Pittsburgh Pirates: Early Look at Potential Rule 5 Draft Decisions

Here's an early look at some potential Rule 5 Draft decisions the Pirates may have to make
Dec 7, 2022; San Diego, CA, USA; A general view during the MLB Rule 5 Draft at the 2022 MLB Winter
Dec 7, 2022; San Diego, CA, USA; A general view during the MLB Rule 5 Draft at the 2022 MLB Winter / Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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Noteworthy players who could go unprotected

There are a couple of noteworthy players I do see the Pirates leaving unprotected. One is outfielder/first baseman Matt Gorski. After an outstanding 2022, Gorski has followed that up with a fairly disappointing 2023. In 319 plate appearances, the slugger is batting .240/.296/.434 with a .323 wOBA and 95 wRC+. He’s still hitting for solid power with 14 home runs and a .196 ISO, but his walk rate has dropped significantly to just 6.3% while his 25.7% strikeout rate is an improvement, but still below average. Gorski already got passed up once in the Rule 5 Draft, and that was after a strong season, so the Pirates might see if they can pull it off a second time. Given that Gorski is coming off such a disappointing season, it’s likely they could.

Abrahan Gutierrez is another significant prospect I see the Pirates risking in the Rule 5 Draft. Gutierrez got off to a decent start to the 2023 campaign, posting a .762 OPS, .354 wOBA, and 113 wRC+ for Greensboro. This, along with a hot streak, led to a promotion to Double-A, where he’s only hit .681 OPS, .319 wOBA, and 92 wRC+.

Gutierrez has suffered from some bad batted-ball luck with a BAbip of just .237, the 22nd lowest of any Double-A hitter with at least 130 plate appearances. Considering that he’s struck out just 11.9% of the time with an identical walk rate, and a relatively minor change in batted ball rates, Gutierrez should rebound, but given the Pirates already have so many catching-eligible players, one would think Gutierrez would have to go on a blazing hot stretch to really put himself into contention for a 40-man roster spot.

Mason Martin is another name who will have a difficult time finding his way onto the 40-man roster. Martin fully embraced the three-true outcomes and became a fly ball or nothing kind of batter. It did lead to a healthy .212/.374/.460 triple-slash, .379 wOBA, 132 wRC+, and an 18.9% walk rate. But his 35.7% strikeout rate was the highest of his career. Because of Martin’s resurgence at Altoona, he earned the bump back to Triple-A Indy, where he’s struggled thus far. But it’s only been 32 plate appearances and eight games. In the event that Martin is left off the 40-man, I doubt he will get drafted. First basemen seldom get selected, and one like Martin, who has such a major flaw, will likely get passed up again.

The Pirates do have some interesting pitchers they will likely exclude on their 40-man roster. One is J.C. Flowers. Flowers had a pretty solid 2022 season, including a red-hot summer. But his 2023 season has been horrible. He’s pitched 31.2 frames, working to an 8.81 ERA, 6.70 FIP, and 2.24 WHIP. While a .409 batting average on balls in play hasn’t done him any favors, it’s not as if he’s just getting unlucky. Flowers has walked 18.2% of opponents faced, a near 10% uptick from last year, while his HR/9 has skyrocketed to 1.71, nearly one whole home run on average compared to last season. Flowers does have an impressive slider and a lot of athleticism, though if he were to get selected, he probably already would have been last season.

Another is Tahnaj Thomas. Like Flowers, Thomas had a strong 2022 but has had a rough 2023 season. In 30.2 innings, Thomas owns a 4.99 ERA, 5.71 FIP, and 1.57 WHIP. Thomas has an outstanding 51.8% ground ball rate and HR/9 of just 0.59. But he’s walked more batters than he’s struck out, with a 19.7% walk rate and an equally horrid 14.4% strikeout rate. There’s about a 10% change in both stats from last year, just in the wrong direction. It’s an unfortunate series of events after it looked like Thomas may have found his niche after fully transitioning to a bullpen role last season.

At least to me, I digress it’s a little surprising that both Flowers and Thomas were passed up in last year’s Rule 5 Draft. Sure, neither are super high-ranking prospects, but you’re still talking about two guys who throw relatively decent stuff. Even though they have some command issues, they seem like the proto-typical Rule 5 pitchers. The only thing a team is risking is $100,000, which is pocket change and something even the Oakland Athletics can afford.

A third is Travis MacGregor. MacGregor once looked like a highly promising starting pitcher in the late-2010s. A former second-round high school pick, MacGregor missed a good chunk of 2018, as well as 2019, due to Tommy John surgery. He’s returned after 2020, though the numbers have been sporadic.

MacGregor started the year at Altoona for a third season in a row but pitched to a pristine 1.83 ERA, 2.91 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP. While he had a 9.3% walk rate, he also struck out 32.1% of opponents with a quality 0.79 HR/9. This led to a promotion to Triple-A, where things haven’t gone as well. He has still done okay with a 3.55 ERA and 3.92 FIP, plus a .405 BABIP has held him back. His BB% has gone down to 8.3%, and his HR/9 has also dipped slightly to 0.36. But his strikeout rate has also taken a massive downturn to just 18.3%.

The rest of the prospects the Pirates will leave unprotected won’t hurt the franchise long-term if they are lost. I doubt the Pirates will sweat the loss of Aaron Shackelford, Eddy Yean, Carter Bins, Matt Fraizer, or Aaron Shortidge in the very unlikely chance they are taken. As the current roster is constructed, I only see Ashcraft and Nuñez being the newest additions, and that’s making the bold assumption that neither of them is added to the 40-man before the end of the 2023 regular season.

Gutierrez is the only prospect they might leave unprotected and would be a pain to lose.

However, they already snuck him through the Rule 5 DRaft once, and if they have significant concern that he will be selected and they don’t plan on protecting him, they’ll probably trade him rather than leave him open for the taking for only $100,000.

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