The Rule 5 Draft rarely produces an everyday impactful player for a club, and that’s even more true for the Minor League phase. But that doesn’t mean storylines don’t abound, nor is hope lost for a Major League contributor.
For instance, take the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft in 2020: The Pirates held the first pick in the Draft, and with it, they selected right-hander Shea Spitzbarth. The next season, Spitzbarth was Triple-A Indianapolis’ Pitcher of the Year and he appeared in five MLB games with a 3.60 ERA.
This year, the Pirates took two upside relievers and the son of a World Series hero, as well as lost a former second-round MLB Draft pick and a lower-level power hitter.
Here’s a look at who the Pirates gained and lost in this year’s Minor League Rule 5 Draft.
Round 1: LHP Zach Matson (from the Rockies)
Upside: Matson struck out 57 batters in 33 innings – good for a 15.55 K/9 rate – at Double-A Hartford. This swing-and-miss prowess is not a one-year thing; in 2019, the former 24th-round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft struck out 98 batters in 67 2/3 innings across Low-A and High-A.
Concern: Run prevention has gotten worse since Matson dominated in 2018 (1.78 ERA in 25 1/3 innings). That reached a new level in 2021, when he allowed a career-worst .764 OPS to opposing batters en route to a 5.73 ERA.
Round 2: RHP Nic Laio (from the Rangers)
Upside: Similar to Matson, Laio has a good strikeout clip in the Minors. Over 102 innings since 2019, his first pro season, Laio has struck out 137 batters as he worked his way to High-A in ‘21. Plus, he doesn’t walk batters much (2.29 BB/9 for his career).
Concern: Once again, it’s run prevention -- particularly, home runs. Laio, a 20th-rounder in 2018, gave up 14 homers as part of 57 hits allowed in 56 1/3 innings last season. The contact sent the right-hander’s ERA to 5.43 in ‘21.
Round 3: INF Jacob Gonzalez (from the Giants)
Upside: Gonzalez has experience at both corner-infield spots and left field, which is a base of positional flexibility the Pirates value in prospects. He’s begun to lift the ball more, and at 6-foot-3, that could turn into more extra-base hits if he adds a bit more muscle. Gonzalez also has a strong baseball lineage as the son of former MLB star Luis Gonzalez, who won the World Series for the D-backs in 2001 with a flared walk-off single in Game 7.
Concern: Gonzalez, who doesn’t have great speed on the basepaths, really struggled in 27 games at High-A in 2021, his first time reaching that level. He hit .174 with four doubles and a home run after hitting well in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
Round 1: RHP Steven Jennings (to the Yankees)
Upside: A Day 1 pick in the 2017 Draft, Jennings was touted as one of the best prospects in terms of commanding the baseball in that class. Though it wasn’t quite true early on, his 2.81 K/BB ratio despite a sub-9 K/9 ratio spoke to that coming into form.
Concern: The right-hander has recorded a 4-plus ERA in every season of his four years in Minor League action. It got worse as he approached Double-A, where he had a 6.67 ERA in 13 relief appearances. Once a former Top 30 Prospect for the Pirates, he didn’t crack the list in 2021.
Round 3: OF Jonah Davis (to the Cardinals)
Upside: Davis, a 15th-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, has produced an ISO (slugging percentage minus batting average) in excess of .200 in each of his three seasons in the Minors, fueled by 46 homers in 833 at-bats. His approach allowed him to walk at a good clip, including 45 in 92 games across High-A and Double-A last year.
Concern: Davis struck out 153 times in 92 games in 2021, and his batting average dropped to .205. While average may be less valuable an indicator to sluggers like Davis than it is to other pure hitters, most of his contact for outs came on the ground after routinely hitting the ball in the air in ‘19. Strikeouts plus a high dose of ground balls is a shaky formula.