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The 2023 Rule 5 draft: The pitchers

Will the Royals make a selection?

Somerset Patriots v Akron RubberDucks Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Winter Meetings this week will conclude with the Rule 5 draft on Wednesday. The Royals currently have a 40-man roster, but could still drop someone before the draft to make a selection. The team is starved so pitching, so there could be some good opportunities to add talent to the organization.

The polished products

Tanner Burns, Guardians

The Guardians are always a great organization to poach pitching from, and Kevin Kelly was one of the better picks from last year’s draft. Burns is ranked #19 in their system according to MLB Pipeline after putting up a 3.01 ERA in 86 2/3 innings in a repeat of Double-A. He’s a former first round pick out of Auburn, and the Guardians moved him from the rotation to the bullpen in the second half of the season. He throws in the low-90s, although he has touched 97 at times and may get more velocity in the pen. He’s a bit undersized, but has a deep arsenal, so it is still up in the air whether his future is as a starter or reliever.

Travis Kuhn, Mariners

Kuhn had a big velo bump early in his career and now sits in the mid-90s, occasionally hitting 98 mph. He had a 3.13 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings a a 25-year-old in his second tour in Double-A. He relies on a slider as his best secondary pitch, and while Fangraphs writes that pitch regressed a bit this year, they still ranked him as the #30 prospect in the Mariners organization.

Justin Slaten, Rangers

Slaten struck out 86 hitters in just 59 2/3 innings of relief across Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 2.87 ERA. He has a mid-90s mph fastball with a sweeping slider and a cutter, but had major control issues in 2022 that he seems to have improved upon this year with 3.0 walks-per-nine innings. Fangraphs ranked him as the #19 prospect in the Rangers’ system this summer, writing he has a “violent” delivery and “high-maintenance frame”, but that he could be ready for the big leagues in 2024.

The groundball artists

Luis de Avila, Braves

Once a Royals farmhand, the Braves snatched him away in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. He is just 22 years old, but he pitched well in Double-A with a 3.28 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings. MLB Pipeline ranks him as #13 in the Braves’ farm system with an “intriguing” three-pitch mix with a sinking fastball in the low-90s. The left-hander is on the small side and will need to throw more strikes to succeed at higher levels.

Eric Orze, Mets

Orze was ranked #7 in the Mets organization by Fangraphs in 2022, but has put up an ERA over five the last two seasons in Triple-A. However his peripherals in 2022 were pretty good with 12.2 strikeouts-per-nine-innings and just 2.7 walks. His walk numbers spiked this year, so he’ll have to get his command back. He has a plus splitter and a 40 percent groundball rate.

Tyler Owens, Braves

Owens stands just 5’10’’, but got scouts excited when he hit 99 on the radar gun at an amateur workout before the Braves paid overslot to draft him. Baseball America writes he throws in the mid-90s now, but allows his fastball to play up. He excelled in High-A as a 22-year old this year before moving up to Double-A and holding his own. The right-hander succeeds with a groundball rate north of 50 percent and is ranked #22 in the Braves organization by MLB Pipeline.

The flamethrower

Michel Otañez, Diamondbacks

Once a Mets farmhand, Otañez signed with the Diamondbacks as a minor league free agent. He didn’t exactly impress on the field with a 6.08 ERA in 37 relief innings, but he struck out 61 hitters and can touch 100 mph on the radar gun. The 26-year-old right-hander has a big frame and has always struggled with walks, but you can’t ignore a big fastball like that with a pretty good slider.

The strike-throwers

Luarbert Arias, Marlins

Arias is pretty far under-the-radar, but he had a terrific season with a 1.84 ERA and 78 strikeouts to just 15 walks in 58 2/3 innings across High-A and Double-A as a 22-year old. The Venezuelan was originally signed by the Padres, but was claimed off waivers by the Marlins in 2021. He sits in the low-90s with a plus change up and seemed to actually improve upon his promotion.

