The KC Royals took an inexpensive chance on a minor league pitcher in the recent Rule 5 draft. Unlike so many other players, will Rule 5 be his path to big league success?
The Rule 5 Draft is major league baseball’s annual spare part marketplace, a combination surplus store and outlet center where teams like the KC Royals can pick over and sort through a variety of players deemed dispensable by other clubs and, occasionally, find a good and lasting bargain. More often than not, though, the purchased products fail to perform; some are returned to their original clubs, others discarded because those clubs refuse to take them back.
Known superstars aren’t stocked for the “Rule 5.” Instead, its inventory consists primarily of players who, if they’ve made it to the majors at all, haven’t proven to be true big-league caliber; unless their organizations place them on coveted 40-man rosters, players drafted out of college with four years of pro ball, and those drafted out of high school with five years in the pros, find themselves “unprotected” by those clubs, exposed to purchase for the comparatively measly sum of $100,000, a cheap price to pay for baseball talent.
But cheap goods often come with their own collateral cost. If the Royals, for example, draft a player from the Rule 5 pool, they must (with a limited Injury List exception) keep him on the 26-man roster for the entire season immediately following the draft but, if they don’t want to, the Rule requires them to place him on waivers. If he clears, his original club can buy him back for a cut-rate $50,000–if it doesn’t clear, the Royals can keep him and send him to the minors.
Typically, Rule 5 selections don’t make it and fade into baseball’s oblivion. Others, however, turn out to be true diamonds in the rough, such as Roberto Clemente, the Pirates’ Hall of Famer left infamously unprotected by Brooklyn in 1954. Of more recent vintage Rule 5 successes are Josh Hamilton, Shane Victorino, Hector Rondon, and Marwin Gonzalez, while the KC Royals found Joakim Soria and, most recently, Brad Keller in Rule 5.
So what of Stephen Woods Jr., the Royals selection two months ago in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft? It is most unlikely, of course, that he’ll become another Clemente-type pick, but he shouldn’t be immediately dismissed as just another run-of-the-mill inexpensive pickup by General Manager Dayton Moore.
The Royals’ choice of Woods could reasonably be called into question–in the minors, and even in college ball, he’s surrendered hits and walks at suspect rates. In 2014 with the University of Albany, he walked 33 in 30.1 innings (9.8 BB9) and had an alarming 2.275 WHIP, numbers commensurate with his 1-5 record. Although he lowered his ERA a full seven points the next season, he still gave up seven walks per nine innings and went 3-6.
His final Albany season was a mixed bag: his walk rate improved but remained troublesome at 5.7, his WHIP was 1.701, his ERA increased to 5.43, but he struck out over 12 batters per nine innings. He could dominate but, too frequently, couldn’t keep opponents off base.
Something about Woods appealed to the Giants, who picked him in the eighth round of the 2016 Amateur Draft (Tampa Bay selected him in 2013 but he chose college instead), and Woods showed promise in the professional career he began that summer. Although his 5.7 walk rate and 1.543 WHIP were too high, he had a combined 3.34 ERA across Rookie League and Low A, including a 2.67 in 27 Rookie innings, and struck out almost 10 per nine frames.
Woods continued to show potential in 2017. Despite still-troublesome numbers (1.42 WHIP and 5.2 BB9) in 110 A-ball innings, he posted a 9.2 SO9 and a 2.95 ERA; his six wins (against seven losses) were the second-best on a bad 55-80 Augusta club.
Unfortunately, a shoulder injury wiped out his 2018 season. But, unlike recent KC Royals roster additions Trevor Rosenthal, Chance Adams and Greg Holland, all of whom struggled sooner or later after time lost to surgery, Woods’ comeback 2019 season was his best so far. In 18 games (12 starts) and 86.1 innings at High A Charlotte, he went 9-3 with a glittering 1.88 ERA; he struck out over eight per nine innings, lowered his WHIP to 1.205 and walked 3.4 per nine frames, his lowest professional walk rate.
Woods, then, has talent and ability, commodities currently running too shallow among KC Royals’ pitchers. Unless a disastrous Spring Training causes the Royals to abandon him, Woods will at least start the season in Kansas City; whether he starts or relieves is the question. Although he’s more familiar with starting (45 of his 53 minor league games and 28 of 36 college outings were starts), the Royals believe his good curveball suits the bullpen well but, like Woods, think he can start.
And the timing is right for Woods. The Royals need a fifth starter and relief help. Under the circumstances–Rule 5’s restrictions on moving him, his recent improvement and the club’s obvious pitching needs–Woods will get an extended opportunity to prove himself.
Chances are slim that Stephen Woods Jr. will ever be the type of Rule 5 success Clemente was–there was, and will always be, just one Clemente. But he certainly has the chance to be a rare Rule 5 gem.