The ongoing labor dispute between Major League Baseball and the players association has taken much of the fun out of this year’s offseason, as player movement has ground to a halt since the lockout started. One of the casualties was the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft, which was scheduled to take place on the last day of the annual Winter Meetings on Dec. 9 but was postponed indefinitely.
According to Baseball America, the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft had taken place every year, without interruption, since 1920. Even previous work stoppages failed to torpedo the draft, so that might be a clue that a draft will eventually take place in 2022.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were active in the Rule 5 draft, plucking pitcher Jose Soriano from the Los Angeles Angels’ organization and trading for fellow hurdler Luis Oviedo, whom the New York Mets had selected from the then Cleveland Indians with the 10th overall pick.
The Soriano selection did not work out well, as the hard-throwing right-hander, who was coming off Tommy John surgery, suffered a serious setback and had to undergo a second elbow procedure. The Pirates eventually DFA’d Soriano, and he wound up back in the Angels organization in the fall.
Oviedo had to remain on the Pirates’ big league roster all of 2021, as per the Rule 5, er, rules, and the right-hander made it through the season in one piece, although his numbers were abysmal. In 22 appearances – all but one in relief – Oviedo surrendered 33 hits and 29 earned runs in 29 2/3 innings for an 8.80 ERA and a WHIP of 1.99. He walked 26 batters and struck out 31. It could have been worse except for the fact that he missed six weeks in the heart of the season with a quad strain.
However, now the Pirates are free to place the 6-foot-4, 260-pounder wherever they’d like in terms of a Minor League assignment, so overall I’d say the decision to bring Oviedo aboard in what was a lost season anyway was hardly a mistake.
That brings us to this year’s (or is it next year’s?) Rule 5 draft. The adage that you can never have enough pitching might be the Pirates’ guiding light again this time around, but given the roster makeup, I wouldn’t mind seeing them taking a stab at a different position. And since the club’s outfield could use a hand, perhaps it would make sense to zero in on that area.
Several publications ranked some of the top potential Rule 5 targets before the draft was postponed, and one name that popped up more than once was Cleveland Guardians outfielder Oscar Gonzalez.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-handed hitter, who turns 24 on Jan. 10, had a solid 2021 campaign as he split time between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. Between the two stops, Gonzalez belted 31 home runs, drove in 83, hit for a .293 average and had an .871 OPS. He struck out a lot – 112 times – but even worse is that he walked just 22 times in 504 plate appearances.
That walk rate was not an anomaly; in 2018 Gonzalez walked just 12 times in 480 plate appearances in the Class A Midwest League and the following year he took just 15 free passes in 502 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A.
Other possible targets exist. Ryan Noda, a left-handed hitter in the Los Angeles Dodgers system who can play the outfield as well as first base, is the antithesis of Gonzalez, as he boasts an 18.1% walk rate for his Minor League career including a 15.6% rate at Double-A in 2021. Noda, who turns 26 at the end of March, also has put together on-base percentages of .507, .421, .372 and .383 in his four Minor League seasons. Last year at Double-A Tulsa, Noda hit a career-high 29 home runs and drove in 78 to go with a .904 OPS.
If you’d rather opt for someone with more versatility, perhaps Samad Taylor of the Toronto Blue Jays organization would fit the bill. The 5-foot-10, 160-pound right-handed hitter, who turns 24 in mid-July, has played second, short, third, center field and left field during his Minor League career and is ranked as Toronto’s No. 17 prospect by MLB Pipeline. Pirates GM Ben Cherington must be familiar with Taylor; he was working in the Blue Jays’ organization when the club acquired Taylor from Cleveland at the 2017 trade deadline as part of a deal that sent reliever Joe Smith to the Indians. Speed is Taylor’s primary weapon – he swiped 30 bags at Double-A New Hampshire in 2021— but he showed a solid 11.2% walk rate and a .385 on-base percentage. In addition, his power stroke emerged, as he cracked 16 home runs in 374 plate appearances and hit .294 with an .888 OPS.
Could any of those three – or others – contribute to the Pirates’ Major League team in 2022? Perhaps none of them are ready at this point, but given the state of the big league outfield, where Bryan Reynolds is the only true standout and Ben Gamel is only slightly above average, I wouldn’t mind seeing the club take a flyer on one of them. I’ve seen enough of Anthony Alford, and I’d rather let Travis Swaggerty get a full year – or at least half a season – at Triple-A Indianapolis after missing virtually all of the previous two seasons.
Greg Allen, whom the Bucs claimed off waivers from the New York Yankees, could be a nice find and appears to possess some of the same skills that Taylor has – and already had displayed them at a higher level of competition. For that reason, perhaps it would make sense to go in a different direction – power – and choose someone like Gonzalez. But given all of the Rule 5 prospects’ skill sets, I like Taylor’s speed and versatility best, and perhaps he’s just now coming into his own from a power standpoint.