The Rule 5 Draft is, in short, a secondary draft that allows teams to pluck prospects from another team if the prospect isn’t on the team’s 40-man roster, subject to certain restrictions discussed more fully below. It takes place on December 6, the final day of the Winter Meetings. A team’s 40-man roster must be set, for purposes of the Rule 5 Draft, by November 20 – just two weeks from today.
As of today, the Cubs roster stands at 36 (35 if we assume Ian Stewart will be cut adrift in the near future). Ignoring any potential moves the Cubs might make and assuming that they will go into the Winter Meetings with an empty roster slot so that they can take a player in the Rule 5 Draft, that leaves the Cubs with four roster slots they can use to protect – by adding to the 40-man roster – some players. If they keep Stewart on the 40-man, that number drops to three.
And that’s a problem. The players most likely to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft tend to be versatile utility players and relievers who can help out in the majors right away, or players with high upsides. The Cubs lost two in the former category last season (Ryan Flaherty and Marwin Gonzalez) and drafted one in the later (Lendy Castillo). This year the Cubs have several players in both categories at risk in the draft, and they do not have room to protect them all. I don’t think the damage will be quite as bad as it was last year, but the Cubs are unlikely to escape unscathed.
For a current list of Cub prospect that are eligible to be claimed in the Rule 5 Draft, I suggest you check out the excellent work done by The Cubs Reporter. In a nutshell, if a player has been in the farm system for four years and was 19 years old or older on June 5th in the year in which he was drafted, he is eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft. If a player was 18 or younger on June 5th in his draft year, that player becomes eligible after five years. There are a few other scenarios that can make a player eligible earlier than those deadlines, but they tend to be rare. That said, Matt Szczur is on the 40-man roster because he is one such exception.
There are only two players I think the Cubs absolutely must protect, and a total of three that I am fairly confident they will protect. After that things get much murkier, riskier, and more interesting.
Logan Watkins – He’s a patient left handed hitter who plays solid defense at every position up the middle of the diamond. He’s a better candidate to be selected than either Gonzalez or Flaherty were last season, and I do not think there is the faintest chance he would sneak through the draft. I also see little chance of the Cubs not protecting him. If Theo and Jed could custom order a second base prospect, he would probably look an awful lot like Logan Watkins. Even as a left handed hitting utility player Watkins will have plenty of value to the Cubs in a year or so. And should the front office not want him after all, he is still valuable as a trading chip. Watkins likley stays.
Christian Villanueva – If Watkins falls into the “immediate help” category of probable Rule 5 picks, Villanueva is an equally good example of the “future upside” department. This is a third baseman who is in the conversation for League Top 100 prospect status. The Cubs pried him out of Texas in the Ryan Dempster deal, and I don’t think they are going to let him go for nothing. It is true that Villanueva has no experience above High-A; that makes it harder to imagine him holding down a job on a major league roster for very many teams. Given his potential, though, I think someone will find room. I don’t see 29 teams passing on this guy if the Cubs leave him dangling. He needs to be protected.
Probably Will Protect
Nick Struck – There have been some comments out of the Cubs front office lately about Struck and some possible improvements in his delivery. That makes me think the Cubs are intrigued enough by Struck that they are going to roster him before the Rule 5 hits. Personally, I’d leave him unprotected and hope for the best. Struck projects as a No 5 starter in the majors, a role he could fill as soon as next season. I think there is a fairly good chance that Struck would be chosen if the Cubs left him exposed. That said, there are plenty of other pitchers in the farm system with similar projections to Struck. There are even more on the waiver wire. I think the Cubs are going to protect this guy, but I’m not sure that’s the best use of a roster slot right now.
Trey McNutt – McNutt offers upside and the ability to help right away … if teams are willing to keep him in the bullpen. As a reliever this right hander could be in the majors by mid-summer (hopefully with the Cubs). As a starter, he may be another two years away. I think the Cubs see him as a reliever now, and for that reason I strongly suspect they’ll roster him. If they don’t, McNutt will almost certainly be pitching garbage innings this summer for someone else.
This is where things get troublesome. There are still some quite good prospects on the list that the Cubs are likely to expose to the draft. Some of them are probably moving on, but some of them I think are safe. The recently injured players, for instance, I think we can safely expect to be passed over. That is the main reason I do not have Robert Whitenack listed as a “Should Protect.” The upside is there, but he needs some more time to recover from elbow surgery before he could be expected to handle a major league job. Whitenack is likely safe.
Nearly every player who has yet to see Double A is also safe. Teams do sometimes make Rule 5 selections lower than Double A (such as Lendy Castillo), but that tends to be a little more unusual. Players that low in the minors have a much more difficult time hanging around on a major league roster for a full season, and that makes their selection much less likely.
That still leaves a number of players at risk of being selected. I don’t have room here to talk about all of them individually, but here is a partial list that I think are at some risk of being selected.
Dae-Eun Rhee (I would protect Rhee instead of Struck.)
There is plenty of potential on that list, and plenty of risk for the Cubs, but little that would be too devastating to lose. Assuming Watkins and Villanueva are protected, I think the most at risk would be Rhee. He’s got the stuff to be a No 3 starter one day, but I suspect his somewhat shaky season may have steered teams away from him for now. I hope the Cubs protect him anyway, but I’m not too worried about him being taken if they don’t.
Regardless, we will be keeping a close eye on the Cubs’ roster decisions in the coming weeks. We will know exactly who has been exposed in a few weeks, and I’ll be back with a final pre-draft analysis when that happens.