2015 Rule 5 Preview - potential targets and risks for White Sox

***Updated 12/10/2015 at 7:38am to reflect Lawrie trade***

The Winter Meetings are underway, and the last event on the conference calendar is the Rule 5 Draft, which takes place on December 10th. There has already been some excitement for the White Sox, who acquired 3B Brett Lawrie in exchange for a pair of minor league pitchers. But with the team still facing some big questions at a number of positions, and a farm system still in need of more young talent, there is a chance the team will be active in this year’s version. If you need a quick primer on the Rule 5 in general, here you go. To see what the White Sox did in previous years, see these links for 2014 and 2013. The White Sox have the 10th pick in this year’s edition, for each round in each phase.

Let’s look at what 40-man roster decisions they have already made, which players not on the roster may be at risk to be drafted, and finally some players the team may look to add in the draft.

TABLE SETTING

Just prior to the protection deadline on November 20th, the team added two prospects to the 40-man roster: right-handers Brandon Brennan and Jeffrey Wendelken. Lefty Zach Phillips was re-signed and also added. Catchers Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro were signed, Jacob Turner was non-tendered then signed anew, and Tyler Flowers was non-tendered and is a free agent. Finally, Lawrie essentially takes the 40-man roster slot of Wendelken. We will discuss who they didn’t add to the roster shortly.

With all the recent machinations, the White Sox 40-man roster stands at 38. That could and probably will change in the coming days, especially with the team lacking a starting third baseman and shortstop, and upgrade needs at other slots. Third basemen Mike Olt and Matt Davidson, catchers Kevan Smith and Rob Brantly, and pitchers Scott Carroll and Daniel Webb are all currently protected but could be candidates to be designated for assignment to make more room.

CURRENT PLAYERS AT RISK

Before the 40-man additions were made, we previewed the minor leaguers who were candidates for protection due to their risk of being picked up in the Rule 5. Two pitchers we suggested were likely additions, Phillips and Wendelken, were added along with the surprise addition of Brennan. But let’s talk about who wasn’t added, and who the team has some notable risk of losing.

Here are the players left unprotected with the highest degree of claim risk, listed in the order of highest to lowest risk in my view (all happen to be pitchers):

I was surprised Tago wasn’t added. While he’s only got 19 innings in AA and hasn’t fully overcome his command issues, his re-tooling allowed him to make dramatic improvement in control and he’s now got a big fastball and a good slider to complement it. Smith is a converted outfielder who pitching coach Rich Dotson has raved about, and he was quite effective in the band box in Charlotte this past season.

Myles Jaye is certainly the best prospect here, and his heavy fastball-slider combo with a good change-up make him valuable. But he’s never been above AA, has never worked out of the pen, and seemed to wear down as the season went on. Onelki Garcia has (limited) major league experience, is left-handed and showed some flashes of potential in his strikeout rate, though he also got hit a bit and walked too many in AAA.

There are a handful of other names that would be big surprises, but do have non-zero risk:

All three of the pitchers have some talent, but would have to be hidden in a mop-up slot in a major league bullpen, at least at first. And they’d likely do quite poorly in the majors at this point. Narvaez hasn’t played above Advanced A ball, but he’s a strong defensive catcher with excellent plate discipline and a natural hit tool.

RHP Terance Marin would likely have made the above list as well, but the team hasn’t re-signed him so he’s still a minor league free agent and therefore not eligible for the Rule 5.

There is also a minor league phase of the draft, but it is nigh on impossible to determine who is at risk there because the club doesn’t release their minor league “reserve” lists publicly. But they have lost minor leaguers that way before, most recently Euclides Leyer and Chris Curley in 2014 (both of whom later returned to the Sox) and Brady Shoemaker in 2013.

POTENTIAL TARGETS

Unlike the Amateur Rule 4 draft in June, the value equation for the Rule 5 is heavily influenced by the immediate needs of the major league club. You can eliminate certain areas of the White Sox – starting pitching (no one available looks even 0n par with Erik Johnson for a 5th starter), 1B/DH and catcher. The big needs right now are 2B/3B, and possibly SS especially if they are open to a platoon, and the outfield could see some changes.

The Bullpen is somewhat of an exception, because a team can “hide” an arm there for a full season if they think he’ll be a significant prospect going forward. So that’s an area to explore, even if the team doesn’t have a per se need.

