OK, everyone's drooling over the Rule 5 draft, where the have-nots like Pittsburgh can raid the talent-rich systems of clubs that have a clue.
And while it's true that a couple of big name players have gotten their break through the draft, it's really not the bonanza that it's often portrayed as being. But as in any crapshoot, the payoff can be considerable with a sharp eye and good roll of the dice.
The purpose of the Rule 5 draft is simple - it's just a mechanism to keep teams from hoarding and hiding talent in its minor league system. It's been around for a long time.
From 1959 until the creation of the Rule 4 draft (the amateur draft of college & high school players) in 1965, top first-year prospects of teams were exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Variations of this share-the-wealth scheme have existed in baseball since the 1930s.
The current rules are simple enough, too. If a player is signed at 18 or under, he gets a four-year free ride; older and he's off-limits for three seasons. After that grace period, the player goes on the forty man roster or can be claimed by another club.
There are a couple of safeguards built in - the player has to stay on a MLB roster for an entire season or be returned to his original team (he becomes a free agent if he clears waivers and neither club wants him).
He also has to be on the roster for 90 days over a two-year period if he's put on the injured list to prevent phantom twinges and a convenient early-season trip to the DL.
The player can be traded, sold, or waived, but he's under the same proviso - he has to finish out the year on someone's 25-man roster. After he meets the full season criteria, the player can be sent down to the minors the following year.
In the past decade, there have been some notable players taken in the Rule 5 draft. Johan Santana was chosen in 1999 by the Florida Marlins from the Houston Astros.
The Marlins traded Santana to the Minnesota Twins for minor leaguer Jared Camp, and the Twins kept him on their roster despite his 6.49 ERA. Then they sent him down in 2001, and by the 2002 season, they had themselves a sweet little pitcher.
Shane Victorino was selected in 2002 by the San Diego Padres from LA, played in 36 games, and was returned to the Dodgers. But he'd be back with a vengeance.
Victorino was again selected in 2004, this time by the Phillies, and again failed to stick. He was offered back to the Dodgers. LA declined, so Philadelphia kept his contract, ala Evan Meek, and assigned him to their minor league club in Scranton-Wilkes Barre.
Now the Flyin' Hawaiian is a key member of the World Series champ Phils, and became the first player in post-season history to have a home run, a double, and two steals in a single game.
Sometimes, the player provides a quick fix. Dan Uggla was drafted by the Marlins from the Diamondbacks in 2005 and became the first Rule 5 pick to be named an All-Star in his inaugural season, hitting .285 with 27 HRs.
2006 had a trio of bell ringers, too. Josh Hamilton, a former #1 draft pick who was bedeviled by coke problems, was selected by the Cubs from Tampa Bay, and Chicago immediately sold him to the Reds. They flipped him to the Texas Rangers for Edinson Volquez the following season.
Hamilton was runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 2007 and got some MVP love in 2008.
The Royals took Joakim Soria from the Padres. He had spent most of the 2006 season in the Mexican League before being signed by San Diego, who hoped that he was hidden from prying bird-dogs in the baseball backwaters. He wasn't.
A year later, Soria was closing games for KC, amassing 59 saves over two years with a 2.05 ERA and 141 strikeouts in 136-1/3 innings.
Jesus Flores was claimed from the Mets by the Nats after he led the High-A Florida State League with 21 homers as a 21-year old. The Mets thought no one could carry a raw youngster on the roster (tho he was NY's top-rated catching prospect), but the Nats were rebuilding and thin behind the dish, so they took a shot.
In two years, Flores has hit .252 with 12 HRs and 84 RBI and backstopped 169 games. He's got a lock on Washington's catching job and has the look of a future All-Star.
But before waxing ecstatic over the possible haul, remember that 161 players were picked in the MLB portion of the draft between 2007-1998, with many more going in the minor league draft. A bookie would get rich on Rule 5 odds - especially Pittsburgh's.
Just how have the Pirates stacked up in Rule 5? Well, despite the general gnashing of teeth over Dave Littlefield's failure to land a Hall of Famer in the draft, the last decade hasn't really seen any difference makers entering or leaving the organization, although gaffes galore in scouting judgment were obvious.
