Not every early draft pick works out, and that's something we'll be reminded of during this year's Rule 5 draft
The Rule 5 draft is an opportunity for teams with the roster space to pluck talent from other clubs who do not have the space. There are all kinds of players who go unprotected each November -- former prospects, fringe talents, potential big-league pieces -- but the saddest group has to be former first-round selections. These players were initially picked because they were believed to have the brightest futures of all, but instead they're suddenly available to anyone who cares to put in a claim. A look at some of the former top picks:
Matt LaPorta: He's the most well-known of the group, as he was, until recently, a major-league player. The Indians designated him for assignment, though, and he cleared waivers, taking him off of the 40-man roster and placing him back in the minors. LaPorta was selected seventh overall in the 2007 draft, and has amassed 1,068 plate appearances in the majors. He's heading into his age-28 season, owns a career line of .238/.301/.393 in the majors, and only has his minor-league numbers as a point in his favor.
As he's no longer on the 40-man, LaPorta could be selected in the Rule 5 draft by anyone willing to bother with him. He would have to be kept on the major-league roster all season in order to make it work, but for a team desperate enough to find something useful at first base, that wouldn't be an issue: if he doesn't hit, there's no need to keep him around, anyway. He's in a different class than the other first-round selections now available in that regard, as he has major-league experience, and his 2013 wouldn't be seen as a one-year delay in player development, like it would for most other Rule 5 selections.
Eric Arnett: Arnett is another first-round pick of the Brewers, selected 26th in the 2009 draft. Unlike LaPorta, Arnett has never made it to the bigs. Things were problematic from the start, with Arnett walking 5.5 batters per nine in his debut season, a problem that's stuck with him for most of his career and helped negate his high strikeout rate.
Arnett wasn't some mistake pick by the Brewers in the sense they were the only ones who thought much of him. Baseball America rated him their fourth-best prospect heading into 2010, and though they lost a lot of faith before 2011, he was still 18th in the system. He had struggled with his command in college, but before he was taken by Milwaukee, he had seemingly put it all together. There was concern about the inconsistency of his arm slot, but still, he was supposed to be in the majors by now.
Instead, he's 24 years old, and just completed a season in High-A. Someone with an open spot on the 40-man, who can afford to roll the dice on a pitcher like Arnett in their bullpen for a year, could benefit from taking him in the Rule 5. Like many others, though, he's a long shot to produce much of anything. For every Johan Santana or Shane Victorino taken in the Rule 5, there are dozens and dozens (and probably more!) of guys like Arnett, who most likely won't become anything.
Josh Fields: He's older than Arnett, but there's far more chance he'll be able to help a team right now. Fields was picked 20th in the 2008 draft by the Mariners, but the reliever saw his stock fall as he failed to control his stuff. He was packaged along with Erik Bedard in a 2011 trade to the Red Sox, and from that point forward, his career finally came together. Fields struck out 25 batters in 17 innings with Double-A Portland, and walked 10. He cut that rate even further in his repeat stint at the level, striking out 3.7 times as many hitters as he walked, easily a career-high.
He followed that up with 19 strikeouts against two walks in 10 appearances at Triple-A, but that wasn't enough for Boston to protect him on their crowded 40. Fields is very likely to be taken by a team and placed in its bullpen. He's just as good of a bet to produce, given his issues with command and control seem to have worked out. It would be relatively easy to stash a bullpen piece for a season, and since Fields has never been on a 40-man roster, he'll have all of his options remaining should he stick around for the future.
Kevin Ahrens: He's a three-time top prospect of the Blue Jays according to Baseball America, who rated him third, sixth, and 12th from 2007 through 2009. That 2009 season is a long time ago in baseball terms, though, and it seems even longer when you realize he finished that season in High-A -- the level he's still at now. There was a lot to like before those dreams were crushed by the level:
With hand speed, a feel for his swing from both sides of the plate and a firm grasp of the strike zone, Ahrens projects to hit for average and power. A natural righthander, he has more power and better pitch recognition from that side. Drafted as a shortstop, he moved to third base in mid-July, as scouts had predicted. He showed solid hands, good lateral movement and a plus arm.
He's hit .240/.319/.355 in nearly 2,500 minor-league plate appearances. Leaving aside that he's stalled, that line would only work if he had an exceptional glove at short. He's more of a longshot than most at this stage of his career; expect him to remain in Toronto.
That's the Rule 5 in a nutshell, though. Most available players are available for a reason, and even those with some promise are unlikely to produce even when given an opportunity.