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Reviewing the 2015 Rule 5 Draft

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Was the 2015 Rule 5 Draft already the greatest in major league history?

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As can be said for nearly any year in MLB, this has been a weird year for baseball. The Mets, Royals, Cubs, and Blue Jays are the LCS teams, the best players in each league are 24 years old or younger, and somehow J.A. Happ is good; baseball! This is all interesting but the weirdest thing about this season might be the Rule 5 Draft. Each season, the Rule 5 Draft is an exercise in -- I don't want to say gambling, but it is very tough to predict success in such a market.

Think about it. Teams have to hold an open spot on their 40-man roster in order to claim a player in the Rule 5. To keep that player, they must hold them on their big-league 25-man roster for the whole season (minus a few little loopholes), meaning they usually must hold an open spot on the 25-man as well. Additionally, the player pool consists almost entirely of minor-league players who their own team -- the team that knows them best -- deems unworthy of placement on their 40-man.

That's a long way to get to my point -- that teams really should not expect much from Rule 5 choices. The player pool is limited, and the opportunity cost to hold a Rule 5 guy can often be pretty unappealing for a team, especially one with designs on contending.

Nevertheless, the Rule 5 Draft this season produced an unusual amount of success. Several players not only stuck with their claiming teams, but thrived in their first season with the new ballclub. I'd like to review some of the choices made in this season's Rule 5 Draft, and what made them work for the claiming (or releasing) teams.

The Big Winner -- Philadelphia Phillies

The Philadelphia Phillies undoubtedly won the 2015 Rule 5 Draft. You can bash Ruben Amaro for loads of pre-2013 moves all you want, but he owned this year's Rule 5, and he deserves some credit. The Phillies, going into 2015, looked like the perfect team to make a Rule 5 pick. Both their 25-man and 40-man rosters were sorely lacking talent, so the Phils were in prime position to make a move.

The Phillies selected Odubel Herrera, a rangy second baseman well-blocked in a stacked Texas farm system. Philly immediately installed him at a new position in center field, where he performed admirably from a defensive standpoint. The real surprise here was his bat, which made the jump from Double-A to the big leagues look like no big deal. He flashed more power than I think anyone expected (he bashed eight home runs, when the world expected zero) while maintaining his high BABIP (.387) from the lower leagues. His 110 wRC+ means he was 10% better than league average -- most scouts and probably even the Phillies expected below-average offense.

By the end of the season, Herrera had a strong case as the best season-wide performance on the Phillies. His FanGraphs wins above replacement was 3.9, his Baseball-Reference WAR was 3.8, and Baseball Prospectus WARP was 2.8. The Phillies were in the perfect position to make a Rule 5 pick, and they chose the guy who had the best rookie performance of all Rule 5 picks. In fact, there's an argument that Herrera had one of the best first seasons of a Rule 5 pick ever -- he's already out-valued (by fWAR) every other Rule 5 pick of the last five seasons over their entire careers. Sorry, Hector Rondon.

The Swap (Outfield) -- Texas Rangers

So, the Rangers are big fat idiots for letting Herrera walk free, right? Not exactly. The second-best fWAR earner in the Rule 5 draft is a player the Rangers picked up: Delino DeShields Jr. DeShields is also a second-sacker-turned-centerfielder, and he possesses many of the same flaws and skills as Herrera. DeShields is also very, very fast -- probably faster than Herrera -- but he wasn't able to turn in comparable fielding or hitting performances during his debut season. His defense suffers from occasional mental lapses, despite his blazing speed, and his 94 wRC+ was a bit under league-average.

DeShields did, however, add considerable value to the Rangers, as he posted a 1.3 fWAR and 1.8 WARP. If it weren't for the team losing out on Odubel, that could be considered a decisive win for the Rangers in the Rule 5. Most teams don't get a usable player at all during this draft, let alone an effective age-22 player up the middle. DeShields has room to grow in the short term; so long as his speed remains elite, there's a chance he can improve his defense and become a better all-round player. When his speed declines, he may be in trouble, but for the moment, he looks like a decent regular.

Would the Rangers rather have Herrera than DeShields going forward? Maybe. Tough to say, but prior to this season, the answer was a resounding "no," since they made the choice to swap the two out. It doesn't look like they gained any additional value, but they didn't lose out entirely, that's for sure.

The Long Play -- Arizona Diamondbacks

Oscar Hernandez, a defense-first catcher with no experience above Single-A, was the first overall pick in this year's Rule 5 Draft. Hernandez had shown absolutely zero indication that he was worth rostering in the big leagues -- after all, he wasn't a particularly good hitter even by Low-A standards -- but the Diamondbacks were seriously considering opening the season with Gerald Laird as a catcher, so hey, why not?

In what could almost be described as a fortunate injury, Hernandez spent much of the early part of the season on the DL, and when he did play, he hit precisely as one would expect an average Low-A batter to hit in the major leagues. He was awful. A 26 wRC+ means that he might as well have been a setup man as a hitter, and a slugging percentage of .194 is almost cause to just give up.