Last year, the Bucs picked up RHP Evan Meek from Tampa. They couldn't give the wild child back to the Rays, worked out a cash deal to keep him here, and Meek will be in the 2009 bullpen mix. He's the first Rule 5 player from outside the organization to stick since Scott Sauerbeck, selected back in 1998 from the Mets.
In 2006, they grabbed RHP Sean White from the Braves, and sold him to Seattle. They also picked up RHP Moises Robles from the Mets in the minor league phase of the draft, and he's pitched out of the pen everywhere from State College to Altoona in his two seasons in the Pirate system.
The Pirates took RHP Victor Santos from Kansas City in 2005, and sold him to the Phils. There was no real action in 2004, and 2003 was the year the MLB suits picked Pittsburgh clean. Five of the first six Rule 5 picks were Pirate minor-leaguers.
1B Chris Shelton, OF Rich Thompson, LHP Frank Brooks, RHP Jeff Bennett, and IF Jose Bautista were all snapped up. Who woulda thunk the Bucs were so loaded with talent?
Shelton had two nice seasons with the Tigers in 2005-06, hitting 34 HRs, but the truth was he never spent a whole year in the majors. He's at Texas now, and looks like he's settled into the life of a AAAA player, an apparent Pirate specialty.
Jeff Bennett lasted the out year at Milwaukee, and disappeared from the show again until 2007, where he popped up as a solid piece of the Atlanta Brave bullpen.
Jose Bautista's selection by Baltimore started a long, weird trip that ended where it started. The O's cut him, and he was claimed by Tampa Bay. The Rays then sold him to KC. The Royals traded him to the Mets, and he came back to the 'Burg in the Kris Benson deal. And this all happened between December of 2003 and July of 2004.
Rich Thompson and Frank Brooks were both returned to Pittsburgh. The Pirates didn't add anyone to their roster via Rule 5 that year.
So the year everyone points to as disaster for the Pirate farm system really ended up with the loss of just two players, and neither was a building block, though Shelton and Bennett should have at least rated a return of some sort for the Bucs.
But it did show the gaping chasm between Pirate talent evaluators and the rest of the league's scouts. It wasn't one of Ed Creech's shining moments, if he indeed had any.
The Pirates lost three more players in 2002, RHP DJ Carrasco, RHP Chris Spurling, and C Ronny Paulino.
Carrasco worked out of the KC bullpen for three seasons, and after a two-year stay in the minors, was back in 2008 with the White Sox, where he was 1-0 with a 3.96 ERA.
Spurling, selected by Atlanta, notched 4 years in MLB, with a 6-8 record and a 4.32 ERA out of the pen. He was released by the Brew Crew last year, and didn't catch on anywhere else.
Paulino was returned to Pittsburgh by Kansas City. The Pirates may be trying to give him back.
They did pick one player in the draft, RHP Matt Roney, who they sold to the Tigers. He would later get a 50-game suspension for drug abuse.
In those two years, the Pirates had a record of 147-176, yet had eight players taken from their minor leagues. Seems like the league knew Pittsburgh's roster better than its own suits did.
In 2001, the Bucs took IF Luis Ugueto from Florida, and sold him to Seattle. Spot a trend here? All four of the Littlefield MLB Rule 5 picks were sold; he apparently looked at the players as cash cows rather than potential talent. That deal about closed out the action on this decade's Rule 5 merry-go-round.
So what's Rule 5 meant for Pittsburgh? Well, basically nada. It was a completely ignored tool. During the Littlefield era, they lost a handful of marginal MLB talents, and didn't even make an attempt to pick up a potential big league player in the process.
Considering the Pirates' record during that span, it shows the complete lack of player evaluation rampant in the organization, both in-house and regarding the league. There were players that should have been protected, and others that should have been drafted. Pittsburgh lacked the foresight to do either.
Evan Meek is the best selection of the decade, and that tells the tale of the Littlefield years. The new suits are already one player up.
We'd expect them to pick up another player in the MLB Rule 5 draft with their fourth selection, and to be be busy in the AAA and AA portions, too, trying to stock the shallow upper levels of the organization.