Royals Roster Decisions: Rule 5 Draft-Eligible Players


Photo Courtesy of Minda Haas

The MLB Rule 5 Draft will take place during the Winter Meetings next month, but the deadline for teams to add Rule 5 Draft-eligible players to their 40-man roster is now just hours away. If you’re not familiar with the Rule 5 Draft, this link should hopefully answer your questions. If you don’t like clicking links, here’s a quick synopsis:

Players who were signed at the age of 19 or older, and who have played 4 professional seasons, are eligible to be drafted by another team if that player is not on a 40-man roster. Players who signed at 18 or younger must have played 5 professional seasons in order to be draft-eligible. If a team selects a player in the Rule 5 Draft, that player must remain on the drafting team’s 25-man roster for the entirety of the next season, or he will be returned to his original team or waived.

There are other details involved, but that’s the general idea.

Teams have to make difficult decisions for several players. Do they think he is at risk of being selected? Do they think he would be able to stick on another team’s 25-man roster for an entire season? Do they think the player is worth protecting, or in other words, do they think he’s going to be a good major leaguer someday?

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It can be a tricky process for teams with very deep farm systems, and even though the Royals’ minor league talent has thinned in the last few years, there are still a few players that are eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft, and who may need to be protected to make sure the Royals don’t lose that player to another organization. Here are a handful of those players, along with a quick report on their individual profiles.

Brett Eibner  – The 25-year old outfielder was drafted in 2010, and despite flashes of potential, he’s mostly struggled, largely due to an abundance of injuries. When healthy, he’s been adequate, though not outstanding, with a .730 OPS. Eibner strikes out a lot, but he also draws a lot of walks, which helps his on-base percentage look respectable even with a low batting average.

Defensively, Eibner projects as an average or above average centerfielder, although a lack of elite speed may push him to a corner, where his arm will be more than sufficient. A team could use Eibner as a reserve outfielder and hope that his bat comes along, although a rough 2014 may have hurt his stock.

Brian Fletcher – Much like Eibner, Fletcher has struggled to stay on the field at times due to numerous injuries that have plagued him for the last few years. He doesn’t have great plate discipline, but Fletcher does bring some decent pop with his bat, shown by 24 home runs in his last 564 plate appearances. However, he does not project as even an average defender, and he won’t steal many bases, so Fletcher’s only value is at the plate.

Whit Merrifield – The nearly-26-year old utility man had a mostly nondescript professional career from 2010-2013, but an incredibly productive 2014 may put him at risk to be selected by another team next month. Merrifield hit .319/.371/.470 in 535 plate appearances for Northwest Arkansas and Omaha last year, which included 53 extra-base hits. He also has some speed on the basepaths and is capable of playing decent defense at various positions on the field.

Earlier this year, Royals officials used the term “organizational guy” when referring to Merrifield, but they may have changed that opinion by now. While he’s not likely to duplicate his offense from 2014, he does have some skills other teams could value.

Scott Alexander – He struggled in his first Triple-A season, allowing an ERA of 6.16 in 19 innings and walking 4.7 batters per 9 innings. But, Alexander only received a promotion after posting a 3.88 ERA in 48.2 innings for Northwest Arkansas. His peripherals still weren’t great, but in 2013, Alexander struck out over a batter per inning, and as a lefty who can top 90 MPH with his fastball, there may be some teams who try to stash him in their bullpen next season.

Buddy Baumann – As the unofficial President of the Buddy Baumann Fan Club, I must include him in this analysis. As I’ve said before, I love watching Baumann pitch, and I think he could provide value as a LOOGY in a big-league bullpen somewhere, despite possessing stuff well below an elite level. Baumann’s strikeouts fell precipitously in 2014, but he also threw more innings (90.1) than he had since 2010.

The Storm Chasers used Baumann as a starter at times, although he typically only lasted 4 innings. Had he faced more left-handed batters, in a relief role, it’s conceivable that his overall numbers would have been much better. In 383.2 career innings, Baumann has struck out 393 batters. Lefties had a .634 OPS against him in 2014, which followed up a .540 OPS allowed in 2013. If given the chance, I really think Baumann could thrive in that specific role.

Andy Ferguson – A 26-year old righty, Ferguson has quietly put together a very solid professional career. In 388.2 innings, he has a 3.68 ERA, along with 7.6 strikeouts per 9 innings and 2.7 walks per 9. His fastball sits in the low 90s, and he likely won’t wow anyone with his secondary offerings, but a 3.16 ERA in 159.2 innings in 2014, while pitching in hitter-friendly leagues and ballparks, may have caught the attention of other teams.

Jorge Bonifacio – At only 21 years old, Bonifacio is one of the younger players eligible to be taken in the Rule 5, but because he signed so young, he’s already got 5 professional seasons under his belt. He has a .272/.339/.404 career line in 1,928 plate appearances, although he’s coming off a disappointing 2014 campaign in which he hit just .230/.302/.309. However, as a borderline top 100 prospect, teams could take a gamble on Bonifacio’s upside, hoping they can essentially steal him from the Royals for nothing.

He doesn’t have a ton of speed, but Bonifacio could play a solid right field, and he can draw a walk. Being so young, and so talented, Bonifacio seems like an attractive target for other teams.

Ali Williams – Drafted in the 34th round of the 2011 draft, the odds were against Williams, but his assignment to the Arizona Fall League should have been an indication that the Royals think they may have something here. He’s a big-time strikeout pitcher, with 10.4 strikeouts per 9 innings in his minor league career. He was even better in 2014, striking out 11.7 batters per 9, and even though his walk rate is higher than you’d like to see, gaudy strikeout numbers can help mitigate that problem.

Williams carried that regular season dominance into the AFL, where he struck out 17 batters in just 12.2 innings of work, while allowing just 2 earned runs on 6 hits. He’s yet to appear above the Double-A level, but Williams is the kind of guy teams love to take in the Rule 5 Draft, because missing bats is such a great skill to have.

There may be a few other names under consideration, including Orlando Calixte, Michael Antonio, and Brooks Pounders, but the above seem like the most logical choices for the Royals’ front office to sort through. After adding Paulo Orlando to the roster a couple of weeks ago, they have 5 extra spots on the 40-man roster.

They don’t necessarily have to use all 40 right now, but if they do, it doesn’t mean they’re locked into that roster. The non-tender deadline, trades, and free agency will force them to continue moving players around as needed.

Today’s deadline is only to add those draft-eligible players who the Royals feel are at risk of being selected, and who the Royals feel are worth handing a roster spot and starting their service clock. I think there are a few ways the organization could handle this deadline, but if I had a say, I would suggest they add Bonifacio, Merrifield, Baumann, and Williams to their roster before the deadline. If they feel the need to fill the roster completely, Alexander and Eibner would probably be the next ones on the list.

I think Bonifacio, Williams, and Merrifield are the most likely to be selected if they are left unprotected, and as for Baumann, even middle relievers are now receiving eight-figure contracts in free agency, so teams may want to try and use more internal options for those roles. All three players – particularly Merrifield and Baumann – could provide value to the Royals in 2015, so adding them to the roster would make a lot of sense. Bonifacio’s poor showing this year may shy some teams away, but it’s not worth the risk of leaving him unprotected. While it’s possible the other 29 teams consider selecting the other players listed above, the Royals may not feel the need to protect them at this juncture.