Let's take a look at the best players the Pittsburgh Pirates have both gained and lost through the modern Rule 5 Draft
The Rule 5 Draft is always an interesting time of the Winter Meetings. Players who aren’t part of their team’s 40-man roster and have either four years of minor league service time (if signed at an age older than 18), or five years of service time (if signed at 18 or younger), are eligible to be selected by any team who has an open 26 and 40-man roster spot.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, like all teams, are a team that has gotten some good diamonds in the rough but has also lost a few prospects in the way of this draft, and today, I want to look at the most notable players the Pirates have ever gained or lost through the draft. Note that we are only looking at the modern incarnation of the Rule 5 draft. Technically speaking, Roberto Clemente is the greatest Rule 5 Draft pick of all time, but the rules when Clemente was selected were significantly different than they are now, and farm systems are also run in a much different way compared to when the Pirates took Clemente out of the Dodgers’ hands.
There are two names that you could give the title of Pirates best modern Rule 5 pick to. The first is Evan Meek. Meek was acquired in the 2007-2008 Rule 5 Draft, but it would take a few seasons for Meek to break out. But 2010 would mark the peak of his career, as he pitched to a 2.70 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 1.05 WHIP in 80 innings as the Pirates’ set-up man. While he had a 21.6% strikeout rate and 9.6% walk rate, he also had a quality 0.56 HR/9 rate.
Meek made the All-Star Game, making him the one and only Pirates Rule 5 draftee to be elected to a Mid-Summer Classic thus far. But this was the very best Meek would give the Pirates. Over the next two seasons, Meek would only pitch 32.2 innings with a 4.68 ERA, 4.06 FIP, and 1.81 WHIP.
Unfortunately for Meek, he’ll probably not be remembered for anything that he himself did in his career. The very last pitch Meek threw in the big leagues was on September 25th, 2014 in Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter’s last home game. Meek’s very last major league outing ended with Jeter sending a liner into right field, walking off the game, and capping off the final highlight of his illustrious career. Someone has to be on the receiving end of historic hits, and this time around, it just happened to be Meek.
Scott Sauerbeck is a close second, if not the Pirates’ best. Sauerbeck was the sixth pick in the 1998 Rule 5 Draft. The lefty pitched 308.2 innings with the PIrates in parts of five different seasons, working to a 3.59 ERA (127 ERA+), 3.91 FIP, and 1.49 WHIP. Sauerbeck had a strong 23.7% strikeout rate with an 0.67 HR/9. But walks were a massive issue as he posted a 14.2% walk rate.
Sauerbeck’s best season with the Pirates was in 2002 when he pitched 62.2 innings, and worked to a strong 2.30 ERA, 2.90 FIP, and 1.23 WHIP. While Sauerbeck had an outstanding 0.57 HR/9 rate and 27.5% strikeout rate, he handed out walks to 10.6% of opponents. Granted, this was one of his lower career rates.
There is both a major league and minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft, and the best player to come from the minor league phase was arguably from this past year. That’s outfielder Josh Palacios. Palacios ended his 2023 season as a member of the Pirate bench. Overall, he hit .239/.276/.413 with a .297 wOBA, and 83 wRC+. But Palacios did go yard ten times in only 264 plate appearances and had a .174 isolated slugging percentage. Defensively, he graded out around average with zero defensive runs saved, -1 out above average, and +3 UZR/150.
But Palacios had an uncanny ability to come through in the clutch. The outfielder had 45 plate appearances in late and close games. He had 13 hits, including eight extra base hits (four homers and doubles), while also drawing six walks. It’s not hyperbole to say he was Barry Bonds in late game situations. He had a 1.217 OPS in late/close games, which is just a touch below Barry Bonds’ 2003 OPS. In 24 plate appearances as a pinch hitter, Palacios had eight hits, two homers, a double, and two more walks. Because of his ability to come off the bench and become one of the Pirates’ best late-game hitters, he’s almost all but guaranteed himself the 4th outfield role to open 2024.
The Pirates haven’t really lost any minor leaguer who went on to become a great major league player, at least not yet. The closest is first baseman Chris Shelton. Taken by the Detroit Tigers with the first pick of the 2003 R5 draft, Shelton gave the Tigers two very solid seasons in 2005-2006. Between the two seasons, he batted .286/.350/.489 with a .361 wOBA, and 120 wRC+. He also gave some value with the glove with +2 defensive runs saved and a +3.0 UZR/150.
But Shelton’s career was short-lived. The first baseman struggled in the second half of 2006 and was even optioned to the minor leagues at one point. Shelton did not appear in the Majors during 2007 and was traded to the Texas Rangers the following off-season for Freddy Guzman. Shelton would only play 50 games over 2008-2009 with the Rangers and Seattle Mariners but never could recapture his form, as he had just a 76 wRC+ through his last 145 plate appearances.
There is one player the Pirates lost recently they probably wish they could have had a do-over with. That’s catcher/left fielder Blake Sabol. Sabol had a strong 2022 campaign at Altoona and Indianapolis, but because Henry Davis and Endy Rodriguez also had quality seasons, it was difficult for the Pirates to have five catchers on the 40-man roster.
Sabol was taken fourth overall by the Cincinnati Reds but was soon traded to the San Francisco Giants. Sabol batted .235/.301/.394 with 13 homers and 92 wRC+. He struck out in 34% of his plate appearances with an unimpressive 7% walk rate. Sabol graded out as about a league average defensive left fielder with only -1 out above average and zero defensive runs saved. Catching wise, he was slightly above average in framing with +.06 framing runs but allowed six passed balls in just under 400 innings, and was worth -7 defensive runs saved.
Even though Sabol’s rookie season wasn’t great, there were definitely times he showed promise at the Major League level. He hit well in the first half of the season and was decent against right-handed pitching. Even if he wasn’t an All-Star or anything of the sort last season, the Pirates probably still wish he was an option for their future. At the very least, they probably wished they were able to trade him for something. But time will tell if this one becomes truly regrettable.
There aren’t too many players the Pirates took, but returned and later wished they hadn’t. The only one I can think of is Jose Soriano. Soriano was the number one pick in the 2020-2021 Rule 5 Draft. Soriano was taken from the Los Angeles Angels as a hard-throwing righty. But Soriano barely pitched for the Pirates, as he only appeared in a few minor league games on rehab from Tommy John surgery. However, Soriano would have to undergo the same procedure again.
Because of that, the Pirates decided to return him to the Angels. This past season, Soriano pitched 42 innings out of the Halos’ bullpen, working to a respectable 3.64 ERA, 3.97 FIP, and 1.33 WHIP. Soriano had a 30.3% strikeout rate as well as a 0.86 HR/9. But he struggled with limiting the free pass with a 12.4% walk rate.
I don’t blame the Pirates for giving Soriano back to LA. It took nearly four seasons from 2020 to this past season for Soriano to log any meaningful innings. But in the same vein, I also don’t understand why the Pirates felt the need to return Soriano either. There was nothing stopping them from letting him sit on the 60-day IL until he was ready to return. I guess they felt his 40-man roster spot was more valuable than letting him rehab and try to return.
Hopefully, we see the Pirates find another diamond in the rough in the upcoming off-season and Rule 5 Draft. The Rule 5 Draft is always a shot in the dark, so only time will tell. But the Pirates’ Rule 5 Draft last season looks like it could be fairly fruitful, so maybe they’ll catch lightning in a bottle twice.