Rule 5 Draft Update: May 2023

MLB Trade Rumors

It’s been more than a months since we last checked in on this year’s group of Rule 5 draftees and how they’re faring around the league. Fifteen players were selected in the 2022 Rule 5 Draft — those unfamiliar with the event can read up on the specifics here — and since last check there have been a few notable developments among the group. Let’s take a look…

Currently on a Major League Roster

Thaddeus Ward, RHP, Nationals (from Red Sox)
Since last update: 7 1/3 innings, 4.91 ERA, 3 hits, 1 HR, 9 BB, 7 K
Overall 2023 numbers: 14 2/3 innings, 4.91 ERA, 8 H, 2 HR, 24.2% strikeout rate, 21% walk rate, 51.5% ground-ball rate

Since last check in early April, Ward has had a three-walk appearance in which he pitched just one inning and a four-walk appearance in which he only recorded two outs. His command has been among the worst in baseball, as only two pitchers (min. 10 innings) have walked a greater percentage of their opponents: twice-DFA’ed right-hander Javy Guerra and injured Rockies righty Dinelson Lamet.

At last check, Ward was struggling with that command but still had fanned more than 30% of his opponents. He’s seen his strikeout rate, swinging-strike rate, opponents’ chase rate and average fastball all dip over the past five weeks. The Nationals have done a decent job hiding him — he’s appeared in just 25% of their games — and with a projected playoff chance under 1%, they might not care about the rough performance. Ward was one of the Red Sox’ top pitching prospects before a more than two-year layoff due to the canceled 2020 minor league season and 2021 Tommy John surgery. He posted a 2.28 ERA, 31% strikeout rate and 8.9% walk rate in 51 1/3 minor league innings in last year’s return effort. The Nationals are rebuilding anyway, and as long as they still like Ward’s stuff, they can afford to let him take his lumps in the big leagues even though he entered the season with just 41 innings above A-ball.

Ryan Noda, 1B/OF, Athletics (from Dodgers)
Since last update: 103 plate appearances, .221/.417/.416, 2 HR, 22.3% walk rate, 31.1% strikeout rate
Overall 2023 numbers: 140 plate appearances, .215/.400/.421, 4 HR, 8 2B, 1 3B, 1 SB, 21.4% walk rate, 32.1% strikeout rate

The only five hitters in baseball with more walks than Noda’s 30 are Juan Soto, Adley Rutschman, Ian Happ, Matt Olson and Max Muncy. All but Muncy have more plate appearances. Noda’s massive walk rate leads MLB’s 171 qualified hitters … but his 32.1% strikeout rate is also tied for the seventh-highest. A whopping 56% of his plate appearances have ended in either a walk, strikeout or home run, making the 27-year-old the embodiment of a three-true-outcome player.

The strikeouts may be tough to watch, but Noda’s .400 OBP is tied for tenth among qualified hitters. He’s picked up 13 extra-base hits, is sitting on a strong .206 ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) and boasts a 140 wRC+ despite his low batting average. Defensive metrics feel he’s been a competent, if not slightly above-average first baseman. Noda is getting on base 40% of the time he comes to the plate, and there’s no way the A’s (or any team) would take him off the roster as long as he’s doing that.

Jose Hernandez, LHP, Pirates (from Dodgers)
Since last update: 11 innings, 4.09 ERA, 9 hits, 2 HR, 2 BB, 14 K
Overall 2023 numbers: 17 1/3 innings, 3.12 ERA, 15 hits, 2 HR, 27.5% strikeout rate, 4.3% walk rate, 38.3% ground-ball rate

Injuries to Jarlin Garcia and Rob Zastryzny — who was activated today — left Hernandez as the lone lefty option in Derek Shelton’s bullpen, but Hernandez has handled the role just fine. The Orioles tagged him for a pair of runs in an appearance that saw him record just one out last week, but Hernandez has generally been sharp despite skipping Triple-A entirely.

