LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- With the Rule 5 Draft aproaching on Thursday morning, teams at the Winter Meetings were starting to focus in on the list of those eligible for the annual draft held at the conclusion of the meetings.
Certain names were starting to echo through the lobby as the Draft approached. Not surprisingly, most of the names are pitchers (88 of the 121 players taken in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft since 2006 have been hurlers), with the Yankees right-hander Tommy Kahnle, Mariners lefty Brian Moran and Pirates right-hander Zach Thornton the three names generating the most Rule 5 buzz.
The Houston Astros once again have the top pick in the Draft -- they took Josh Fields a year ago and he stuck in Houston's bullpen -- and all signs point to them being active in the Major League phase, which can be followed live via audio on MLB.com at 9 a.m. ET. Houston has taken pitchers with the No. 1 selection in each of the past two Rule 5 Drafts, so it wouldn't surprise anyone if they went to the mound again this time around.
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The Rule 5 Draft has been likened to finding diamonds in the rough, or maybe even a needle in a haystack. It gives teams the chance, at a relatively low cost, to find big-league talent among a collection of players whose original teams didn't believe were valuable enough to protect on the 40-man roster.
When the rules changed in 2006, giving teams an extra season to evaluate players before having to make a roster decision, it appeared finding an effective Rule 5 pick would become even more difficult. Now, players first signed at age 18 must be added to 40-man rosters within five seasons or they become eligible to be drafted by other organizations through the Rule 5 process. Players signed at 19 years or older must be protected within four seasons.
"I think it has cut down the quality of the players you can choose from," said Astros coordinator of pro scouting Kevin Goldstein. "But you still have to find the player.
"That extra year of information changes a lot. Players change a lot in a year. Players who are a year older are different players. There are still guys out there who are very interesting. We found two of them last year."
The Astros -- and Major League Baseball's 29 other clubs -- will once again hope to find talent from that pool of unprotected players at Thursday's Rule 5 Draft at the Winter Meetings (live audio coverage on MLB.com at 9 a.m. ET).
Here's a quick refresher on how it works: Clubs pay $50,000 to select a player in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. If that player doesn't stay on the selecting team's 25-man roster for the full season, he must be offered back to his former team for $25,000.
It costs $12,000 to take a player in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 and $4,000 in the Double-A portion. In these phases, there are no rules about what level the selected prospect must play to remain with his new organization.
It's the Major League phase that most pay attention to -- the phase which has delivered players like Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino and Dan Uggla over the past several years. The additional year of evaluation time has cut down on the impact types -- Hamilton and Joakim Soria both came in 2006, right after the rule change, and perhaps before teams had time to adjust. Everth Cabrera and Evan Meek are the only other two taken since the new rules went into effect who have gone on to be All-Stars.
Of course, finding an All-Star in the Rule 5 Draft has never been expected. But what about simply finding Major League contributors? With the extra year, it might be reasonable to conclude that very few Rule 5 selections have stuck in the big leagues.
Surprisingly, those conclusions might be wrong. Since 2006, there have been 121 players taken in the Major League phase of the past seven Rule 5 Drafts. A total of 38 of those players stuck in the big leagues -- not always with the original team that took them -- the following season, for a success rate of 31 percent.
Thirty-three players from that group of 121 (27 percent) spent time in the Major Leagues in 2013. Even taking out the eight players from the 2012 Rule 5 Draft who were in the Majors this past season, that still left a better-than-expected rate of 24 percent of Rule 5 players seeing some time at the highest level.
"I'm surprised," Goldstein said. "It's still a needle in the haystack, but maybe it's a knitting needle. It's a tough exercise. You're balancing the players who can stick and players who could use the time to develop more [in the Minors]."
The Astros have done a pretty good balancing act in the past few years. In 2010, they took Aneury Rodriguez, and the right-hander stuck for the entire '11 season. Rhiner Cruz was the top pick in the '11 Rule 5 Draft, and he has contributed to the Houston bullpen for each of the past two seasons.
In 2012, the Astros managed to find two Major League contributors in the Rule 5 Draft. The first was No. 1 pick Josh Fields, who spent most of the season in Houston's bullpen. The other, first baseman Nate Freiman, also played at the highest level, but it was with the Oakland A's, who claimed Freiman when the Astros put him on waivers. Houston hopes it can be as successful this time around.
"In the end, we're pretty proud we drafted two big leaguers last year," Goldstein said. "We're proud of our process. You get that 66-page PDF (file) of eligible players, you whittle it down to a select group. We're doing the necessary research to find the guys who are real candidates. We're still digging, and we'll see who it's going to be."
TEN PLAYERS TO WATCH IN THE RULE 5 DRAFT
Junior Arias, OF, Reds: Super-toolsy outfielder who hasn't played above A ball but had 15 homers and 60 steals in 2013.
Danny Burawa, RHP, Yankees: Right-handed reliever who pitched in Double-A in 2013, up to 95 mph with his fastball, but with command issues.
Oliver Drake, RHP, Orioles: A one-time well-thought of prospect as a starter, Drake threw just 18 innings in 2012 (shoulder) and came back as a reliever in 2013, throwing well in Double-A with a low 90s fastball.
Marcus Hatley, RHP, Cubs: He's been eligible before, with command issues keeping him from being a viable candidate; threw much better in the second half of 2013 with a mid-90s fastball and glimpses of a good slider and splitter.
Tommy Kahnle, RHP, Yankees: Anotther hard-throwing right-hander, with a mid-90s fastball, who has had command issues and a lack of a consistent secondary pitch, Kahnle did have 15 saves and an 11 K/9 ratio in Double-A in 2013.
Freddy Lewis, LHP, Yankees: A lefty reliever who was known as a strike-thrower with an average fastball, Lewis may have improved his stock by throwing hard and tossing 11 scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League this fall.
Marcos Mateo, RHP, Cubs: Mateo pitched in the big leagues in 2010-2011, missed 2012 following Tommy John surgery, but was reportedly throwing very well in the Dominican Winter League.
Brian Moran, LHP, Mariners: The older brother of 2013 Marlins first-round pick Colin, Moran is a deceptive lefty who is a strike-thrower while also striking out 10.6 per nine in his career.
Adrian Nieto, C, Nationals: Former high school teammate of Eric Hosmer, he's put a 50-game suspension behind him and is coming off a solid 2013 in the Carolina League followed up by a strong turn in the AFL.
Zach Thornton, RHP, Pirates: More of a command guy with decent stuff who gets a ton of groundballs, Thornton pitched across three levels in 2013 and threw well in the AFL to boot.
Others to watch: Jabari Blash, OF, Mariners; Anthony Carter, RHP, Red Sox; Steven Kohlscheen, RHP, Mariners; Carlos Perez, C, Astros; Tyler Ybarra, LHP, Blue Jays