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8 very intriguing Rule 5 Draft decisions

I don’t have answers, but I have thoughts.

Erik Miller holding a ball in front of him while posing at media day Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The San Francisco Giants are not super concerned with the Rule 5 Draft right now. They have more important fish to fry, including the Marlins. They’re still in “try and win as many games as possible in the hopes of playing more than just 162 games” mode.

Then they can worry about the offseason, full of exciting topics like arbitration decisions, trying to sign Shohei Ohtani, and, yes, the Rule 5 Draft.

But it’s never too early for us to start thinking about the draft, so let’s do exactly that. Like all teams, the Giants have plenty of players eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. To my eyes, however, eight players stand out above the rest.

I have no idea what the Giants will do with these eight players, but they’re the eight players that I figure the team is likely talking about or, at the very least, the players that fans are talking to me about.

So let’s discuss them and see where things stand. This is, of course, only referring to the MLB portion of the draft, as the Giants have plenty more players that are either locks or in consideration for being protected from the Minor League portion.

Here are the eight tough choices, as I see it. I’m sure other people will see it differently. Let’s move alphabetically.

Aeverson Arteaga — Shortstop — High-A

In many ways, 2023 Aeverson Arteaga mirrors 2022 Luis Matos. Both players were highly-talented up-the-middle defenders, very young for the Northwest League, and flashing offensive potential while having statistically below-average seasons.

The main difference, to my eyes, is that I’m guessing the Giants viewed Matos as a top-tier prospect who might be ready to contribute this season, and that belief has certainly been validated. I’m guessing they view Arteaga as a tier below Matos, and a year further away.

The sense when the Giants protected Matos after a 74-wRC+ year in Eugene was that it was highly, highly unlikely that he would be selected if unprotected, but that A) there weren’t willing to assume any risk of losing him, and B) they thought he’d be ready this year and thus it wasn’t clogging the 40-man roster too much.

I’m not super convinced of either of those things for Arteaga, and I say that as one of his strongest supporters. He’s clearly one of the best players in the system — he’s arguably the top defensive prospect on the farm, is tied for third in the organization in homers despite playing shortstop, and is still more than half a year away from turning 21 — but do the Giants see him as a quality prospect or a building block? Probably the former. And with how rarely position players are taken in the Rule 5 Draft, how much risk is there that a non-top 100 prospect with a sub-.300 on-base percentage in High-A gets drafted? I’d say very slim.

Chances the Giants protect him: A coin flip, except the coin is weighted to say “no” a little bit more than “yes.”

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: Very low.

Victor Bericoto — Outfielder — AA

Bericoto was certainly not on my radar as a potential Rule 5 candidate when the season began. He was coming off a below-average season in Low-A, and didn’t offer much in the form of defense or baserunning.

But he’s exploded in 2023. He quickly proved way too good for High-A and, after some initial struggles, has started to find his groove with AA Richmond, where he’s hit 33-125 with 7 home runs, 1 triple, 8 doubles, and 7 walks since the start of August. He leads the organization by a mile with 25 home runs, which puts him in the top 30 of all Minor League players.

Still, position players simply are not common Rule 5 selections. Only two were taken last year: a 26 year old with 135 games in AAA, in which he hit quite well (Ryan Noda); and a 25 year old with 25 spectacular games in AAA, who could catch (Blake Sabol).

Realistically, is Bericoto — a 21 year old who will end the year with about 50 games of below-average AA production, who doesn’t provide much of anything outside of his bat — that much of a risk to be selected, let alone stick? And can the Giants, who have finally achieved one of their goals of loading a 40-man roster with usable depth, justify using a spot on a B or C-level prospect who is still a ways off? Doesn’t seem likely to me.

Chances the Giants protect him: Quite low.

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: Lower still.

Tyler Fitzgerald — Utility — AAA

Ahh, and now we arrive at the player most frequently talked about when this topic rolls around. Fitzgerald has become one of the more divisive players in the system, and everyone seems to have a take on him.

He’s also the player on the farm that probably has the largest gap between how he’s viewed by fans vs. by the team and evaluators (though Heliot Ramos is in the running for that award, too). The bulk of Giants fans seem to be disappointed that Fitzgerald hasn’t yet been given a shot in the Majors, and think he should be a lock to be protected. The Giants don’t seem particularly high on him, and while he has his supporters among prospectors — our friend Roger Munter has always been quite high on him — many evaluators have relegated him to a footnote in the system. He didn’t make Fangraphs’ midseason rank of the team’s top 49 prospects, instead settling for a mention among the 23 “other prospects of note,” packed in a box with Hayden Cantrelle and Dalton Guthrie.

Nothing sums up the Fitzgerald experience quite like the fact that I’ve heard numerous people refer to his Rule 5 decision as a no-brainer ... but with varying opinions as to which direction that supposed no-brainer is pointed towards.

Personally, I’d be fairly surprised if he were protected, though perhaps he’ll head to the Arizona Fall League and force the issue.

There’s a lot to love about Fitzgerald. He’s the only 20-20 player in the system, ranking second among Giants prospects with 21 homers and fourth with 27 stolen bases. He plays defense all over the dirt, and this year has also added center field to his resume. His strikeout rate in AAA is nearly 10 percentage points lower than it was last year in AA.

But there’s a lot more that pushes against protection. He’s about to turn 26, and has been distinctly average this year. Among 124 Pacific Coast League hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, Fitzgerald is 66th in wRC+ (98), 54th in batting average (.280), 89th in on-base percentage (.348), 34th in slugging percentage (.494), 100th in walk rate (9.1%), and 71st in strikeout rate (23.2%).

