SAN DIEGO, Ca. — The final act of the Winter Meetings is the sometimes-riveting Rule 5 Draft, which takes place Thursday afternoon before many general managers fly out of San Diego.
It’s a chance for teams to try to unearth undervalued gems, selecting players teams either don’t have room for on their 40-man rosters, see as being too far away from the big leagues or think they can sneak through the draft for various reasons — such as coming off an injury.
Picking a player in the Rule 5 draft only costs a team $50,000 — a price that hasn’t changed in nearly 30 years — but the catch is that the selecting team has to keep that player on its active big-league roster for the entire season or offer him back to the team from which they took him for $25,000.
There definitely have been more players offered back to their original teams, mostly in Spring Training, than anything else as far as Rule 5 selections go, but every once in a while a team gets a big win.
Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ minor-league roster in the 1959 Rule 5 draft. He’s the biggest fish ever landed, but there have been plenty of other good ones. Among them, Cy Young Award winners Willie Hernandez (who also won an MVP) and Johan Santana, six-time all-star Bobby Bonilla, 400-home run man Darrell Evans and some guy named Jose Bautista. Shane Victorino was even selected twice!
The Blue Jays haven’t been terribly active in the Rule 5 draft under Alex Anthopoulos. They plucked pitcher Zech Zinicola from Washington in 2009 (Anthopoulos’ first Winter Meetings) and sent him back to the Nationals in the middle of Spring Training — and that’s it. They did take Brian Moran from the Mariners last year, but traded him to the Angels immediately for international bonus pool slot money.
In the good old days, though, nobody worked the Rule 5 like Pat Gillick and your Toronto Blue Jays. It started with Willie Upshaw, picked in 1977 off the roster of Gillick’s old team, the Ne York Yankees. Upshaw would eventually become the first Blue Jay ever to drive in 100 runs in a season (103 in 1983) and was the first baseman on the Blue Jays’ first division winner in 1985.
Another Rule 5er was a big part of that ’85 team as well, and he’s still the only Blue Jay ever to win the American League MVP award. George Bell was taken from the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980. Under Gillick, the Blue Jays also used the Rule 5 draft to select Kelly Gruber and Manny Lee — the left side of the infield on the Blue Jays’ first World Series championship team — as well as helpful pieces like Jims Acker and Gott.
The Blue Jays really haven’t brought in an impact player through the Rule 5 draft since selecting Lee (and Lou Thornton) in 1984, the three decades since dotted with the Jose Nunezes, DeWayne Wises and Corey Thurmans of the world. Aquilino Lopez and his 14 saves in 2003 have probably made biggest contribution to the Blue Jays out of all the Rule 5ers over that span.
This year, the Blue Jays took a pass on the Rule 5 draft again. The most intriguing young player available was Delino DeShields Jr., but he was selected third overall by the Texas Rangers, well before Toronto was scheduled to pick at 17. He’s only a year removed from a .317/.405/.468 season in high-A ball in the Astros’ organization. Though he struggled in AA last year, the son of the former Expo put up a .346 on-base percentage. DeShields Jr. has plenty of speed, having stolen 206 bases over the past three seasons, having been caught 51 times. It’s a shame he wasn’t around for the Blue Jays, as he could’ve competed for a job at second base and for the fourth outfield spot. It also would’ve been pretty cool to bring him to Montreal for the last two games of Spring Training.