However, the Diamondbacks seemed to be willing to burn the 25-man spot when Hernandez was healthy in order to keep him for future use. It's widely expected that Oscar will return to the minors in 2016 and see if he can figure out how to hit before returning to the big league club. The D'backs could've used much, much better production from their catchers this season, but his ineffectiveness hardly torpedoed their year. It's possible Hernandez could give Arizona something good in a year or two, and I'll be interested to see how he fares in the Arizona Fall League.

The Curious Case -- Miami Marlins

The Marlins could be described as a loser of the Rule 5 Draft. First of all, they left Mark Canha unprotected, which they probably regret today. Canha had a track record of success as a minor-league hitter, and the Rockies snapped him up (on behalf of the Athletics) with the second pick in the Rule 5 Draft. Going into the draft, the Marlins had a bit of a logjam at first base: Michael Morse had just been brought in, and Justin Bour was obviously the team's preferred Plan B.

Canha had some success as a sometime regular in Oakland, as I detailed previously, but what is fascinating is not that the team let Canha go ... but why. The team already had open 40-man roster spots, and in fact used one to pick up pitcher Andrew McKirahan from the Cubs. McKirahan was a left-handed relief pitcher, an area where the Marlins already had pretty considerable organizational depth...especially on the major-league side. Heading into the season, the team had Mike Dunn, Brad Hand, and Adam Conley as ML-ready left-handed relief options. That's not exactly the deepest bench of talent, but it seems that in hindsight, the team might have been better served keeping a positional talent with minor-league pedigree in Canha (who they would not have had to keep on the 25-man), rather than rolling the dice on an LHP who would take a 25-man spot. McKirahan would end up released, then claimed by the Braves where he posted a 3.79 FIP in 27 appearances sandwiched around a PED suspension.

The Marlins, as always, end up with nothing.

The Swap (Pitching) -- Minnesota Twins

Last, but not least, there's the Twins. The Twins selected right-hander J.R. Graham in the Rule 5, and kept left-hander Sean Gilmartin unprotected. The two pitchers ended up pitching full seasons for their respective teams, with slightly different results. Gilmartin was surprisingly good for the Mets, who found themselves in need of a southpaw reliever. He posted a 2.75 FIP, struck out 23% of batters faced, and earned 0.9 fWAR. Graham, on the other hand, had a 4.69 FIP, and 18.7% strikeout rate, and earned -0.2 fWAR. The only thing that really separated the two from a statistical standpoint was their home run numbers: Graham allowed 10 while Gilmartin allowed just two.

When considering other pitching metrics, such as xFIP or SIERA, the difference between these two pitchers is much less distinct. Graham probably under-performed a little, and Gilmartin over-performed, so both might regress a bit towards the middle next season. While the Twins gave up a moderately effective lefty, they gained back a moderately effective righty. No harm, no foul.

I created a custom leaderboard at FanGraphs for all the Rule 5 picks who had playing time this season. It's uncertain another Rule 5 crop will wind up as good as this one in the future. There were 8-12 legitimate major leaguers coming out of this year's pool, a number that dwarfs the seasons prior.

To put it in perspective, the pre-2014 Rule 5 class had only nine players taken, and five were eventually returned. The other four players -- Adrian Nieto, Tommy Kahnle, Brian Moran, and Wei-Chung Wang -- have combined for -0.7 fWAR in their major league careers. Nieto and Wang still have the potential to be contributors, as they were Hernandez-style plays for the future, but there's nothing near the success of the most recent class. 2012 saw some legit late-inning relief options in Josh Fields and Hector Rondon go 1-2 in the draft, and Kyle Lobstein, Ryan Pressly, and T.J. McFarland change hands, plus Nate Freiman! Remember him?

Here's a bonus: below is a chart that tracks the fWAR earned by Rule 5 Draft picks over the last 10 years over the course of their careers. Obviously, it skews towards the earlier drafts -- the guys drafted prior to the 2015 season only have one season to rack up stats, while the guys from the 2006 draft (hey, Dan Uggla) have had a decade. I've also removed the value of players returned to their original team, with the exception of any stats accrued prior to being returned.

Year positional fWAR added pitching fWAR added total fWAR added
2015 6.7 0.3 7.0
2014 -0.4 -0.4 -0.8
2013 0.0 7.5 7.5
2012 2.5 -0.8 1.7
2011 -2.3 1.3 -1.0
2010 -0.1 -2.0 -2.1
2009 4.0 9.4 13.4
2008 0.7 15.3 16.0
2007 29.1 12.8 41.9
2006 23.3 0.2 23.5

These numbers are pretty dramatically skewed by four All-Stars: Dan Uggla (2006), Josh Hamilton (2007), Joakim Soria (2007), and R.A. Dickey (2008). The 2015 positional class already has outstripped all other classes from the past eight seasons. It's kind of neat -- no previous year seems to have the several effective big league position-player regulars that we saw get drafted this season.

Combine that with a couple of potential bullpen pitchers, well, that's a special draft in terms of depth, if not top-end talent. It remains to be seen if any, or all, of 2015's players continue on to have success in the bigs, but this draft class is already off to a pretty fantastic start.

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Bryan Grosnick is the Lead Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a columnist for Baseball Prospectus - Boston. He still can't believe that Brad Emaus didn't work out.