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Some final Rule 5 predictions

The day is here!

Grant McCray running the bases. Shelly Valenzuela - San Jose Giants

A day of forced offseason activity is upon us. By this afternoon, the San Francisco Giants — like all teams — will have to have add certain prospects to the 40-man roster to protect them from December’s Rule 5 Draft.

I wrote about the Rule 5 protections towards the end of the season, and my feelings have changed quite a bit since then. The narrative surrounding the Giants for this draft remains unchanged: it should be mild-mannered. Even with the departure of free agents, the Giants have a quite full roster, with 36 spots already filled. And with Casey Schmitt, Patrick Bailey, and Tyler Fitzgerald getting called up during the season, some of the biggest names the Giants would have had to protect are already off the board.

So I don’t expect San Francisco to protect a bunch of players, and I don’t expect them to add anyone in the actual draft, either.

The Rule 5 Draft is a simple thing, but predicting the protections is bizarrely difficult, which is part of why you’ll see such different predictions depending on who you ask and read. But predict we must, so it’s time to put on my “prepare to be wrong” pants and type away.

I’m going to take the easy way out and list players in tiers, but don’t worry: I’ll have an actual prediction at the end to stake out my inevitably very wrong stance.

Tier 1: The “locks”

CF Grant McCray: 127 games (High-A), .255/.360/.417, 114 wRC+, 14 home runs, 52 stolen bases, 29.3% strikeout rate
LHP Erik Miller: 54 games (AA/AAA), 2.45 ERA, 1.53 FIP (AA), 4.07 FIP (AAA), 1.203 WHIP, 88 strikeouts to 45 walks in 62.1 innings

I’m putting the word “locks” in quotations because actual locks are nearly non-existent. And while I’d be very surprised if the Giants didn’t protect Miller and McCray, you can draw up reasonable arguments for why they wouldn’t and, in fact, people smarter than I am have predicted that they go unprotected. Furthermore, there very well may be players that the Giants have long viewed as a lock that I’m not even mentioning here. It’s why this is an impossible exercise.

But I just can’t form a compelling case for leaving either of these players unprotected. McCray is not just one of the team’s top prospects, but a player who fits everything Farhan Zaidi keeps saying the organization is looking for. He’s hyper athletic, and the clear-cut top base stealer in the organization, with 95 thefts in 115 attempts over the last two seasons. He has Gold Glove potential in center field, but also has quite a bit of power: his 37 home runs over the last two years are sixth in the organization.

In short, he’s a player they would be heartbroken to lose, and there’s a pretty solid chance of losing him if he went unprotected. It’s quite rare for lower-Minors position players to get selected, but the ones that do are usually players who can hold their own defensively at the Major League level ... which I think McCray can definitely do.

A reminder that a player being added to the 40-man roster doesn’t need to clog that space forever. The Giants are rumored to be all-in on free agent center fielders Jung-hoo Lee and Cody Bellinger, while Fitzgerald, Luis Matos, and Wade Meckler remain intriguing prospects at the position, and all have MLB experience at this point. McCray could be added and then traded if the team lands a big name at the position.

The biggest stain on McCray’s resume is the sizable issue with strikeouts, but I don’t think that’s enough to dissuade the Giants from protecting him, or a team from adding him. After a rough first month of the year, he had a fantastic offensive season.

As for Miller, the case is pretty simple: he’s a lefty who throws high-90s heat and strikes seemingly everyone in the world out. Among 178 pitchers with at least 30 innings thrown in the Pacific Coast League, Miller was 10th in ERA (2.77), third in batting average against (.150), ninth in strikeouts per nine innings (12.6), and 10th in home runs per nine (0.35).

The walks were a massive issue in AAA, but then again, they also were for Kyle Harrison and Camilo Doval. I don’t think walks are enough to keep San Francisco from protecting a potentially-dominant relief arm, especially when Taylor Rogers is the only healthy lefty reliever on the 40-man roster.

Only time will tell if Miller is a high-quality Major League reliever. But the Giants cannot afford to let another team find out the answer.

