The Rule 5 Draft Is Back, And It Was A Busy One For The Cubs (UPDATES)

The Rule 5 Draft is now complete. See the updates and picks at the bottom of the post.

It’s been quite fun to experience the Winter Meetings acting like the Winter Meetings again this week. And, as we draw closer to their conclusion, it’s time for the normal final event: the Rule 5 Draft.

Due to the lockout, we didn’t have one last year, and it was of course virtual in 2020, so this is the first “normal” Rule 5 Draft in three years. It begins at 4pm CT.

Also, due to the lack of a draft last year, the talent pool is deeper than I ever remember it being for this year’s edition. Given the shortened 2020 Draft and reduction of the short-season A-ball level, this might be the deepest draft for years to come. However, I have had baseball insiders suggest to me it could make for a less active Major League phase than usual, as roster crunches are more pervasive across MLB than usual this winter.

For the uninitiated, the Rule 5 Draft is an opportunity for teams to poach players from other organizations that meet certain criteria. For the Major League phase, it means that a player has not been added to the 40-man roster after 3-4+ years in the organization. A team opting to make a draft pick must pay $100,000 and then keep the player on their 26-man roster for the entire 2023 season (or offer him back to his original team for $50,000).

For the minor league phase, eligible players are those not on the 40-man MLB roster OR 38-man AAA roster. These AAA lists aren’t public, but I did make a guess at what the Cubs list might look like here. Selections in the minor league phase require no special 2023 rostering rules; the selected player changes organizations permanently.

I have written about the Cubs roster crunch for the better part of six months — amid plenty of skepticism from some — and today we’ll see if the concern was warranted. The best Rule 5 preview in the business is behind the paywall at Baseball America, but I can share this: the Cubs are one of only five organizations with five players on the BA preview list (not surprisingly, it’s Tampa, the Dodgers and the Yankees at the top). [Post-publish edit: Cubs are now up to seven, so they passed the Yankees.]

Here is how I rank the players likeliest to be drafted away from the Cubs today:

As for the Cubs, it’s the expectation of both Brett and myself that the Cubs don’t make a selection in the Major League phase. The team’s activity in the free agent market should have the 40-man filled soon enough, and the Cubs seem to feel okay about their depth at the end of the roster.

If the Cubs change course and do make a pick, I expect it to be one of these player types:

  • Left-handed reliever. A current hole in the Cubs roster construction. BN friend Tommy has been banging the Antoine Kelly drum for weeks now.
  • Right-handed CF with great glove. Brett threw out Mets prospect Jake Mangum as a name, and he definitely has traction around MLB. I tend to think Cubs fill this spot with a minor league free agent instead.
  • Ready for MLB short-inning flamethrower. Plenty of options out there that fit this bill, though Zach Greene is the most convincing case I’ve heard.
  • First base. Is camp competition for Matt Mervis worth $100,000?
  • I’ll be updating this post as the picks come in, with longer write-ups for anything involving the Cubs. My prediction, for fun: two Cubs drafted in Major League phase, zero Cubs selections in Major League phase, two Cubs drafted in minor league phase, Cubs make one selection in that part of the draft.

    It appears we know the first pick ahead of time!

    The order, which saw the Cubs move up to the eighth team eligible to select as four teams ahead of them had full 40-man rosters.

    1. Nationals – Thad Ward, rhp, Red Sox
    2. Oakland – Ryan Noda, 1b, Dodgers
    3. Pittsburgh – Jose Hernandez, lhp, Dodgers
    4. Cincy – Blake Sabol, of, Pirates
    5. Detroit – Mason Englert, rhp, Rangers
    6. Colorado – Kevin Kelly, rhp, Guardians
    7. Miami – Nick Enright, rhp, Guardians
    8. CUBS – PASS. The first team to do so. This was as I expected, as those inside the organization were citing a roster crunch all year. The Cubs anticipate a full 40-man roster before the month is finished.
    9. White Sox – Nick Avila, rhp, Giants
    10. Orioles – Andrew Politi, rhp, Red Sox.
    11. Milwaukee – Gus Varland, rhp, Dodgers
    12. Phillies – Noah Song, rhp, Red Sox
    13. Padres – Jose Lopez, lhp, Rays
    14. Seattle – Chris Clarke, rhp, Cubs. Okay, I was wrong! Clarke was not on the list of players I thought would be drafted. A big tall righty that pitches on a downhill plane (58 GB% in Double-A), Clarke has fantastic feel and command for his stuff, despite a big body. I think there’s potential for some mechanical changes to unlock a little bit of velocity, and the breaking balls still have the potential to evolve into Major League offerings. Clarke will not be fazed by the opportunity of pitching in the big leagues — Seattle teammates will love him — and his ability to command will give him a chance. For what it’s worth, Clarke was not in the last draft of my top 50 prospects.
    15. Cardinals – Wilking Rodriguez, rhp, Yankees
    16. Mets – Zach Greene, rhp, Yankees

    That was the entire Major League portion, so the front office official at the top of the post that forecasted a less-than-busy Rule 5 Draft was correct. I think we have to consider this a win for the Cubs, who can withstand a small hit to their starting pitching depth, but remain all the flame-throwing relievers that they could potentially ask to pitch in Chicago in 2023.

