Cubs Discuss Rule Five Draft

What do the Cubs look for each December when it comes to scooping up talent in the Rule Five Draft, and what impact does the draft have on the farm system in the grand scheme of things?

Roughly 48 Cubs minor leaguers are exposed to the annual Rule Five Draft this season, which is scheduled for Thursday.

Most of the players eligible for the draft are classified to the Cubs' Triple-A reserve list, effectively shielding them from being drafted in the minor league phase of the draft, but not the major league phase. (The Rule Five Draft features a major league phase, a Triple-A phase and a Double-A phase.)

Players drafted in the major league phase of the draft will cost a team $50,000. In order to keep a drafted player, the team that drafts him is required to store that player on its 25-man roster throughout the entire season that follows or offer him back to his original club for $25,000.

Players classified to Double-A and Single-A rosters may be taken by opposing clubs for $4,000 and with no obligation to place that player at any level of play in the organization.

Over the years, the Cubs are no strangers to seeing their players taken in the Rule Five Draft, but rarely do the players taken stick with the club that selects them. One exception to the rule, as has been brought up ad nauseum over the last two years, is left-handed pitcher Andy Sisco.

Sisco was a promising second-round pick by the organization in 2001 that appeared to fall out of the organization's good graces over the years. He reportedly injured his hand while punching a wall in frustration during the 2003 season at Class-A Lansing.

(In actuality, Sisco injured the hand during an altercation with fellow pitching prospect Jae-Kuk Ryu. Ryu had been expelled from Class-A Daytona earlier that season after deliberately throwing at an osprey bird, which led to the bird's death and Ryu's unceremonious exit from the Florida State League.)

Over a year later, Sisco was scooped up by the Kansas City Royals in the 2004 edition of the Rule Five Draft and was never returned.

That same year, the Cubs waved farewell to left-hander and former first-round pick Luke Hagerty in the Rule Five Draft. Hagerty, unlike Sisco, was returned to the Cubs by the end of Spring Training the following year.

And just a season ago, the Cubs temporarily said goodbye to right-hander Juan Mateo. Mateo was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals, but was returned to the Cubs toward the end of Spring Training.

On a grander stage, notable Rule Five selections in recent years include Minnesota Twins pitcher Johan Santana, who was scooped up by the Florida Marlins in 1999 and traded to the Twins that same day.

A year ago, those same Marlins found gold in the form of a recent Double-A All-Star second baseman named Dan Uggla.

Now the latest edition of the Rule Five Draft has arrived and the Cubs find themselves asking who, if anyone, would make a quality addition to manager Lou Piniella's 2007 squad.

"You're looking to see who the best players available are," Cubs Director of Player Development Oneri Fleita said of preparations for the Rule Five Draft. "We're trying to go through all the information as thoroughly as we can and group some players that we think would be a good fit. The next step is to see if we have a roster spot available and if that person has a legitimate shot of not only making our club, but helping our club."

In recent years, the Cubs have lost more players (even if only temporary) in the Rule Five Draft than they've taken. That doesn't appear likely to change this year as the club's 40-man roster is already stacked, and that was before the addition of free agent left-hander Ted Lilly on Wednesday. (Lilly signed a four-year contract with the Cubs at an estimated $10 million a year.)

Fleita said that the Cubs do not favor pitchers over position players in the draft, or vice versa.

"A lot of it will be decided on how our team is shaking out," Fleita said. "If we think it's somebody that can help fill a void, either pitching or being a position player, we'll go as follows."

"It's just a process of going through all the statistical analysis for each of the guys available and combing through our reports," Fleita added. "But we'll see if something fits to help the big league club."

Several of the more recognizable Cubs prospects exposed to this year's Rule Five Draft include former first-round picks Bobby Brownlie, Chadd Blasko, Hagerty, and Richard Lewis. Pitchers Randy Wells and Lincoln Holdzkom, and position players Mike Fontenot and Micah Hoffpauir are also among the estimated 48 players exposed.

"In general, you never like to lose anybody," Fleita said. "We like our players and we want them to play for our organization, but you can only protect so many. That's part of the problem when you get better. You're bound to lose some players. You can't protect them all."

Two such players that the Cubs did protect from Rule Five exposure were pitchers Rocky Cherry and Clay Rapada. Both were added to the club's 40-man roster two weeks ago after finishing with strong 2006 seasons.

The 27-year-old Cherry combined to go 5-1 with a 2.64 ERA in 33 appearances primarily at Double-A before undergoing season-ending surgery on his middle pitching finger in late July.

The right-hander underwent Tommy John Surgery in 2005 and was used exclusively from the bullpen upon returning. (Word around town was that Cherry was nearing a promotion to the major league club prior to the injury.)

