Brewers Farm Update

Rule 5 Draft: Names to Watch

You’ve heard about the one about the slow offseason, right? We’re into December now and, for one reason or another, no one has managed to ignite the hot stove’s pilot light. That all figures to change soon. The 2017 Winter Meetings kick off on December 10, and the ingredients this year (Stanton, Ohtani, Darvish, Arrieta) are looking particularly combustible.

That should be fun. And once it’s over, on the morning of Thursday, December 14, there’s the Rule 5 Draft. Few things are so absurd and delightful. As everyone is packing their bags and returning to the regularly-scheduled offseason, teams will quietly pay $100,00 to try to steal another team’s prospect. The catch: Said prospect must stay on the purchasing team’s 25-man roster for the duration of the following MLB season, or he’ll be offered back to their original organization for $50,000.

Unsurprisingly, most Rule 5 selections don’t pan out, and results like Colin Walsh’s .085 batting average in 2016 or Wei-Chung Wang’s 10.90 ERA in 2014 are the norm. But every now and then, there’s an Odubel Herrera or a Joe Biagini or even a Johan Santana sprinkled in among the roster filler to keep things tantalizing.

The Brewers have the 21st selection in this year’s Rule 5 draft. David Stearns and the rest of the Brewers front office will have to dig deep to find an impact talent. Happily, there are plenty of intriguing names available in this year’s draft-eligible class. Here are a few of my favorites.

Travis Ott, LHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Ott, a 6’4” lefty with an exaggerated leg kick who turns 23 in June, is one of a handful of interesting Rays prospects left exposed by a 40-man roster crunch. Formerly property of the Washington Nationals, Ott arrived in Tampa along with Steven Souza Jr. in the three-team trade that netted the Nats Trea Turner and sent Wil Myers to San Diego.

The Rays have been slow to move Ott up the ladder. The lefty spent all of 2015 and 2016 in Class-A ball before reaching Class-A Advanced Charlotte last season. Ott slings a fringy, low-90s fastball across his body from a 3/4 slot, but there’s enough projection left on his frame to hope that the heater kicks up a few ticks. Of his secondaries, a mid-70s curveball flashes more potential than his changeup or slider. Across 118 innings and two levels last year, Ott struck out 132. His career ERA in the minor leagues is 2.72, and he worked to a 67.4 DRA- in Charlotte. It’s not the most electric profile, but there could be a big league arm in there and lefty relief options are always popular come Rule 5 time.

Adam Cimber, RHP, San Diego Padres
At 27 years old, Cimber is no longer a conventional prospect. On the other hand, he just recorded a 21.0 strikeout percentage against a negligible 3.2 walk percentage in AAA. His 55 percent groundball rate was nothing to sneeze at, either. Cimber utilizes an uncommon sidearm delivery, whipping the ball to the plate from the vicinity of his kneecaps. His command profile alone makes him worthy of a look in Spring Training. After all, playing for Milwaukee could be Cimber’s destiny; his first grade teacher was named Mrs. Brewer.

Nick Burdi, RHP, Minnesota Twins
A second-round pick in 2014, Burdi pitched just 17 innings in 2017 before undergoing Tommy John surgery. The year prior, a bone bruise brought about by a high-stress delivery limited the promising hurler to just three appearances.

Still, Burdi’s fragile arm possesses elite upside. In the past, he’s thrown a dominant fastball that can touch triple digits and hard, plus slider that’s been clocked as high as the mid-90s. Though iffy command further clouds his future, he could become a potent bullpen arm if his elbow doesn’t spontaneously combust. In any case, Burdi’s recovery is likely to eat deep into the 2018 season.

Nick Ciuffo, C, Tampa Bay Rays
Ciuffo was a first-round pick for the Rays in 2013. While he hasn’t hit as hoped, it still isn’t difficult to see why the Rays thought so highly of the budding backstop. He’s an advanced defender with viable receiving skills and a plus arm (he’s thrown out 42 percent of would-be base stealers throughout his minor league career).

Dig a little deeper, and the struggles with the stick don’t seem quite so worrisome, either. In 2014, Ciuffo dropped weight while battling a virus. His offensive production lagged, and it’s conceivable that his mechanics got out of whack while his body recovered. He’s always had a good eye, and ran a .266 TAv in AA last year as a 22-year-old catcher. Better still, Ciuffo got stronger as the season wore on. From July 1 through the season’s end, he batted .279/.368/.424 with 15 doubles and 25 walks against 33 strikeouts over 190 plate appearances.

Ciuffo is a much surer thing to stick behind the plate than fellow catcher Max Pentecost, who will likely be gone by the time the Brewers make their first selection. If Stearns and company trust Manny Piña to handle everyday duties behind the dish, Ciuffo could slide onto the roster in place of Stephen Vogt and soak up Piña’s thirteen-plus years of catching expertise.

Travis Demeritte, IF, Atlanta Braves
The Brewers have a need at second base, and Demeritte, a first-round pick of the Rangers in 2013, offers an interesting blend of risk and reward. On the “reward” side, Demeritte is a slick defender at both second and third base equipped with plus raw power and a keen eye for walks.

Then there’s the risk. A positive test for performance enhancing drugs in 2015 took some of the luster off Demeritte’s rising star. He also has a long swing. 2017 was his first full professional season with a strikeout rate below 30 percent. Additionally, Demeritte hit just .231 for a .267 TAv last year in Class-AA ball. Contact issues aside, the collection of average-or-better tools could at least turn the 23-year-old Demeritte into a valuable utility man with uncommon pop.

Victor Reyes, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Rule 5-eligible for the second year in a row, the 23-year-old Reyes is an average runner with a decent glove and a serviceable arm. A switch-hitter, he’s a career .298 batter in the minors thanks to a smooth, line-drive swing that generates lots of contact. He doesn’t walk a ton, but he doesn’t strike out much, either. Last year in AA, he turned in a characteristic .292/.332/.399 batting line.

That all sounds like a typical fourth outfielder, and Reyes might be just that. But if he develops his lagging power, he has a chance to be much more. Good news on that front: Reyes whacked 29 doubles last year, easily a career high. If he continues to make strides in that department, he could blossom into a regular corner outfielder who can play center in a pinch. His swing and approach give him perhaps the best chance of any player on this list to actually hit major league pitching next season.

Jason Martin, OF, Houston Astros
Martin offers a rare Rule 5 opportunity: Five tools that could be average or better. He features a compact left-handed swing that he uses to spray line drives across the field. The power is coming along, as Martin has posted back-to-back years of Isolated Slugging over .200 and his 18 home runs across Class-A Advanced and AA last year were joined by 35 doubles and 5 triples.

On the defensive side of the spectrum, Martin’s routes in the outfield could use refinement and some extra zip to his throwing arm would ease worries about his long-term home. Tighten the routes and he could be an everyday centerfielder. Otherwise, he could be a fringe-regular in left.

Big league pitching may be a problem for Martin at first, as his move to AA last year was accompanied by a spike in strikeouts and a precipitous drop in walks. On the plus side, Martin played most of last season as a 21-year-old. He has plenty of time to adjust.

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