Ryan Fernandez, Red Sox

Fernandez had an ugly 6.16 ERA in relief for Triple-A Pawtucket, but look past that and you’ll see some impressive peripherals like 10.3 strikeouts-per-nine innings and a lower-than-average walk rate. He has been a good strike-thrower throughout his career, but he also has some velo, throwing regularly in the mid-90s, with a plus slider. Fernandez isn’t a big guy, and he’s had some injuries in the past, but he could be ready to transition to the big leagues as a short reliever.

Richard Gallardo, Cubs

A fast worker who can throw strikes, the 22-year-old right-hander walked just 1.8 per-nine-innings in High-A with a 3.93 ERA in 13 starts. He can miss some bats, but he’s not a huge strikeout guy, instead relying on a high groundball rate. Fangraphs writes he has a “sinking, tailing fastball with an increasingly effective diving curveball” and a plus change up. He struggled when he was promoted to Double-A, so he may not be ready for a jump to the big leagues.

Anthony Molina, Rays

Molina has been a quick riser through a good Rays farm system, ending the year in Triple-A at the age of 21. He actually improved his strikeout rate and ERA upon a promotion to the highest level of the minors and ended the year with a 4.50 ERA with 102 strikeouts in 122 innings overall. Molina relies heavily on a hard sinker that gets up to 97 mph and an above-average change up to yield a 40 percent ground ball rate and he has been able to pound the strike zone with excellent walk rates.

Luis Palacios, Marlins

He’s a strike thrower that struggles to break 90 mph, but the lefty relies on a plus change up to yield a 42 percent groundball rate. The 23-year-old had a 4.30 ERA with just 31 walks in 144 1/3 innings across three levels of the minors. Interestingly he pitched much better as a starter than a reliever this season.

Austin Pope, Diamondbacks

Pope has been a strike-thrower who can also miss bats with a terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio this year. In 66 23 innings across Double-A and Triple-A, he struck out 84 while walking just 23 with a 3.65 ERA. The 25-year-old throws in the mid-90s with solid breaking balls and could transition to a long relief role in the big leagues.

The southpaws

Shane Drohan, Red Sox

The lefty dominated in Double-A this year, but really struggled with his control in Triple-A. He’s a former fifth round pick out of Florida State ranked #18 in the Boston farm system by MLB.com. Drohan features a plus change up and a low 90s fastball and average breaking ball, relying on a deceptive delivery. He will be 25 by next spring, and could transition to a long-reliever role.

Juan Sanchez, Giants

Sanchez excelled in the upper minors in his age-22 season, despite a diminutive frame and a fastball that sits at 92-93 mph. Across 74 1/3 innings in Double-A and Triple-A, he had a 3.03 ERA with 9.7 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. He has a four-pitch mix, but his out pitch is a change up with “heavy tumble and fade” and good velocity separation according to Baseball America.

Grant Wolfram, Rangers

Wolfram dominated Double-A this year with a 2.02 ERA and 67 strikeouts to just 14 walks in 49 innings as a reliever. But he really struggled in a promotion to Triple-A, despite being 26 years old. Wolfram is a southpaw standing at 6’6’’ and features a mid-90s fastball and a “gyro-slider”, according to Baseball America.

The injury risks

Ian Bedell, Cardinals

Bedell is a former Mizzou Tiger who had a UCL injury and Tommy John surgery that limited his innings until this year. He was a 23-year-old in High-A, but excelled with a 2.44 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 96 innings as a starter with a solid walk rate. Fangraphs ranked him #14 in the Cardinals farm system, writing he shows shows good command and spin with his fastball that sits in the mid-90s and “he’s a prime candidate for a quick rise through the system.”

Coleman Crow, Mets

Crow would have to be stashed away on the Injured List, as he just had Tommy John surgery. He had some good strikeout-to-walk numbers in Double-A for the Angels before they traded him to the Mets for Eduardo Escobar. The 22-year-old right-hander only throws in the low-90s, but some reports say he had a significant improvement in induced vertical break. He profiles as a back-of-the-rotation starter that throws strikes from a lower arm angle and gets good sink.