Hernandez is averaging just under 96 mph on his fastball, and his 12.5% swinging-strike rate is better than the league average. He’s picked up a pair of holds for the Pirates and his 23.2 K-BB% ties him for 28th among 192 qualified relievers. He’s given up too much hard contact (89.9 mph average exit velocity, 40.4% hard-hit rate), but he looks the part of a useful big league reliever right now and shouldn’t be in any danger of losing his roster spot.

Blake Sabol, C/OF, Giants (from Pirates)
Since last update: 66 plate appearances, .323/.364/.565, 4 HR, 6.1% walk rate, 39.4% strikeout rate
Overall 2023 numbers: 100 plate appearances, .280/.330/.473, 5 HR, 3 2B, 2 SB, 5% walk rate, 38% strikeout rate

Sabol has been on fire since our early-April look at the Rule 5’ers who made their Opening Day rosters, though he’s benefited from a mammoth .500 BABIP along the way. Still, the four long balls in that time show impressive pop, and the Giants have given him looks in both left field and at catcher.

Sabol has above-average sprint speed, exit velocity and hard-contact abilities, and both Statcast and FanGraphs give him above-average framing marks in his limited time behind the dish. However, he’s also needed a hefty .420 BABIP to get to his current production, and no player in baseball strikes out more often or swings and misses more often than Sabol has. Sabol’s 60.3% contact rate is the worst in Major League Baseball, and if he can’t improve that mark and start to draw some more walks, it’s hard to imagine continuing anything close to this level of production. Regression looks quite likely for this version of Sabol, but he walked and made contact at much better clips in Double-A and Triple-A last year, so there’s still hope for improvement as he gains more experience.

Mason Englert, RHP, Tigers (from Rangers)
Since last update: 16 1/3 innings, 2.76 ERA, 13 hits, 3 HR, 5 BB, 13 K
Overall 2023 numbers: 23 2/3 innings, 4.18 ERA, 21 hits, 6 HR, 17.8% strikeout rate, 6.9% walk rate, 47.2% ground-ball rate

The Tigers have used Englert for more than an inning in nine of his 13 appearances, including eight outings of at least two innings (two of which were three-inning efforts). He’s provided the team with some length but also been used in a few leverage spots, evidenced by a pair of holds and, more regrettably, a pair of blown saves. While his strikeout rate is pedestrian, Englert’s 11.6% swinging-strike rate and 34.3% opponents’ chase rate are average or better. That doesn’t necessarily portend a major uptick in punchouts, but there’s probably more in the tank than his current 17.8% clip.

Englert has been far too homer-prone (2.28 HR/9), and that’s been his Achilles heel thus far. If he can rein in the long ball, he could give the Detroit bullpen some length for the balance of the season and perhaps even start some games should they need. The 23-year-old was a starter in the Rangers’ system prior to being selected by the Tigers last December.

Detroit has outperformed most expectations thus far, although at 19-22 with a -48 run differential, the Tigers still don’t look like viable contenders. If they’re hovering around the Wild Card race later in the year and Englert is struggling, perhaps they’d be tempted to move on, but for now he’s pitched well enough and the Tigers are far enough from the postseason picture that they can afford to keep him around even if he stumbles a bit.

Kevin Kelly, RHP, Rays (from Guardians)
Since last update: 16 1/3 innings, 23 hits, 0 HR, 4 BB, 12 K
Overall 2023 numbers: 22 1/3 innings, 4.84 ERA, 17.8% strikeout rate, 4% walk rate, 42.1% ground-ball rate

Kelly, 25, has looked sharp in most of his appearances but has been tagged for multiple earned runs three times — including a pair of three-run clunkers. For a short reliever, that’s… less than optimal. The Rays have felt comfortable using him in plenty of leverage spots, however, evidenced by a quartet of holds, a save and another blown save.

Kelly’s 4% walk rate gives the air of pinpoint command, but he’s also plunked three hitters and has a below-average 58.4% rate of throwing a first-pitch strike. He hasn’t allowed a home run, in part because he hasn’t allowed a single barreled ball this year. Kelly has avoided hard contact better than the average pitcher, eschewed walks and generally pitched better than his near-5.00 ERA might otherwise indicate. With the Rays firmly in contention, he’ll need to avoid a prolonged slump to stick on the roster, but it’s clear they believe he can be a solid reliever even with below-average velocity (92 mph average fastball) and strikeout abilities.