Using the wonderful review of Rule 5 eligible players from JJ Cooper of Baseball America as a starting point, and exploring some other names as well, here are a few players that the White Sox might consider selecting (no particular order here)…

The first thing you may notice, is that there isn’t a whole ton of talent in the pool, especially compared to last year’s bumper crop. You may also notice that there is just one skill infielder, despite that being the team’s biggest need – that’s because the ones available are all pretty clearly not starting-grade players. And picking tenth, the few players the Sox might be considering may all be off the board by the time they pick. So overall, I’d say the chances of the White Sox drafting someone in the major league phase this year are pretty low. Then again, no one expected them to pick up Nieto in 2013 either.

There are two talented position players that stand out most here, but neither are at positions of current need. 26-year old Outfielder Jabari Blash was initially drafted out of high school by the White Sox in 2007 but didn’t sign. He’s now a strong-armed, solid defensive corner player with a lot of power and a little speed. He posted a big .271/.370/.571 line across AA and AAA this year with 32 home runs in 116 games, which makes his being left unprotected a bit of a head-scratcher. He does have significant swing and miss in his game (25.8% K/9 in 2015) and he was hitting in the PCL for the AAA portion, all of which sounds strikingly similar to a Matt Davidson hitter’s profile. He’s also likely to be off the board before the Sox pick, and may only make sense if the club plans on freeing up an outfield slot soon.

First baseman Balbino Fuenmayor has a fun backstory, going from a big bonus 16-year old signing, to a released 23-year old, to Indy Ball dominator and finally to a big bat in the upper minors last year. Now 26, Fuenmayor looks like he’s got a chance to add some very nice pop as a DH somewhere, especially against lefties (he posted a 1.301 OPS against them last year). But, like Blash, he probably only makes sense for the White Sox if they plan on somehow letting someone else go, specifically Adam LaRoche who may be untradeable. Also worth noting, he’s hurt right now (recovering from as torn ACL during the season) and may not be ready for the beginning of Spring Training, though recent reports indicate he likely will be.

The least interesting but potentially best fit (and likely to be available) is Rivera, who ironically has never been drafted. The 27-year old has played all over the field and reports indicate he’s strong at 2B and 3B, but according to Baseball America may be “stretched” at shortstop. What he has done all along is hit – he’s a career .318 hitter in the minors, including a .325/.364/.449 line across AA and AAA in 2015. There’s a small chance he gets thrown into a mix with Tyler Saladino, Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson vying for the middle infield roles, especially if the team doesn’t make more significant upgrades at those positions.

Then there are two pitchers here that the club might take a flier on and put in the pen; talented fireballers with need for refinement – the type of arm Dr. Cooper loves to mold.

Right-hander Austin Adams has plus stuff when he’s on, with an upper 90’s 4-seamer, sinking low 90’s two-seamer and a slider that can be nasty. But he’s had major control issues at times in his career (including 31 walks in 36.2 IP in AA this season). He generates a lot of ground balls as well, which the Sox like in their pitchers. Lefty Reymin Guduan is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in pro ball, hitting triple digits with this fastball and has an at-times wicked slider to boot. But he’s got control issues too, and he’s booked just 16 wild innings at AA. The team could use a better 2nd lefty than they have today, though it would take some serious work to turn Guduan into an effective major league arm. High ceiling, low floor for both of these guys.

Finally, a “safer” guy who could contribute to the big club. If the name Chris Devenski sounds familiar, it’s because the White Sox drafted and signed him in 2011, so there is the affinity angle here. He posted a very good year statistically in AA, has excellent command of a low 90’s fastball, and also throws a recently improved curve and a change-up. Until last year he was a ground ball machine, so there is some heavy stuff in there somewhere and the lower rate in 2015 could be an aberration. The 25-year old was left off in a very deep Astros system, and could take on Scott Carroll’s role if he’s not sticking around

As a post-script, the White Sox usually do pick up a player or two in the minor league phases of the Rule 5 (AAA and AA). Last year they picked up Tago that way, and have turned him into an actual prospect. Without having the slightest clue who is available, there is no telling who it may be this year. But there should be a little present or two to open on Thursday, probably in the form of another low-minors pitcher in search of reformation.

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