KC Royals: Rule 5 delay increases MLB lockout anxiety

(Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images) /

Don’t look for the major league Rule 5 Draft in its customary December spot this week. Swept into the lockout’s whirlpool of uncertainty, it is postponed for now and not yet rescheduled, an unfortunate development that certainly ratchets up MLB lockout anxiety—the KC Royals have several prospects at Rule 5 risk, so not knowing when the draft might occur makes things worse.

But that it will occur after the lockout ends is a fairly safe assumption, especially considering all the moves clubs, including the Royals, made in anticipation of it. Most notable among Kansas City organization players subject to being claimed by other teams in the Rule 5 are pitcher Austin Cox and outfielder Seuly Matias, exposed because the Royals didn’t add them to the club’s 40-man roster before the Nov. 19 deadline to do so. Other prominent unprotected players include pitcher Zach Haake, infielder Gabriel Cancel, and outfielders Brewer Hicklen and Dairon Blanco.

Strange as it may seem, and despite the convincing case his .205 average over the last three seasons makes for his release, the Royals cloaked weak-hitting Ryan O’Hearn with the protection of a 40-man roster spot. Why they did is known only to them at this point; what is known, however, is that Cox, Matias, and the others left exposed now reckon with the uncertainty of when the lockout will end and where they’ll play next season.

Other teams may find it hard not to draft Austin Cox from the KC Royals.

The biggest gamble Kansas City took with its Rule 5 decisions is Cox, a good lefthanded starter the club included in its remarkable 2018 draft sweep of excellent pitching prospects. The Royals took Cox in the fifth round.

Now, they may well lose him. He’ll be difficult to resist—with one essentially irrelevant exception, he’s pitched well at every minor league level. Cox went 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 33.1 Rookie ball innings after signing in 2018, then 5-3 with a 2.75 ERA at Single-A Lexington and 3-3, 2.77 at High-A Wilmington in 2019.

Then, after spending the 2020 season with the rest of Kansas City’s 60-man Player Pool at its Alternate Training Site, Cox was 4-1, 3.00 with Double-A Northwest Arkansas this year before moving up to Triple-A Omaha and giving up 10 runs in five innings, too small a sample to seriously consider. Overall, he’s 13-8 with a 3.30 ERA, 3.22 BB/9, and 9.31 SO/9 in three seasons.

That MLB Pipeline ranks Cox Kansas City’s 12th best prospect reflects the talent Cox has. His good curveball adds to the mix.

The KC Royals are less likely to lose Seuly Matias in the Rule 5 draft.

That outfielder Seuly Matias has power is beyond dispute. It’s the attribute that most endears him to the Royals, and probably the primary reason he remains employed in light of his .218 career minor league average. His strong right arm contributes to what job security he has, but his power is the commodity the Royals like most.

And with good reason. Matias clubbed 31 home runs at Single-A Lexington three years ago, 17 between High-A Quad Cities and Double-A Northwest Arkansas this season, and eight in 46 Rookie ball games in in 2016. He also had seven in 57 Rookie level Appalachian League contests in 2017, and six in 22 appearances in this year’s Arizona Fall League.

But even that power didn’t convince Kansas City to shield Matias from the Rule 5, probably because he strikes out so much. His minor league strikeout rate is a glaring 36.27%. (Matias’ ability to get on base also needs work—his career OBP is .298). And despite his commendable power display in 2021 Fall League play, he managed only nine other hits in 80 at-bats (.188).

The Royals have left Matias unprotected before and apparently believe doing so again poses little risk. They’re probably right.

What about Zach Haake, Brewer Hicklen, Gabriel Cancel, and Dairon Blanco?

Kansas City could definitely lose starter Haake, Pipeline’s No. 29 KC prospect and another member of the club’s superb collection of 2018 draft picks. The Royals are probably higher on Haake than his 8-7 career minor league record might otherwise suggest, but his limited number of decisions is more a product of injuries (he spent over two months on the Injured List in 2021) than ineffectiveness, and he owns a nifty 2.84 three-season ERA.

Hicklen is also at risk. He’s a .283 hitter with a .368 OBP in four minor league seasons and hit 14 homers in 2019 and 16 in 2021, his first season at Double-A. Hicklen also has 90 stolen bases, including 40 this year and 39 in 2019.

Cancel, primarily a second baseman during his six seasons in the minors, has pop and speed other clubs might like. He hit 14 homers in Single-A in 2017, 18 at Double-A in 2019, and 14 at Omaha this year; he’s also managed double-digits in steals twice. Cancel’s .259 career isn’t a great selling point, however, and he hit only .238 at Omaha this season.

Blanco, picked up by Kansas City in the 2019 trade that sent Jake Diekman to the A’s, has a penchant for stealing bases sure to attract other clubs. He stole 41 between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha this year, 33 in at Double-A in 2019, and 22 with Oakland’s High-A club in 2018. He doesn’t have much power, but his .274 career average is certainly acceptable.

dark. Next. This former Royal hero is retiring

If there’s a Rule 5 draft this year, the Royals could lose some good prospects.