Last week, we looked at how the Pittsburgh Pirates should approach the Rule 5 Draft. They also have a handful of players who will be eligible for the draft.
The Rule 5 Draft will be here before you know it. The Pittsburgh Pirates, like any team, will have to face some decisions on who to protect and who to leave eligible to be selected for the draft. Any player that was signed when they were 18 and have at least five professional seasons under their belt, or any player that was signed when they were 19 and have at least four professional seasons under their belt, and not on the 40-man roster are eligible to be selected.
There are a few players in their high minors that will probably go unprotected. One is catcher Christian Kelley. An 11th round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, Kelley has shown he can handle the position defensively, but hasn’t even been a decent bat for a catcher.
Last year at Triple-A, Kelley posted a .179/.251/.282 line and 35 wRC+. Kelley had posted ok numbers for a backstop in 2017 and 2018 at Bradenton and Altoona, but given the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t need him with Luke Maile on the roster, and the fact they could sign more experienced depth through free agency like they did with John Ryan Murphy last off-season, they don’t have any incentive to make a 40-man roster spot for Kelley.
Another light hitting catcher who’s made it to Triple-A is Arden Pabst. Pabst was selected by the Bucs in the 16th round of the 2016 draft, and has shown some flashes of potential, but like Kelley, likely isn’t going to find a 40-man spot. In 2018, Pabst hit .264/.306/.472 with 10 home runs and 14 doubles through 250 plate appearances across High-A, Double-A and Triple-A ball. Last year at Double-A, Pabst hit .192/.232/.308 with a 52 wRC+ through 270 plate appearances.
While Pabst and Kelley aren’t likely to get a 40-man spot, one player that could make an interesting case is utility man Hunter Owen. Owen was a 25th round pick in 2016, and so far, hasn’t really struggled too much at any level he’s played at.
Last year, Owen got his year off hitting .295/.369/.565 with 15 home runs and a 172 wRC+ through 268 plate appearances. Although he posted a 63 wRC+ when he advanced to Triple-A, it was in a small 138 plate appearance sample size. Owen has shown a good amount of pop in his bat at almost every level he’s played at, having a .200+ isolated slugging at Bradenton, West Virginia and Altoona. Owen has experience at third base, first base, both corner outfield spots, and even caught 25 innings at Bradenton in 2018. Given his versatility, and pop, Owen could make an interesting case to be put on the 40-man.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have two pitchers in the high-minors that could also find themselves fighting for a 40-man spot. One is right-hander Matt Eckelman. Eckelman has played essentially every role for the Pirates throughout his minor league career. He’s closed out games, he’s started games and he’s served as a long relief man.
In 2019, Eckelman pitched 48.2 innings, started one of the 45 games he appeared in, and also saved 23. Eckelman did have a solid 3.33 ERA and 3.66 FIP. He’s also allowed just three home runs. But he’s continuously struggled with walks. His 12.2% walk rate follows a season where he had a 14% walk rate. He also doesn’t strikeout too many batters to offset his walks either having a sub-25% strikeout rate in both cases.
The other pitcher is Cam Vieaux. Yet another 2016 draft pick, Vieaux split the 139 innings he pitched between Double-A and Triple-A. Vieaux did have a solid 3.50 ERA, but he put up a 4.77 FIP and an xFIP above 5 at Triple-A. He did do much better at Double-A with a 3.86 FIP and 4.16 xFIP, but Vieaux has struggled with the long ball as he surrendered a total of 21 between Double-A and Triple-A. Though he isn’t the wildest thrower with a 9.9% walk rate, he also doesn’t strikeout too many either as he put up a 20.6% strikeout rate.
One of the more interesting cases is relief pitcher Samuel Reyes. The 24-year-old put up strong numbers between Greenboro and Bradenton. Pitching a total of 70 innings in 35 games and three starts. Reyes posted a 2.29 ERA, 2.89 FIP and 1.06 WHIP. Reyes struck out 73 batters, while only allowing 23 base on balls. He was great at keeping the ball in the yard with just four home runs.
The Bucs have three prospects on their top 40 list that are also currently Rule 5 Draft eligible. Out of the three, Santiago Florez is the most notable. Florez currently ranks as the team’s 19th best prospect, as he’s flashed some really good potential. Despite the potential, he’s yet to put together a good season.
In 41.2 innings at Rookie-Ball, Florez had a decent 3.46 ERA and 1.34, but 5.10 FIP and 4.86 xFIP. Florez has really struggled with walks so far in his young career. The right-hander’s career walk rate is 13.3%. That also hasn’t been helped by the fact his strikeout rate is just 16.4%. Florez has been able to suppress home runs though, surrendering only six through 138.1 innings of work. However, Florez has potential in the fact his fastball has 2400 RPM, and his curveball has been clocked with 2800 RPM. Though Florez might be a higher touted prospect, the Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t likely to protect him. He is only 20 and Rookie-Ball is the highest level he’s played at so far. He probably won’t be selected given his age, and the fact he hasn’t even reached Single-A yet.
The next best prospect who is Rule 5 Draft eligible is outfielder Lolo Sanchez. Sanchez is ranked as the team’s 32nd best prospect. Sanchez’s best tool is his speed which has a 60 grade. He’s stolen 30 or more bases in two straight consecutive seasons as well. Sanchez is a well regarded defender with a future fielding grade of 55 and arm grade of 55 as well.
With a career .342 on base percentage, Sanchez gets on base enough to show what he can do with that speed. Last year he played with Low-A Greensboro and High-A Bradenton. Though he hit well at Greensboro (142 wRC+, .829 OPS), he did struggle at Bradenton (77 wRC+, .570 OPS). But I should note, he only had 195 plate appearances at High-A compared to 263 at Low-A. Though the Pittsburgh Pirates might kick the tires in saving a 40-man for Sanchez, the likelihood he gets picked by another team isn’t super high.
Last but not least, relief pitching prospect Yerry De Los Santos is the third top prospect that is Rule 5 Draft eligible. Santos did really well in his first full year as a relief pitcher, pitching to the tune of a 1.44 ERA, 2.37 FIP and 0.88 WHIP through 50 innings at Low-A Greenboro. He struck out an impressive number of batters, getting 38% of the 192 he faced down on strike-three. He also only allowed a dozen to reach via free pass, and surrendered just three home runs thanks in large part because of his 55.4% ground ball rate. This helped him post an outstanding 2.08 xFIP. His outstanding numbers at Low-A might make him standout, but like with the other names, this was the first time he ever played beyond rookie ball. However, I’d prioritize him over either Florez and Sanchez if they do decide to look into protecting him.