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Warning: Both these videos are gruesome, but when I first saw the bad-hop grounder that nailed Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera yesterday, I immediately flashed back to the bad-hop grounder that nailed Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak last August. It shows that third base is not the only “hot corner” on the diamond. Smoak, you’ll recall, suffered a fractured nose, and was out for nearly three weeks. Cabrera has a small fracture under his eye and is expected to be out at least two weeks.
I wish him well — Cabrera is one of the top players in MLB, and the sport is better with him playing. It appears that he got lucky and, thankfully, avoided serious damage. Meanwhile, Smoak seems to have put the incident completely behind him and, from what I’ve seen, is playing first base without any trepidation.
The headline on this blog post is a little unfair, because just about every team has an undistinguished history with the Rule 5 draft. Look over these names, and you’ll see that the vast majority were never heard from again.
But there are a few glaring exceptions, and those are the ones that drive the Rule 5 engine every December. It is the chance to get a Roberto Clemente, a Johan Santana, a Dan Uggla, a Joakim Soria, a George Bell, a Kelly Gruber, or a Jose Bautista (all of whom were Rule 5 selections, though Bautista needed to go through five more organizations after the Orioles took him from Pittsburgh in 2003 before he blossomed into his current superstar status).
Teams, thus, spend considerable time and scouting energy to select players during the draft, held annually on the last day of the winter meetings. For a mere $50,000, you can take any player not protected on teams’ 40-man rosters (there are some provisos on who has to be protected, but we won’t get into that here). Here’s the catch: Drafted players must be kept on the major-league roster of the selecting team for the entire season, or be offered back to the original team for half the draft price.
I bring this up because, as Bob Condotta wrote Sunday, the Mariners are currently thinking long and hard about whether to keep their current Rule 5 selection, left-handed reliever Lucas Luetge, on the roster. If they don’t, they’ll have to offer him back to Milwaukee, from whom they selected him in the Rule 5 draft this past December. Luetge has pitched well so far this spring (a stark contrast from another lefty reliever candidate, Hong-Chih Kuo. who was released yesterday.) Luetge, Cesar Jimenez (who is out of options), Charlie Furbush and George Sherrill are all vying for lefty jobs in the pen (with Sherrill pretty much a lock).
The Mariners are seemingly in the optimal position to gamble with a Rule 5 draft pick — a rebuilding team that doesn’t have realistic hopes of contending this season. That’s in contrast to the 2002 Mariners, a team that won 116 games the previous season and had designs on the World Series title. They kept Rule 5 draftee Luis Ugueto , an infielder, all season (though Lou Piniella never quite was able to remember his name), and missed the playoffs by six games despite winning 93. Would a 25th player who actually contributed, instead of one who got just 23 at-bats, have made a difference? Probably not, but you never know. Ugueto, we now know, wasn’t worth the commitment, as his career petered out quickly. He never returned to the majors after 2003.
Here is the list of recent Mariners’ Rule 5 picks:
2010 draft: RHP Jose Flores. He was returned to Cleveland Indians March 25, 2011.
2009 draft: RHP Kanekoa Texeira. Texeira, drafted from the Yankees, stayed with the team until late May, when he was designated for assignment with a 5.30 ERA. The Royals picked him up, but after two lackluster seasons in KC he is now with the Reds, slated for the minors.
2008 draft: OF Jose Lugo, Inf Reegie Corona. Both players were returned to their original team before the season started, Lugo to the Twins, Corona to the Yankees.
2007 draft: RHP R.A. Dickey: The Mariners swung a deal with the Twins at the end of spring training to allow them to keep Dickey and send him to the minors (the Twins received pitching prospect Jair Fernandez). Dickey wound up going 5-8 in 2008, but his career didn’t take off until he got to the Mets.
2006 draft: RHP Sean White (who was actually drafted by the Braves, from the Pirates; the Mariners purchased White from Atlanta). He appeared in 15 games in 2007 (spending much of the year on the DL), then had a fine season in 2009 (2.80 ERA in 52 games). But White struggled in 2010, and now is a minor leaguer with the Red Sox.
One interesting Rule 5 case with the Mariners was second baseman Fernando Vina, taken in the 1992 draft and carried in the major leagues until June. That’s when Lou Piniella got fed up with some rookie mistakes by Vina, who was offered back to the Mets. They took Vina and traded him during the offseason to Milwaukee, where he became an All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner.
Other Rule 5 guys with the Mariners over the years include outfielder Chad Alexander, infielder Jeff Huson, pitcher Andy Nezelek and pitcher Kevin Coffman. Only Huson stuck with the team, and he was released in July. In fact, the Mariners’ greatest Rule 5 success story, by far, was reliever Jeff Nelson, but there’s a catch. Nelson was taken by the Mariners from the Dodgers organization in December of 1986 in the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft. The rules are different, not requiring a major-league stint. Still, it was a shrewd move to get Nelson into Seattle’s organization, where he become a key contributor to the 1995 run before being traded to the Yankees and winning four World Series titles.
If the Mariners truly believe Luetge is a guy who can help them down the road, then they should go for it. As mentioned, the odds are long that Luetge, as a Rule 5 pick, will materialize into a valuable player. But, again, it is the exceptions that tantalize teams (and here are some more Rule 5 success stories: Josh Hamilton, Evan Meek, Willie Hernandez, Darrell Evans, Shane Victorino, Dave Hollins; there are more); out of the hundreds of guys who fade away, the occasional gem emerges for teams that are willing to put up with what might be a shaky first season in the majors.