Nick Kuzia didn’t know he was eligible for the 2021 Rule 5 draft.
The minor-league portion, at least.
“I knew the draft was going on,” Kuzia, a right-handed reliever, said Tuesday morning. “I didn’t know. I wasn’t told anything. I just assumed I wasn’t eligible. I was driving home from my workout, and my college coach (Ken Harring) called me and congratulated me. He’s like, ‘Hey, congrats on being a Tiger now.’
“I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I was just pulling into the parking lot of my apartment, and he said, ‘You were just picked in the Rule 5 draft.’ I was like, ‘No way.’ And then my phone started blowing up. He broke the news.”
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The Rule 5 draft — both portions — isn’t the highlight of the offseason. It’s simply a way for teams to add players buried in another team’s organization. Most of the MLB Rule 5 draft regulations, such as carrying a drafted player on the active roster all season, do not apply in the minor-league phase. These players can be placed anywhere in the organization.
What doesn’t change is the feeling of being wanted. That’s how Akil Baddoo felt when the Detroit Tigers picked him in the 2020 MLB Rule 5 draft, and that’s how Kuzia — undrafted in 2017 as a junior at UMass Lowell — felt when the Tigers selected him from the San Diego Padres in Dec. 8’s minor-league phase.
“I’m preparing every year to show up at spring training and win a spot,” Kuzia, who turns 26 in February, said. “I’m going to try to make the big-league club. Every year, mentality is like, I got to shoot for the top of what I think I can get, and whatever happens, happens. But if you shoot for less than the top, then I don’t know why you’d be in this game.”
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Kuzia didn’t get much attention from Division I programs, let alone MLB scouts, at Seymour High School in Connecticut. He committed to a junior college, but a strong senior season caught UMass Lowell’s interest and a scholarship offer.
“I improved year by year (in college), but it wasn’t really a super huge jump,” Kuzia said. “My junior year, I was talking to scouts and getting talked to about the draft. And then, the draft went by. I didn’t get picked, which I was super bummed about, obviously.”
One week later, Kuzia arrived in Maine for summer ball — in the New England Collegiate Baseball League — when Padres area scout John Stewart sent a text message. Kuzia was preparing for his senior year, and another try at the draft.
“Hey, you still want to sign?” Stewart texted.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,'” Kuzia said. “He got the paperwork taken care of and called me the next day with my flight information. I flew out there (to Peoria, Arizona) a day and a half later, after I drove back home from Maine. I flew out there, signed and played the rest of that season in the AZL (Arizona League). And then, the rest of pro ball is kind of history.”
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Kuzia registered a 3.42 ERA with 27 walks and 71 strikeouts last season for Double-A San Antonio (34 games) and Triple-A El Paso (four games). He posted four walks and 11 strikeouts in his Triple-A stint, allowing two earned runs in six innings.
He had a 3.47 ERA in 46⅔ innings at the Double-A level. Overall, Kuzia boasted 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings and 4.6 walks per nine.
“My bread and butter is my slider. I love using it. Last season it was like 80-81 (mph), more of a bigger slider, which I’m working on this offseason to make it even better,” said Kuzia, who also benefits from a 92.5 mph sinker. “Sinkers and sliders. I’ll mix in some four-seam (fastballs) here and there, and then the changeup is a change-of-speed, show-it (pitch), but I’m still working on getting my confidence to throw it.”
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Now, Kuzia gets to embark on a new journey with the Tigers.
Most Rule 5 draftees from the minor-league portion don’t make it to the big leagues. But there’s always the rare chance of finding an MLB-caliber player, either now or in the future. Left-hander Tyler Gilbert, picked in last year’s minor-league phase, threw a no-hitter for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2021.
The Tigers can’t wait to see if Kuzia rewards them.
“It feels good to be wanted,” Kuzia said. “Sometimes you get lost in the mix of 180 other minor leaguers. It’s hard for seven guys in the front office to look over that stuff and see everybody for who they are. Maybe some guys do fall through the cracks. If I’m one of those, great.
“I’m really excited to be part of the Tigers, and be wanted, and welcomed. All these guys have reached out and are excited to work with me. It’s flattering. It’s nice. And I’m excited to get to work for them and work with them. The pitching guys are pretty much brand new. You can tell they’re hungry. They’re champing at the bit to work with me and everybody else.”
Contact Evan Petzold at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.