DALLAS -- The final act of the Winter Meetings -- the Rule 5 Draft -- might seem to be an anticlimactic conclusion every December, what with all the talk of free-agent signings and trade rumors.
Yet every year, without fail, Major League teams make selections in the Rule 5 Draft, which takes place Thursday at 10 a.m. ET, with live coverage on MLB.com. And every year, without fail, previously unheralded Minor Leaguers make it to, and stick in, the big leagues.
Major League talent can come at any point of the Major League phase of the Draft. The Minnesota Twins, who will forever live in Rule 5 Draft lore as the team that acquired a little-known Minor League pitcher named Johan Santana, were the 12th team to take a player in last year's Major League phase. That pick turned into Scott Diamond. The Twins made a deal to keep him in the system, and he made a contribution to the rotation in Minnesota.
"Yeah, it's an opportunity," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "Last year we were [No.] 28 or so [in the Draft order], and we did take Diamond, and we did hang on to him because we liked him. I don't think anybody in this room at the time thought we'd have an opportunity to get Diamond.
"We pushed him up [to the big leagues] maybe a little quicker than we wanted ... but we think he'll be a decent Major League pitcher. We've taken guys about every year we've come down here. Some have worked and some haven't, but it's a good opportunity -- especially when you're picking No. 2. You're not going to pick there very often."
The Houston Astros have the No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 Draft ahead of the Twins, with the Mariners, Orioles and Royals rounding out the top five. Teams must have room on their 40-man rosters to make a selection in the Major League portion -- the Royals, Padres, Marlins, Indians, Blue Jays, Dodgers and Giants are currently at their roster limit -- and not all 30 teams will do so.
In 2010, there were 19 picks made in the opening phase.
During the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft, eligible players left unprotected from their clubs' 40-man rosters may be selected for $50,000. A player selected must remain on his drafting team's active Major League roster during the following season or be sent back to the original club for $25,000. There are also Triple-A and Double-A phases, during which it costs less to take a player and there are fewer restrictions when it comes to where someone selected can play the following year.
Word at the Meetings was that the Astros were looking to take more than one player, perhaps starting with a pitcher with that No. 1 pick. Who are the players teams are looking at as the Rule 5 Draft approaches? Here's a sampling :
Nick Barnese, RHP, Rays: Tampa Bay lost right-hander Aneury Rodriguez last year. This time, it might be Barnese, who finished fourth in the Double-A Southern League with his 3.76 ERA in 2011.
2011 Rule 5 Draft order
Cesar Cabral, LHP, Red Sox: Cabral was selected last year, taken by the Rays, but ended up back with Boston. He had a very good 2011 season, making it to Double-A and striking out 11.5 per nine in a relief role. He's pitched very well in the Dominican this offseason as well.
Rhiner Cruz, RHP, Mets: The power-armed reliever pitched at two levels in 2011, spending most of the year in Double-A. There were reports he was hitting triple digits on the radar gun while pitching in the Dominican this offseason.
Terry Doyle, RHP, White Sox: The right-hander split time across two levels and his 3.07 ERA was second lowest in the organization. He then pitched very well in the Arizona Fall League. He topped 200 total innings for the year, showing a workhorse future.
Justin Fitzgerald, RHP, Giants: The 6-foot-5 right-hander finished seventh in the Double-A Eastern League with his 3.51 ERA in 2011 and now has a 3.53 ERA in his Minor League career. He's both started and relieved since being drafted in the 11th round in 2008.
Brad Meyers, RHP, Nationals: Meyers has pitched well at every stop along the way in the Nats' system. He had a 3.18 ERA (fifth in the system) between Double-A and Triple-A while walking just one batter every nine innings.
Kevin Pucetas, RHP, Royals: Pucetas both started and relieved in his first year with the Royals after being traded by the Giants, and he had mixed results. But Pucetas helped his stock with a strong winter-ball showing, posting a 2.48 ERA in six Dominican League starts.
Trevor Reckling, LHP, Angels: Once a more highly-touted prospect, Reckling was pushed quickly in 2010, and he regressed a bit. He had a 3.73 ERA in Double-A last year over 99 innings, and he still shows pretty good stuff from the left side.
Brandon Sisk, LHP, Royals: A great scouting find from the independent league ranks, Sisk made it up to Triple-A in 2011, finishing with a 2.52 ERA in 60 2/3 relief innings. Hitters across two levels batted just .187 against him, and he has averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings in his Minors career.
Philippe Valiquette, LHP, Mariners: Lefties who approach 100 mph on the radar gun don't grow on trees, so even though he didn't pitch in 2011 because of a torn pectoral muscle, there's going to be interest. He was back into the mid-90s during instructional league play with the Mariners.
Johan Yan, RHP, Rangers: A convert to pitching in 2009 -- he was an infielder previously -- Yan saved 12 games and finished with a sparkling 1.06 ERA and .206 BAA across two levels in 2011. He then impressed in the hitting-friendly Arizona Fall League to cap the year.
Daniel Carroll, OF, Mariners: He's yet to play above Class A, but his kind of speed -- he stole 62 bases in 2011 -- always intrigues. He draws walks (88) but also strikes out (157).
Drew Cumberland, 2B, Padres: It's unlikely he'll be taken given that he hasn't played since 2010 and was forced out of the game with an inner-ear issue, but his return to baseball is the feel-good story of the Rule 5 Draft set.
Jordan Danks, OF, White Sox: The University of Texas product has spent two seasons in Triple-A, and his left-handed bat -- combined with closeness to the big leagues -- could intrigue many teams.
Cole Figueroa, INF, Rays: Tampa Bay got Figueroa a year ago in the Jason Bartlett deal with the Padres and he spent the year in Double-A. He can play three infield positions and has good on-base skills with some speed.
Ryan Flaherty, UTIL, Cubs: Another left-handed hitter, Flaherty played at Double-A and Triple-A in 2011, hitting .280 with 19 homers and 88 RBIs. He also played every position other than catcher and center field.
Jiwan James, OF, Phillies: James has tools aplenty, with a lot of speed (64 steals the past two seasons) and good defensive ability in the outfield. Still a bit raw as a hitter, someone could take the chance that the tools will turn into more production sooner rather than later.
Ollie Linton, OF, D-backs: Linton has spent two seasons in Double-A, but he has shown an ability to hit for average and steal some bases while playing all three outfield spots.
Shane Peterson, OF, A's: The 2008 second-round Draft pick out of Long Beach State was dealt to Oakland from St. Louis in the '09 Matt Holliday trade. The lefty has played all three outfield spots as well as first base.
Ryan Strieby, 1B, Tigers: The Tigers recently designated him for assignment, making him available. Strieby hit 19 homers in 2011 for Triple-A Toledo.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.