With the winter meetings upon us, fans are worrying if Tampa Bay could be losing a prospect. Last year, it did, although it was a questionable choice.
At the conclusion of the 2014 edition, the Arizona Diamondbacks did what had been rumored and selected Rays catching prospect Oscar Hernandez with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft. I don't know if anyone outside of the Arizona braintrust thought he would stick. He was young, inexperienced and raw.
But he did.
Not bound by the pressures of expectations, the Diamondbacks did not need to prioritize having major league-caliber players on the roster. They were prepared to enter the season with a mix of Hernandez, Tuffy Gosewisch and Gerald Laird to replace longtime catcher Miguel Montero, who had been traded to the Cubs.
One way to avoid the pesky issue of experience is an injury, and Arizona caught a literal break when Hernandez suffered a broken hamate in his left hand. Surgery would keep him out an estimated six weeks.
There was understandable frustration among fans when over 13 weeks later, Hernandez finally made his first appearance on a rehab assignment. Under the circumstances, it appeared the Diamondbacks could have been slow-walking his return to run down the clock and improve their chances of retaining him.
After exhausting 18 out of a maximum 20 days on his rehab assignment, Hernandez was finally added to the active roster on July 4, over 16 weeks since his surgery in March. While the initial estimate of his recovery time was not even close, compared to his peers, he missed a normal amount of time:
- Giancarlo Stanton had surgery on June 28, 2015 and did not return that season (14 weeks)
- Leonys Martin had surgery on Aug. 26, 2015 and returned in a month for Texas' playoff chase, but he batted just once
- Ryan Lavarnway had surgery on June 2, 2014, began his rehab assignment on July 18 (seven weeks) but did not return to the majors until Sept. 17 (over 15 weeks)
- Wilson Ramos had surgery on April 2, 2014 and began a rehab assignment a month later
- Gordon Beckham had surgery on April 16, 2013 and began a rehab assignment on May 18 (four-plus weeks) and did not return to the majors until June 3 (roughly seven weeks)
- Mike Zunino sustained a broken hamate on July 25, 2013 and returned to the majors on Sept. 2 (over five weeks)
Of course, every injury is different. Hernandez's recovery was a bit on the longer end compared to these recent cases, but not unusual.
When he did return, playing time for Hernandez was scarce, or what could have been expected for a young Rule 5 player. He didn't even make his debut for eight days, the day before the All-Star break. He would finally make his first start in Arizona's second game after the break, 12 days after he was added to the roster.
The rest of the season would be more of the same; Hernandez totaled just 36 plate appearances, and he added 62 more in the Arizona Fall League.
The Rays lost a solid prospect when the Diamondbacks were able to keep Hernandez through 2015. Baseball America did not rank him in the organization's top-30 list after 2014, but he was still known for his tools and potential. No longer restrained by Rule 5 roster restrictions, Arizona will be able to freely option him to the minors and resume his development, but will he pan out after what was essentially a lost season?
The best way to learn is to do, and in baseball, that's getting plate appearances or innings. The Diamondbacks did what they had to do to get their player, but to do so, they may have derailed his career, defeating the purpose of keeping him in the first place.
Teams rarely find catchers in the Rule 5 draft, probably because it's a hard position to develop. Players have to learn receiving, blocking and gamecalling and develop a rapport with a pitching staff. Players would likely not even be in the Rule 5 draft if they were already ready for the majors, and then if they are selected, they have 1 1/2 months to prove themselves to their team. Here is the pre-Hernandez history of catchers in the Rule 5 draft, going back to 1997:
- In 2013, the White Sox selected Adrian Nieto from the Nationals. He stuck in 2014 but posted just a .635 OPS in 118 plate appearances. He went to Double A in 2015 and was granted minor league free agency after the season. He signed a minor league deal with his hometown Marlins for 2016.
- In 2008, the Orioles selected Lou Palmisano from the Brewers and traded him to the Astros. Houston offered him back to the Brewers, but they declined. He went on the DL, was released and never played in affiliated baseball again.
- Also in 2008, the Diamondbacks selected James Skelton from the Detroit Tigers. They made a trade to retain his rights but released him before the 2010 season. He never reached the majors.
- In 2006, the Nationals selected Jesus Flores from the Mets. He actually made a career for himself, accumulating over four years of service during six seasons. He was with Triple-A Durham briefly in 2013 and has not played in the majors since 2012.
- Also in 2006, the Phillies selected Adam Donachie from the Royals. He was traded to the Orioles for another Rule 5 pick, Alfredo Simon, but was eventually returned to Kansas City. He never reached the majors.
- The Phillies remained busy in 2006 and selected Ryan Budde from the Angels. He was returned to the Angels, and he made his debut later that season.
- In 2002, the Royals selected Ronny Paulino from the Pirates. He did not stick, but maybe they were onto something. He made his big league debut three years later and played 573 games.
- In 1998, the Cardinals selected Alberto Castillo from the Phillies. He was a major league veteran, and the Phillies had just signed him two months earlier. The 29-year-old stuck with St. Louis.
Not only is the catcher position historically poor in the Rule 5 draft, Hernandez was also young, appearing in the majors in his age-21 season. The list of position players as young as Hernandez being selected is, well... short.
- In 2002, the Brewers selected infielder Enrique Cruz from the Mets. The sixth-place Brewers apparently did not mind using a roster spot on him, and he only got 76 plate appearances in 2003. He batted .085 and did not surface in the majors again until 2007, when he batted once for the Reds.
- In 1997, the Blue Jays selected outfielder Luis Saturria from the Cardinals. He did not stick, which isn't shocking since like Hernandez, he hadn't played above Class A at the time of the selection. He would make the majors two years later, but he only had 11 PAs in a two-year big league career.
That's it. There are some of reasons this list is so short. It doesn't make a lot of sense for most teams to take a player so young and try to keep him for a whole season. It's a waste of a roster spot, and who knows how it will affect a player's development? Since 2006, teams have had an extra year to evaluate players before protecting them. This means most players will be much older than 21 before they're even eligible.
Since 1997, there aren't a lot of precedents for Hernandez. Teams rarely bother trying to grab a catcher in the Rule 5 draft, and it's even more rare for them to take a 21-year-old. The Rays would probably prefer having him to not having him, but at this point, I don't know what kind of career he can have.