautista, Dan Uggla, and Shane Victorino. However, more often than not, players are either returned without officially suiting up with their new organization during the regular season or play very small roles and then disappear off into the sunset. Despite this fact, numerous publications and fans alike compile lists of eligible players and try to predict what players will be selected. As mentioned above, I’m no different. Below, you’ll find a group of intriguing talents that I would personally recommend to a big league organization — including my top selection who you’ll read about, well, right now:
Aug 1, 2013 could go down as the most important date in Ryan Tepera’s career, well, outside of the day he was drafted into professional baseball.
That was the day that he permanently moved from the starting rotation to the bullpen in Double-A New Hampshire. A former 19th round draft pick back in 2009, the right-hander out of Sam Houston University spent the majority of his first five pro seasons as a little-known, innings-eating sinker/slider starter. Tepera, who recently turned 26, was always good enough to keep a job and to keep moving forward through the minors but was never quite good enough to get mentioned as a key prospects in the Jays system.
As a starter, his fastball ranged from 88-94 mph and mostly sat around 91 mph but he was more of a pitch-to-contact guy so velocity was less of an issue. Moved to the ‘pen, his fastball continued to show good movement but his velocity spiked and sat in the 94-96 mph range. As a reliever, batters hit .200 — albeit in a small-sample size — compared to .255 as a starter. In total, over 13 relief appearances in the second half of 2013, Tepera pitched 16.1 innings and allowed 12 hits with seven walks. He struck out 19 batters.
The Texas native is not a huge guy, standing 6-1, but he does a nice job of staying on top of his heater and his slider shows a lot of potential when he can throw it for strikes. His changeup isn’t a big pitch for him but it could help him combat tough left handed hitters. Tepera allowed 34 walks and five homer runs to left-handed batters in a combined 46 innings pitched in 2013, compared to 22 walks and six home runs in 70 innings versus right-handed hitters.
I do have some minor concerns with Tepera’s delivery because he remains quite upright with little follow through, which puts some additional strain on his shoulder. However, he was a shortstop in high school and didn’t pitch regularly until college so he has a fairly fresh arm. There’s some effort in his delivery but it’s hard to regular throw in the mid 90s without it.
Seth Blair, RHP: Blair’s numbers have never matched up with his stuff. He possesses a low-90s fastball and a potentially-plus curveball but injuries, inconsistencies and command issues have haunted him throughout his four-year career. I’ve always felt he was miscast as a starting pitcher and could thrive as a reliever where his aggressive nature would serve him well. He has the raw stuff and makeup to eventually move into a seventh- or eighth-inning role but he might be able to handle a middle- or long-relief job for a big league club in 2014, as long as he continues to make adjustments under the tutelage of a big league pitching coach.
Keury de la Cruz, OF: The young outfielder took a small step backward with his development in 2013 but I considered de la Cruz for one of the last spots on the Red Sox’s Top 15 Prospects list prior to last season. He’s not the most toolsy player with limited speed (although he’s a good base runner) and defensive values but shows flashes of being a solid hitter with average or better power from the left side. He won’t turn 22 until late November and has time to temper his aggressive nature and cut down on his strikeout rate. De la Cruz won’t have much success as a big leaguer if he’s forced to remain on a big league roster throughout 2014 but the upside with the bat might be too tempting to pass up, and he’s someone to select with an eye to the future.
Marco Hernandez, SS: Hernandez landed on my radar two Septembers ago while watching a Northwest League playoff game. I was planning to focus on Jeimer Candelario but the third baseman disappointed and the shortstop stole my attention away with his solid all-around play. He hits with a level swing and gap-to-gap approach. He has good — but not blazing speed — and he shows both solid arm strength and good range in the field. There is no reason that Hernandez could not handle shortstop, second base and third base as a back-up infielder at the Major League level in 2014. Eventually, he could develop into a average big leaguer shortstop, or better.
Carlos Perez, C: Originally signed by Toronto, Perez was traded to Houston in 2012 during the multiple-player deal that sent J.A. Happ to the Jays. The catcher isn’t flashy but he plays solid defense and has a chance to be a fringe-average hitter, most likely in a backup role at the big league level. Perez is an interesting guy because he still has a little upside but could also step in and be a decent second-string catcher. The 23-year-old Venezuela native has a bit of a long swing but he makes above-average contact — which both helps and hurts him as he doesn’t strike out much but also makes contact with some pitches he should pass on.
Giovanny Urshela, 3B: Just 22 years old, Urshela already has a full year of experience in Double-A. The Colombia native is an aggressive hitter, to a fault, and more patience might provide him with better pitches to drive with authority. Utilizing his lower half more could also help him tap into \ more power. Urshela struggled mightily against left-handed pitching (.417 OPS against LHPs, compared to .784 vs RHPs) so sliding him into a platoon situation could help acclimate him to The Show. Defensively, Urshela has a plus arm and has flashed well-above-average defense at the hot corner. He’s even played a few games at shortstop in 2013 but his lack of natural quickness hampers his range.
Marcus Walden, RHP: A closer in college, Walden was moved into a starting role in pro ball. Seven years later he’s still working as a starter, no doubt due to the durability he’s shown — including 162.1 innings pitched in 2013 — since missing almost two years (2009-10) while dealing with of Tommy John surgery. The problem with Walden is that he’s mostly a one-pitch pitcher but his fastball, which sits in the low 90s, can be a plus offering because of its incredible sinking action. He’s posted well-above-average ground-ball rates throughout his pro career. His strikeout numbers aren’t sexy but he pitches to contact by design and having big league defenders, as well as well-maintained infields, could really improve his numbers. Walden was actually a minor league free agent (due to his six full minor league seasons) and recently resigned with Toronto after clearly finding a lukewarm reception on the open market. He’s a guy that constantly gets overlooked and I think that’s a mistake.