With the Rule 5 draft passing recently I wanted to research the successful players who have come out of the draft in the last 10 years. What I found was that only a handful of Rule 5 players have managed to stick and play at least 5 years or are still playing with a consistent role with their team. Between 2010-2020, only 4 players had a combined WAR (wins above replacement) of above 5 through that time span. In this article we will talk about those players, the philosophy of how teams should draft in the Rule 5, and the Royals success in the draft.
Before we begin, I wanted to give a brief overview of how the Rule 5 draft works. The order is similar to the Rule 4 draft, or the June amateur draft that everyone knows. The team with the worst record from the year prior goes first and can select a player from any organization around the league, as long as they are not protected by the 40-man roster. Not only does the player have to not be protected by the 40-man but they must also have played for at least 5 years if they were drafted/signed at 18 or younger or if a player was drafted/signed at 19 or older and has played for four years. If a team chooses this player then they must put them on their 26-man roster and keep him there or else he will pass through waivers and return to the team he was drafted from if no one claims him. There are a lot more subtle details in the draft, but as a basic overview, this is how it works.
The Rule 5 draft is a fairly low-risk high-reward process for teams that have an extra spot on their 40-man roster. It is also a win-win for players and teams. Players get a cherished roster spot and teams get a cheap player that will hopefully add value. Like I mentioned earlier, only 4 players have an accumulated WAR of 5+, but that doesn’t mean that value can’t be found in the draft. When looking at the top 15, if you take out those 4 players the other 11 still have an average WAR of 1.2. For reference, an average starter has a WAR around 2 and a backup player/reliever is between 0 and 1.
Since value can be found in the draft, what should a team’s approach be to drafting players? In short, teams should take risks and swing for the fences. 90% of players won’t pan out and only 3% will have an accumulated WAR over 5, but the players are cheap, and a change of scenery may be all that is necessary for them to reach their potential. Even if their potential is only as a backup player, they still have value because deep rosters win championships. This seems to have been the blueprint for the Royals in the Dayton Moore era. Moore drafted Joakim Soria in 2007 and completed a draft and trade for Brad Keller in 2017. No team has had sustained success in the draft, but the Royals are one of only a select few teams who have had multiple players who have stuck around on their roster. Both players didn’t get a chance to shine in the minors as neither Keller nor Soria were able to play above AA, yet they both were huge acquisitions.
Teams need to go into the draft understanding that the odds are they won’t find a franchise type player, but they can find value in that 10% that do pan out. Looking at 2007 Rule 4 draft data from SB Nation you can see that 10% of the 6th round picks made it to the major league level and only one player had a 1+ WAR. These stats show that a Rule 5 draft pick could be as valuable as a top 10 round pick in the draft and gives support to the blueprint of teams swinging for the fences. There is so much untapped potential in MLB it’s up to the teams to come up with that home run.