Tier 2: Can’t let this guy get away

SS Aeverson Arteaga: 126 games (High-A), .235/.299/.410, 89 wRC+, 17 home runs, 8 stolen bases, 24.2% strikeout rate

Arteaga and McCray have been tied together for a while, and that’s doubly true with the upcoming Rule 5 selections.

They play the two most important non-catcher defensive positions, with many evaluators pegging them as potential Gold Glove candidates. They have fairly outstanding power for their respective positions, as Arteaga’s .174 ISO was 17th out of 57 Giants prospects with at least 200 plate appearances this year, despite being a shortstop who is 2.4 years below the average age for his level. And they both have glaring holes in their offensive game that pose question marks for how much they can succeed at the Major League level: strikeouts for McCray, and hit tool for Arteaga, who finished the year with just a .235 batting average (make what you will of his .283 BABIP, which was 57th out of 70 Northwest League hitters with at least 200 plate appearances).

It’s hard to know how the industry ranks these two in a vacuum, since it’s usually dependent on scouting and data that we don’t have access to. But for all the talk of teams who select a player in the Rule 5 Draft needing to “hide” that player to get them in their system, the bulk of drafted players are taken because teams think they can at best thrive, and at worst survive at the MLB level in the coming season.

That’s where we see separation between McCray and Arteaga. McCray is a bit more advanced as a hitter, which isn’t really a knock on Arteaga: there’s an age gap in excess of two years between the prospects. And McCray’s stolen bases give him a nod as a pinch-runner, not just a defensive replacement.

So while I personally have Arteaga ranked ahead of McCray as a prospect, it’s a clear flip in positioning as far as Rule 5 protections go, in my eyes.

Tier 3: No one else is really talking about these guys so I think I’m missing something

LHP Juan Sanchez: 46 games (AA/AAA), 3.03 ERA, 3.17 FIP (AA), 4.78 FIP (AAA), 1.143 WHIP, 80 strikeouts to 32 walks in 74.1 innings
RHP Kai-Wei Teng: 29 games (AA/AAA), 4.42 ERA, 3.40 FIP (AA), 4.38 FIP (AAA), 1.361 WHIP, 164 strikeouts to 68 walks in 126.1 innings

For a while, I viewed Sanchez as the most likely player to be protected. But no one else seemed to agree and so I had to rethink things a little bit.

The case against Sanchez is simple. He has no overwhelming pitches, and he doesn’t have the pinpoint command that you would hope out of someone without an overwhelming pitch. He doesn’t induce a ton of ground balls, and none of his numbers jump off the page.

But to me, the case for Sanchez is even simpler. He turned 23 on Sunday. He’s 5.3 years younger than the average pitcher in his league, yet his ERA (4.26) and FIP (4.78) were both well ahead of the median in the PCL (68th and 60th, respectively, out of 234 pitchers with at least 20 innings thrown). He’s a lefty and, again, Taylor Rogers is the only healthy lefty-reliever on the 40-man roster (the Giants only have three lefty pitchers total on the 40-man, with Harrison, a starter, and injured reliever Thomas Szapucki).

The advanced data may not paint the picture of a pitcher who should be super successful, but at some point the results you get on the field are more important than the results people think you should get on the field. You can’t do like-for-like comparisons with 40-man protections and DFAs, because we don’t know if Sanchez would get selected, and this thinking is how the Giants ended up protecting José Cruz and DFA’ing Gregory Santos, but ... I’d sure rather have Sanchez than Cruz or Randy Rodríguez on the roster.

As for Teng ... he seems to be dismissed as someone the Giants aren’t super high on after they had him start the year by repeating AA. But they did that with Fitzgerald, too, so I’m not sure how much we can read into it. As we baseball media members are required to repeat 10 times before writing any prospect article, development is not linear. And the Giants certainly know this.

Teng showed the improvement the Giants asked for this year, dropping his walks per nine innings from 5.6 in 2022 to 3.8 in his AA stint prior to promotion. They flared up again in AAA (5.5), but that’s to be expected in the PCL.

As with Sanchez, the results for Teng were, simply, well above average. Among the 75 pitchers with at least eight starts in the PCL, Teng was 11th in ERA (4.22), sixth in FIP (4.38), ninth in batting average against (.228), and fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.9). Walks be damned, Teng was one of the best starting pitchers in the league.

