Thursday, December 13th is not a day that many Chicago Cubs fans have marked on their calendars. It’s the end of the annual Winter Meetings, and if there are any blockbuster trades or big free agent signings during the 2018 Meetings they will have taken place before the 13th, most likely. For some, the 13th is nothing more than the end of the Meetings, when all the dust has settled and stock can be taken of the free agents that still find themselves without a team to call home. For others, it’s the day when the possible future of their organization is mapped out through the Rule 5 Draft.
The basic gist of the Rule 5 Draft is that it is when teams are forced to give up some of their prospects to other teams via a draft. That doesn’t mean that every prospect is at risk, as there are guidelines for who can and cannot be drafted. Most importantly, the Rule 5 Draft plays off of the idea that teams should not be able to stockpile their best prospects. The idea is that when a prospect is not on a big league club’s 40-man roster, approaching their fourth or fifth year of being in the minors while not attaining a spot on the roster, that they are eligible to be selected by another team in the Rule 5 Draft. There is a cash factor at play, and if a team selects a prospect from another team they are saying they believe that player can contribute to their big league club immediately and therefore he must be placed on said team’s 25-man active roster and stay there for the entire season.
There are more rules, and others have gone into far greater detail about the official process behind the Rule 5 Draft. Such depth isn’t the purpose of this article. Rather, my intent is to focus on the players the Cubs will possibly protect in this year’s draft. Before we get into those players, it’s important that people reading this article realize that the Rule 5 Draft can feature players who go on to be great. Roberto Clemente, Bobby Bonilla, Odúbel Herrera, Joakim Soria, Jeff Nelson, Johan Santana, Héctor Rondón, and Hack Wilson are but some of the notable players left unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft who ended up getting drafted by new teams and went on to have solid-to-great careers.
This year’s draft will be the same as recent years drafts have been for the Cubs: chocked full of talent they simply cannot protect from other teams. The Cubs front office will most likely enter the draft with a roster below the 40 maximum, that’s because they want to see if there is any good talent in the draft for them to gobble up themselves. This also means, that among all the touted prospects the Cubs have who will be eligible for the 2018 draft, most likely somewhere around a total of 65-69 players, they won’t be able to protect many of them. In fact, I believe that the front office will continue their pattern of only protecting three or four prospects by adding them to the 40-man. There will undoubtedly be some interesting moves made to get the roster to that point, but again, that’s not what we’re here to talk about this time.
Breaking down the entire list of possible Rule 5 eligible prospects would be, frankly, really long and something I think everyone would get bored of rather quickly. With that in mind, the key players I think everyone needs to keep in the back of their mind for either the Cubs protecting or another team possibly drafting are listed below, followed by a breakdown of the three players I believe the Cubs will choose to add to the 40-man and protect:
As previously stated, there are far more players eligible to possibly be drafted than the ones I included here. Chances are a few of the ones I listed will be picked up by other teams. But, as enticing as it may seem for a team to snag themselves a good prospect at very little cost, most will go undrafted. That’s what makes the Rule 5 Draft so interesting. It’s like a game of cat and mouse among teams, but with prospects as the cheese that no one can really see. On the Cubs’ end, I’m fairly certain they won’t allow at least these three prospects to even sniff the exit door.
The Venezuelan catcher hasn’t looked the best for the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League. But, don’t let that small sample distract from how much improvement he did show between the South Bend Cubs and Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The jump from the Single-A Cubs to the High-A Pelicans saw him improve his power, raise his TAv, and drastically jump forward defensively. Previously Pereda seemed like a guy destined for lots of strikeouts and a career on the bench. If he builds on the improvements he made in 2018, he may be able to work his way into a starting role (either with the Cubs or somewhere else) as a gap-driven hitting catcher. Pereda is likely a couple of years removed from making a run at a big-league playing time. But, his upside keeps getting bigger, and I don’t see the Cubs being willing to let him go unprotected this year.
The big left-hander out of George County High School in Mississippi hasn’t played much since his August 2017 Tommy John surgery. That doesn’t mean the Cubs as an organization has lost sight of the talent he possesses. He’s been hit pretty well with the Solar Sox this fall, but again, that’s distracting and not something I’d put too much stock in. For Steele, his time with Mesa has been all about getting his reps in and continuing to strengthen his arm in real game situations post-surgery. Prior to surgery Steele had shown a lot of promise and appeared to be on the path of using his well-developing pitches to fast track through the organization. Pitching for the Pelicans and Double-A Tennessee after the surgery, Steele looked like he hadn’t lost a step—in fact, he looked almost better than before Tommy John. His fastball showed more life, his curveball was breaking even later, and he developed better separation on his changeup. Steele won’t be seeing Chicago in 2019, but he’s a lefty the Cubs do not want to see go anywhere else.
Clifton is a 6’4″ right-handed flamethrower who may or may not have a future as a starter. The reason I say that is because the Cubs want him to be a starter, but I’m not so sure his future resides at the beginning of games. Clifton’s four-seam fastball is his main weapon, and with his often (though not always) plus curveball he plays better as a reliever confined to those two pitches alone, in my eyes. The Tennessean reached the Triple-A level with the Iowa Cubs in 2018. He wasn’t great, but most of his issues can be tied to him being in that starter role and trying to work on a changeup that always seems to settle on being mediocre. The Cubs will protect Clifton because of the starter they see in him. In doing so the Cubs may be setting themselves up for a dominant, high-velocity reliever in the near future.
Now, I am by no means an expert when it comes to prospects, the Rule 5 Draft, and the Cubs organization. It may seem crazy to some that I see them letting the power of Jason Vosler possibly wind up somewhere else. There are those among you who probably think protecting Clifton and Steele over Rondón is criminal. You folks may end up right, and the Cubs may protect different players than the ones I have highlighted. Or, they may not protect any of these players at all. The Rule 5 Draft is hard to predict, it is an endeavor in unending fluidity (and, sometimes, futility). Who knows, the Cubs may let all of these guys go and wind up drafting another Hack Wilson as they did in 1925. That’s the Rule 5 Draft in a nutshell, and that’s why all baseball fans should be paying attention when Thursday, December 13th finally rolls around.
Lead photo of Justin Steele courtesy of the Tennessee Smokies.