That’s an emergency depth piece you’d love to keep, and the Giants almost surely will keep him, because that doesn’t strike me as someone that other teams will be jumping at the chance to steal. But every player who is protected results in a player who is released, and I’m not sure where you can justify that move. Or, put another way, Brett Wisely has been a significantly better hitter than Fitzgerald in AAA, is, to my eyes, a much better defensive player, and is more than a year-and-a-half younger. Yet I’m not sure fans would be clamoring to protect him if the Giants had to.

With Wisely, Casey Schmitt, Marco Luciano, J.D. Davis, Thairo Estrada, and likely a veteran signing all occupying 40-man spots this offseason, it’s hard to justify using a place on Fitzgerald. Personally I’d rather they keep David Villar and assume Fitzgerald will make it through December’s draft than protect the latter at the expense of the former.

Chances the Giants protect him: Very low.

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: A little less low, but still very low.

Ben Madison — RHP Reliever — AA

For a long time I felt that Madison was the leading candidate to get protected. He seemed to fit the mold of José Cruz last year, and Randy Rodríguez the year prior: a lower-level strikeout artist who could quickly emerge.

Now I’m less sure. After a year of Cruz and two of Rodríguez, the Giants still haven’t seen either player in the Majors. And after seeing Nick Avila get selected and then returned, they’re surely recalculating the risk involved in simply leaving relievers unprotected. Had the Giants not protected Cruz last year, they would almost surely still have him ... and could have kept Gregory Santos, too.

So while the Giants don’t want to lose Madison and his 13.37 strikeouts per nine innings — fourth in the farm — I’m guessing they’ll bank on his 7.84 walks per nine in AA being enough to ensure he’s still in the system next year regardless.

Chances the Giants protect him: Quite low.

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: Quite low.

Grant McCray — Center Fielder — High-A

McCray is a fascinating one, and his late-season surge has turned this from an easy no to a serious decision.

I don’t think the Giants view McCray as someone who will help the big league team next year, given his fairly sizable strikeout issue. But he’s not that far off and, while I don’t think he would be selected, he does have the tools of someone who could survive if a bad team stashed him on their roster: his center field defense is playable in the Majors already, and he’s stolen 52 bases this year, while having enticing power.

The other issue here is the Giants crowded outfield, and it’s yet another reason why promoting Wade Meckler was so perplexing. Meckler, Matos, and Mitch Haniger will certainly be on the 40-man roster through the offseason, and you can add Sabol to that list if you consider him an outfielder. I’d be shocked if they didn’t tender contracts to Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater and, in this humble writer’s opinion, giving up on Ramos would be a massive mistake. There’s a very good chance Michael Conforto opts into his contract for next year, and also a good chance that they make a run at an outfielder in free agency, such as Cody Bellinger or Teoscar Hernández.

Are they willing to use a roster spot on a player who probably won’t be contributing until 2025, especially when they may have to make space for Bericoto and/or Vaun Brown between now and then?

I’ll admit it: I’m stumped here.

Chances the Giants protect him: Higher than 50-50.

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: Lower than 50-50.

Erik Miller — LHP Reliever — AAA

Another fascinating one! Miller is one of the more extreme players in the system.

Consider where he ranks among 162 Pacific Coast league pitchers with at least 30 innings thrown. He’s 8th in ERA (2.47), 8th in strikeouts per nine innings (12.74), 4th in home runs allowed per nine innings (0.19), 4th in swinging strike rate (16.1%), 3rd in batting average against (.142), and .... umm ... 146th in walks per nine innings (7.23).

On the one hand, the Giants have limited patience for pitchers who can’t keep the ball in the zone. On the other hand, they deeply feel that certain players can overcome that issue at the MLB level, as the promotions of Kyle Harrison and Camilo Doval proved.

Lefties who flirt with 100 mph are a rarity even at the highest level of baseball, and I just have a hard time seeing the Giants letting that go.

Chances the Giants protect him: Quite high.

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: Extremely high.

Juan Sanchez — LHP Reliever — AAA

Honestly, the biggest thing hurting Miller’s chances might be the existence of Sanchez. With Taylor Rogers under contract for next year, and the team likely wanting to retain Scott Alexander (not to mention Darien Núñez!), will they want to protect a pair of unproven southpaw relievers?

I don’t see them letting Sanchez face the draft. Had Sanchez stayed in AA this year, he almost surely would have been protected or drafted: he had a 2.39 ERA, a 3.17 FIP, 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and 3.7 walks per nine. But now that he’s made his way to AAA, it feels like a certainty. His numbers have been up and down, but he’s looked very comfortable and capable. All that and he doesn’t turn 23 until a few weeks before the draft.

In an exercise full of difficult questions, this one feels easy.

Chances the Giants protect him: Near 100%.

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: Very, very high.

Kai-Wei Teng — RHP Starter — AAA

Teng has some similarities to Fitzgerald, in that it seems the Giants don’t value him as much as some others do. But if that hasn’t changed by now, it probably should.

The Giants may have made Teng throw nearly 200 innings in AA before letting him experience AAA, but their patience is being rewarded. In 15 games with Sacramento, Teng has proven more than ready. Among 53 Pacific Coast League pitchers with at least 10 starts, Teng is 2nd in ERA (3.52), 2nd in FIP (4.05), 2nd in strikeouts per nine innings (11.35, behind only Harrison), 1st in home runs allowed per nine innings (0.39), and 4th in batting average against (.221). The walks are the biggest stain, but they’re not that big: his 4.96 per nine innings is 31st.

It’s unclear if the Giants view him as an actual starter or someone in the bulk innings bin, but if the choice this winter is to keep Teng or Sean Hjelle, that feels like a pretty easy one to me.

Chances the Giants protect him: Extremely high.

Chances someone drafts him if unprotected: 100%.

OK, time to tell me how wrong I am!