Currently on the Major League Injured List

  • Nic Enright, RHP, Marlins (from Guardians): Enright announced in February that just weeks after being selected in the Rule 5 Draft, doctors diagnosed him with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’s undergone treatment and been on a minor league rehab assignment as he rebuilds game strength. Enright is currently on Miami’s 60-day injured list, but baseball of course takes a back seat in this type of instance. We at MLBTR join fans of the Marlins, Guardians and every other organization in pulling for the 26-year-old Enright and wishing him a full recovery.
  • Noah Song, RHP, Phillies (from Red Sox): Ranked as the No. 65 prospect in the 2019 draft by Baseball America, Song slid to the Red Sox in the fourth round due to his military commitments as a Naval Academy cadet. He’s yet to throw a professional pitch while spending the past three seasons in the Navy but was transferred from active duty to selective reserves earlier this year, allowing him to play baseball. He’s on the Phillies’ 15-day injured list with a back strain, and it’s tough to imagine him just diving into a Major League bullpen after spending three years away from the game. Still, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski held that same title in Boston when the Red Sox drafted Song and has said since the Rule 5 Draft that he feels Song’s pure talent is worth the risk.
  • Wilking Rodriguez, RHP, Cardinals (from Yankees): The 33-year-old Rodriguez’s incredible story hit an abrupt roadblock when he underwent shoulder surgery earlier this month. It’s been eight years since he last pitched in affiliated ball and nine years since his lone MLB cup of coffee with the Royals. Since then, he’s been a staple in the Venezuelan Winter League and the Mexican League. The Yankees signed Rodriguez to a minor league deal last summer, but because he wasn’t on the 40-man roster and had enough prior professional experience, he was Rule 5-eligible and scooped up by the Cardinals. They can retain his rights into next season but would need to carry him on the 40-man roster all winter in order to do so, and he wouldn’t be optionable to until he spent 90 days on the active MLB roster next season. That scenario seems highly unlikely.

Currently in DFA Limbo

  • Gus Varland, RHP, Brewers (from Dodgers): Varland wowed the Brewers in spring training when he punched out 17 of his 35 opponents (48.6%), but he landed on the injured list on April 16 — three days after MLBTR’s last Rule 5 check-in — when he was struck by a comebacker. The diagnosis was a hand contusion, and Varland was back on a big league mound about three weeks later. The 26-year-old posted a 2.25 ERA through his first eight innings this year but did so with just five strikeouts against five walks. On May 15, the Cardinals clobbered him for nine runs on six hits (two homers) and three walks with one strikeout in just two-thirds of an inning. That outing sent Varland’s ERA careening to its current 11.42 mark. The Brewers designated him for assignment the next day. He’ll have to pass through waivers unclaimed — he’d retain all of his Rule 5 restrictions if claimed by another club — and offered back to the Dodgers after that.

Already Returned to their Former Club

  • Nick Avila, RHP: Avila allowed eight runs in ten spring innings with the White Sox and was returned to the Giants, for whom he posted an electric 1.14 ERA in 55 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A last season.
  • Andrew Politi, RHP: Politi was tagged for six runs on nine hits and three walks in 8 2/3 spring innings with the Orioles, who returned him to the Red Sox late in camp.
  • Jose Lopez, LHP: Lopez walked five batters in six frames with the Padres this spring, and the Friars returned him to the Rays on March 27.
  • Chris Clarke, RHP: The towering 6’7″ Clarke faced the tough task of cracking a deep Mariners bullpen and was returned to the Cubs late in spring training after allowing four runs on eight hits and a pair of walks in 6 2/3 innings.
  • Zach Greene, RHP: The Mets plucked Greene out of the Yankees’ system, but in 4 2/3 innings during spring training he yielded seven runs with more walks (six) than strikeouts (five). The Mets returned him to the Yankees on March 14.

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