The 25-year-old Rapada posted a 0.82 ERA in 43 2/3 innings at Double-A before being called up to Triple-A in late June. The sidearm left-hander appeared in 28 games at Iowa, where he posted a 3.04 ERA. He spent roughly two weeks on the shelf with a cracked fingernail late in the season.

Cubs Scouting Director Tim Wilken was among the many that played a role in providing input into which minor leaguers to hoard onto the 40-man roster.

Wilken, recently honored as East Coast Scout of the Year, said that while the draft provides a good opportunity for teams to improve their clubs at various levels, it's also a good chance to free up space in their farm systems.

"Somewhere, we have to draw the line," Wilken said. "There will be some disappointment if a few of them are taken. You get 40 spots for the big league roster and 37 to protect at the Triple-A level. So if you have X amount of guys protected at Triple-A, naturally you have to put the rest of the guys you can't protect at Double-A.

"You can put guys at Double-A that you possibly want to get drafted because there's a logjam inside the system, or if some teams feel that a player needs a new environment more or less and that he's kind of lost his value in the organization. Mostly, it's a draft of clubs trying to shore up some weaknesses inside the organization."

One thing that helped Wilken in the process of deciding who to keep on the 40-man roster and who to leave off was the recent ratification of baseball's new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In past years, players that were 18 years of age or younger on June 5 upon signing their first professional contract would have been Rule Five eligible after four seasons. Players that were 19 years of age or older would have been Rule Five eligible after three years. With the new agreement in place, an extra year of eligibility was added to both sets of players.

If ever there was an all-time Rule Five team formed, some of the headliners you'd find on the club would include the likes of Santana, the late Roberto Clemente and one player Wilken's former team, the Toronto Blue Jays, was able to steal in the early 80s: George Bell.

During Wilken's tenure with the Blue Jays, the club was one of the most popular organizations when it came to finding quality major league players in the draft. Aside from Bell, two such players acquired via the draft were the versatile Kelly Gruber and pitcher Jim Gott.

In 1984, Wilken's Blue Jays scooped up two players in that year's Rule Five Draft: OF/DH Lou Thornton from the New York Mets, and Manny Lee, who spent the previous season in the Mets' farm system and was traded to Houston late in the '84 season.

Thornton garnered only 72 at-bats the following year and Lee managed just 40 at-bats. Both stuck with the Blue Jays' 25-man roster in part because of the team's lack of injuries that season. Toronto won 99 games and secured the American League East under then-manager Bobby Cox, essentially playing with what Wilken called a "23-man roster."

"The key to that is you better not get anyone hurt," Wilken said. "We were a very healthy club that year."

Wilken believes that often times, teams draft players a year too early. Other times, players are picked up in just the nick of time.

"Some times you get them in the right spot," Wilken said. "Uggla was very good timing and the Marlins have a great scouting department. Santana took awhile to develop as did Bell, but they got him in the right year."

While the Cubs wouldn't figure to add Rule Five players to their 40-man roster this year, the club may be interested in adding players in the minor league phase that were not protected by their club's Triple-A reserve list.

What's so important about acquiring players in the minor league phase of the draft?

Wilken pointed to several players taken in last year's portion of the draft's minor league phase that put together strong seasons for their new teams.

One such player Wilken referenced was San Francisco Giants minor league infielder Eugenio Velez.

"The year before, he had played at Lansing in the Midwest League and was left on a Double-A roster," Wilken said. "The Giants selected him at Triple-A, which was a $12,000 investment. Check out his numbers in the South Atlantic League at Augusta and you're going to be aghast, even though he is 24 and never got to play in a full season."

Velez batted .315 in 126 games for Augusta in 2006. He drove in 90 runs, totaled 63 extra-base hits and closed with an on-base percentage of .369.

Another player Wilken pointed to was White Sox pitching prospect Dewon Day. Now 26, Day was also left unprotected by the Blue Jays in the minor league phase of the draft last year and went on to hold hitters to a .222 average against while pitching at Class-A Winston-Salem this past year.

"Here's a feel-good story, a guy they had left on an A roster, which means the Chicago White Sox, the defending World Champions, paid $4,000 to get a pitcher that had only thrown 13 innings in full season ball the year before," Wilken said. "They get this guy, send him to the Carolina League and Winston-Salem, where he had a pretty darn good year. They think so much of the guy that they send him to the Arizona Fall League."

The worst thing about losing a player – any player – in the draft?

"It's a challenge on the quality of the depth," Wilken said, "but there's still a fair amount of depth here or we wouldn't have all these problems with trying to protect all these guys on the 40-man. We're hoping to add even more quality to that and make those questions this time of year even tougher so that next year, we may have eight or 10 guys where you can say to me, ‘Hey, there's a case here where this guy can be on the 40-man,' and I can say, ‘That's a good sign, because we're starting to bring the right guys into the system to make us that much better depth-wise.

"Hopefully, we can have those problems for the next 10 or 12 years."

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