R.J Dabovich, Giants

The Royals selected Dabovich out of junior college, but he passed them up to sign with the Giants in 2020. He had 69 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings with a 3.51 ERA in the upper minors in 2022, but missed most of this season after hip surgery. He throws in the mid-to-upper 90s with a power curve and “deception with a high arm slot that creates enough downhill plane that it forces him to command the baseball to the top of the zone”, according to Fangraphs. He could be a late-inning reliever some day, but he will likely miss the first part of next season.

J.T. Ginn, Athletics

Ginn was a second-round pick by the Mets and a centerpiece to the Chris Bassitt trade with the Athletics. He has been hit hard with injuries in his career, including Tommy John surgery in 2020, and made just six starts in Double-A this year. He’s a groundball pitcher with great sinking stuff and a solid slider and he threw 99 mph as a high schooler, but was sitting in the low-90s after his injuries. He’s a big gamble at this point, but the 24-year-old has upside if he is healthy.

Evan Reifert, Rays

Reifert began with the Brewers but was traded for infielder Mike Brosseau. He had a 3.67 ERA with 43 strikeouts in 27 innings in High-A last year but pitched just four innings this year due to a shoulder injury. He has a 95 mph fastball and a 70-grade slider that is near-unhittable. If he’s healthy, he could have the stuff to step into a MLB bullpen, but he is pretty inexperienced.

C.J. Van Eyk, Blue Jays

The former Florida State Seminole was a second round pick in 2020, but has had trouble staying on the field due to injury. He missed all of 2022 after Tommy John surgery and returned this year to pitch in just 34 13 innings. The 25-year-old right-hander was ranked #15 in the Blue Jays’ farm system this summer, and they wrote “if he proves capable of carrying consistent command across consecutive starts, he could still be a fit at the back of a big league rotation.” When healthy, he has a big 12-6 curveball and a solid four-pitch arsenal, but his lack of a track record makes him a big risk.

Cole Wilcox, Rays

Wilcox was a Padres third-round pick with a large bonus that was traded in the Blake Snell deal. He had Tommy John surgery in 2021 and returned this year with a 5.23 ERA with 99 strikeouts in 106 2/3 innings as a 23-year-old in Double-A. The right-hander has a big frame and a mid-90s fastball that can hit the upper 90s with a lot of sinking action that nets a lot of groundballs. He has some pretty intriguing upside and could be worth taking a gamble on if his health is no longer a concern.

Could be fun to fix

Jeff Criswell, Rockies

Criswell was terrible in 2023, posting a 7.51 ERA in 26 starts in Triple-A. But he struck out 135 in 121 innings with a plus slider, a decent change, and a fastball that sits at 92-95. Fangraphs ranked him as the #15 prospect in the farm system, writing that his “lower half continues to detract from his command a bit and contributes to variability in the shape of his secondary stuff.” He’s a former second round pick and seems to have good stuff, but he may benefit from some mechanical tweaks.

Chih-Jung Liu, Red Sox

Signed out of Taiwan, Lui throws in the mid-90s, occasionally hitting the upper-90s with a solid slider. His 5.35 ERA as a 23-year-old in Double-A was underwhelming, but he had 11.4 strikeouts-per-nine innings and tossed a no-hitter in May. His control isn’t great and he has a tendency to get hit at times. He could benefit from moving to the pen and getting more velocity, and refining his delivery to be more repeatable.

Logan Sawyer, Cardinals

Sawyer is a really interesting story. He was a Rockies draft pick in 2014, but washed out after a few years and bounced around to Australia and the indy leagues, getting Tommy John surgery along the way. He made a highlight reel of his stuff that got promoted by Pitching Ninja, showing off his “filthy secondary pitches.” He went 29 13 innings in the Frontier League without giving up a run and the Cardinals signed him this year. He posted a 5.21 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 48 13 innings in Double-A, perhaps underwhelming numbers, but the 30-year-old has shown tremendous perseverance in the face of a lot of rejection.