The Pittsburgh Pirates need to protect multiple noteworthy prospects, but could they forgo selecting a player from the Rule 5 draft altogether?
The Rule 5 draft is a chance for teams to find a diamond in the rough. You will never see a consensus top 100 prospect or anything of the sort as part of the draft, but older minor leaguers who have played a season or two with a Double-A or Triple-A affiliate or younger players who have yet to play above High-A. There is almost no risk in selecting a player, given that the selecting team only has to pay 100K to the team they picked a player from. With the Pittsburgh Pirates needing to open as many roster spots as possible right now, could they forgo a Rule 5 pick altogether?
It is common for a team not to select a player from the draft. In the 2020-2021 Rule 5 Draft, only 18 total teams selected a player. You have to go back to 2008 to see the last time at least 20 teams selected a player, and never have all 30 teams partook in a single year’s draft at once (aside from the minor league phase). The Pittsburgh Pirates themselves did not pick a player in 2015, 2018, or 2019.
Finding a decent player in the Rule 5 Draft is also quite rare. You have success stories like Dan Uggla and Garrett Whitlock, however those are few and far between. In the last ten major league portions of the Rule 5 draft, less than five players have put up at least 5.0 bWAR for the team they were selected from. It’s a complete shot in the dark when you select a guy from the Rule 5 draft, and most of the time teams are missing. Finding a bench or platoon batter or solid low-leverage reliever are hard tasks, let alone trying to find a guy who you could potentially build around.
The Pirates need as many roster spots as they can get, and if you do not have an open roster spot, you will not be eligible to pick a player from the draft. The Pirates have some easy calls like Endy Rodriguez, Malcom Nuñez, and Mike Burrows, but they have plenty of other notable names worth prioritizing, like Matt Gorski, Blake Sabol, Jared Triolo, J.C. Flowers, Tahnaj Thomas, and Dariel Lopez. Not to mention they’ll need to open up spaces for 60-day injured list players like Yerry De Los Santos, Colin Holderman, Blake Cederlind, Max Kranick, and Canaan Smith-Njigba.
Of course, that’s not to say the Pirates can’t make room on the 40-man roster. They have about a dozen DFA candidates like Peter Solomon, Nick Mears, Yohan Ramirez, Junior Fernandez, Jeremy Beasley, Eric Stout, Zack Collins, Ali Sanchez, and Beau Sulser are far from guaranteed roster spots. Duane Underwood Jr. is a prime non-tender candidate, and Kevin Newman is a potential trade candidate. If the Pirates absolutely have to make room on the roster, they could DFA any of Blake Cederlind, Hoy Park, or Tyler Heineman or trade Chase De Jong. The final four are likely safe, but they could be on the chopping block if desperate times call for desperate measures.
But to play Devil’s advocate, with how few teams select players and how little prospects from the Rule 5 draft pan out, the Pirates may only need to protect the top-priority prospects. A lot of the time teams will return the player they selected from the draft. They wouldn’t be the only team leaving prospects unprotected from the Rule 5 draft. There are 29 other teams who also have to make some tough calls. The chances that a team selects a noteworthy prospect from the Pirates is low already, and the chances they keep them on their roster all year is even lower.
But still, I personally would rather see the Pittsburgh Pirates protect as many prospects as possible and surrender their place in the Rule 5 Draft than to leave a roster spot open and lose a guy who could be impactful in the near future to take a chance on finding a diamond in the rough. The Pirates already have a ton of prospects deserving of a 40-man roster spot, and it could absolutely mean they will not have a Rule 5 selection this year.