Just as I had to with Sanchez, I’ve had to adjust my thinking on Teng a little bit, because no one else seems to view him as a player likely to be protected. But my thinking keeps coming down to these three points/questions.

  1. Would I rather have Kai-Wei Teng or Sean Hjelle on the roster?
  2. Why would the Giants, who are openly looking at trading pitching prospects, not want to prioritize keeping MLB-adjacent starter depth?
  3. And why wouldn’t a bad team like the A’s or Royals select a still-young starting pitcher who was well above average in AAA and let them pitch every fifth day just to see what happens?

If you’ve ever interacted with me about the Rule 5 Draft, you know my stance on the likelihood of players getting selected. I bring a sort of “yeah, that guy’s not at risk of getting drafted” vibe to the Rule 5 discourse. But Teng feels very different to me. He’s a durable starter who has thrown more than 260 innings over the last two seasons. He had an above-average ERA in AAA, is one of the top strikeout artists among all Minor League starting pitchers, and only turns 25 in a few weeks.

If I were the GM of a bad MLB team, I’d be all over drafting that guy and giving him a year. If I were the GM of a good MLB team trying to sign expensive players, I’d be terrified of letting that type of player go for nothing when there’s a chance of them filling out a rotation for basically free over the next six years.

Tier 4: I’m not expecting it, but...

OF Victor Bericoto: 122 games (High-A/AA), .272/.329/.511, 132 wRC+ (High-A), 106 wRC+ (AA), 27 home runs, 1 stolen base, 22.2% strikeout rate
RHP Ben Madison: 41 games (High-A/AA), 3.86 ERA, 2.79 FIP (High-A), 5.01 FIP (AA), 1.229 WHIP, 105 strikeouts to 50 walks in 70 innings
RHP Nick Avila: 56 games (AAA), 3.00 ERA, 5.02 FIP, 1.292 WHIP, 64 strikeouts to 36 walks in 72 innings

Bericoto is quickly becoming a popular pick due to his breakout season, and I think it’s safe to say that the Giants will protect him if they think he’s at risk for being selected. But a defensively-limited hitter who isn’t a top prospect and hasn’t yet proven himself in AA, let alone AAA, just doesn’t seem like a plausible pick to me. Remember, there were only two position players taken last year: Blake Sabol and Ryan Noda, who had 101 and 574 AAA plate appearances, respectively (and performed much better in those plate appearances than Bericoto did in his 204 AA plate appearances).

Madison was my leader in this race for a while, because he fit the Cruz/Rodríguez mold of a dominant, strikeout-heavy High-A reliever. But I think the Giants are moving away from that, and he struggled a lot in AA. So instead he’s my favorite to be protected next year.

Avila was taken in the draft last year for a reason, but he was also returned for a reason. That info makes me think the Giants don’t value him enough to protect him, and aren’t worried about him being taken anyway.

Tier 5: You just never know what other teams know

RHP Ryan Murphy
RHP Trevor McDonald
RHP R.J. Dabovich
1B Logan Wyatt
LHP Chris Wright
LHP Nick Swiney
RHP Carson Ragsdale
RHP Wil Jensen

On the surface, I don’t think any of these players are at all at risk of being drafted. McDonald perhaps has the talent to, but I don’t think anyone is taking that chance on a player with his injury history/lack of sustained track record.

As Roger Munter wrote about a bit while going over potential protections, teams have access to a lot of tracking data that we do not. Which can lead to a few selections each year that seem to come out of left field to the naked eye, but probably are not coming out of left field for scouts and decision makers of each team.

You never know what other teams know. And other teams might know something about these players that make them much more enticing than we would think ... which would make the Giants much more likely to protect that player.

The prediction

My brain tells me I should abandon the two players (Sanchez and Teng) who I was leaning towards but no one else seems to be. My heart tells me to not fully give up on my convictions. So I’ll split the difference:

The Giants will protect Grant McCray, Erik Miller, Aeverson Arteaga, and Kai-Wei Teng.