    MINOR LEAGUE PHASE

    Note that I’ll only put updates in here relevant to the Cubs, be it players they drafted or players drafted away from the organization. Remember, while Clarke may be offered back to the team if he doesn’t make Seattle’s MLB roster, the players selected in the minor league phase are lost without recourse.

    It was just revealed the Cubs have 34 players on their AAA roster right now, so they will be eligible to make up to four selections in the minor league phase. (I don’t anticipate they will use all those.)

    Cubs select Jose Aquino, lhp, Seattle. While most players selected in this phase are guys starting to stall out around Double-A, leave it to the Cubs to pick someone still in Complex ball. Aquino, 20, threw just six innings last year, and none after June 7 (likely due to an injury). However, he did strike out 65 batters in 43.1 innings in the Dominican Summer League in 2021. I’ll dig in and see if I can find anything about his specific stuff. I’d expect Aquino to pitch in Myrtle Beach’s bullpen when he’s next healthy, after a long stretch working with Tony Cougoule at the Cubs complex in Mesa.

    Here’s an intriguing write-up on Aquino from Lookout Landing after the 2021 season, where he ranked as a top 25 prospect in the system:

    At 6-foot-3, 184 pounds, Aquino is starting to grow into his adult body and athletic markers are tantalizing. He’s got long levers and really works down the mound well. The lanky lefty touched 97 this season and worked 91-94, generating the fifth-best whiff rate in the organization at 40.5 percent. Aquino has good spin metrics and throws enough strikes as a 19-year-old to project a starting-caliber arm in the future.

    Cubs select Nick Burdi, rhp, Padres. Now that’s a familiar name. A pitcher that got run with the Pirates in the Majors from 2018-2020, Burdi has been in the Padres organization but has not pitched since then. The Cubs must have some indication that he’s healthy and are trying to take a look. It’s essentially like a veteran minor league free agent signing, similar to what the Cubs did a couple years ago when they took Brock Stewart.

    He threw hard back then:

    It appears Burdi was healthy going into the 2022 season, and looking pretty darn good:

    Astros select Bryan King, lhp, Cubs. King, 26, didn’t make a roster out of Spring Training, but when a hole opened at Low-A Myrtle Beach, he made the most of it. After eight absolutely dominant scoreless innings, King was asked to jump to Double-A Tennessee. Things were doing well there after nine appearances before an injury on July 1 ended his season. I expected King to begin the 2023 season on the Injured List.

    Cubs select Jefferson Encarnacion, of, Phillies. A 21 year old that has never played stateside, and hasn’t played at all since 2019, the Cubs likely had a good scouting report on Encarnacion as an amateur and maybe an inkling that he’s healthy again. I would expect that Encarnacion competes for a roster spot on the 2023 AZL Cubs.

    Or perhaps they were scouting the Phillies backfields in October?

    Cubs pass in Round 4 of the Minor League Phase.

    Astros select Luis A. Rodriguez, lhp, from Cubs. This was a really good pick by the Astros, and likely the player I would have had atop the Cubs available player list. Rodriguez has a history of success, with some dominating minor league numbers: 216 IP, 157 H, 3.04 ERA, 98 BB, 268 K. It’s not overwhelming stuff, but he has fantastic feel for his breaking balls and does a nice job of hiding the baseball. Wore down a bit as last season went on — particularly when he was moved into a starting role — but I think the Astros will do well to utilize him as a two-inning reliever moving forward.

    Draft over! Busy minor league phase today, especially from the two teams that competed in the World Series.

    FINAL THOUGHTS

    I know there’s going to be some sarcastic hand-wringing that I made much ado about nothing as it related to the Cubs and the Rule 5; I was merely passing along what I was hearing from the organization. I think the takeaway is that the Draft was a win for the Cubs, who only saw one player selected in the Major League phase, and that’s a guy heading to a team with championship ambitions that can’t afford to stash a guy on the roster; Clarke will need to succeed. Perhaps the Mariners will try to convince the Cubs that their upper level rotation depth is enough to allow Seattle to acquire him in trade … we know Jerry Dipoto will at least utilize this opportunity to talk about another trade.

    Cubs were active in the minor league phase, but not with players that ended the 2022 season in healthy fashion. I look forward to hearing when the Cubs see these players getting back on the field, particularly Burdi, who I would think could win an Iowa roster spot pretty easily. Losing Rodriguez is probably the worst sting of the day, because I don’t see a ton of depth around that South Bend bullpen where he was projected to in 2023 (depth was impacted by the Zarraga-Mastrobuoni trade last month).

    written by

    Bryan Smith is a Minor League Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @cubprospects.

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