Josh Hamilton Josh Hamilton

The Josh Hamilton Effect

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Entering the 2007 Rule 5 Draft, the Devil Rays knew Josh Hamilton still has the potential to be a superstar. They also thought the chances of it coming together were next to nothing. He didn’t get into a single professional game from 2003 to 2005 as he battled injury and then addiction. In 2006 at age 25, he got into 15 games at Short Season-A Hudson Valley, and he didn’t even play well, posting a .260/.327/.360 line. They had seen enough and they gave up on him. Then the Cubs selected him in the Rule 5 Draft and traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. Hamilton had a big rookie year, was traded to the Texas Rangers following the season, and the rest is history.

Hamilton’s situation was unique. But the situation of having a prospect with sky-high upside but equally high risk happens relatively often. This season, teams with such players are going to crazy lengths to protect them. Why? Because they’re scared that if they don’t, a Hamilton-esque superstar might get away and their fan base may never forgive them.

Michael Ynoa, who turned 21 in September, had a horrific season between Rookie ball and Short Season-A in the Oakland Athletics organization, going just 1-4 with a 6.46 ERA and 25 walks compared to 25 strikeouts in 30.2 innings pitched. It was his first time pitching above Rookie ball despite signing with the A’s back in 2008. However, he has number one starter upside with a projectable 6’7″, 210 frame, a fastball that touches the mid-90’s, a curveball that is nasty at best, and even a solid changeup that continues to develop. The chances that Ynoa would have been selected in the Rule 5 Draft and pitched well enough in spring training and major leagues to avoid being returned to Oakland were 1 in a million at best- you can’t go from struggling in short season ball to pitching anything near respectably in the big leagues in one season. Yet the A’s protected Ynoa knowing that if somehow he all put it together next season for another team, that would be ripped incessantly as much as the Rays have for letting Hamilton go.

Ynoa wasn’t the only New York-Penn League pitcher added to a 40-man roster on Tuesday. Hansel Robles, who after turning 22 in August still hasn’t pitched at full season ball, did have an unbelievable season at the Mets’ Short Season-A Brooklyn affiliate in 2012, going 6-1 with a 1.11 ERA and a 66-10 strikeout to walk ratio in 12 starts and 72.2 IP. Those are ridiculous numbers, but that doesn’t mean he could manage an ERA under 7.00 in the big leagues next season. And Robles doesn’t even have the highest upside, throwing in the mid-90’s with nice sink but throwing two secondary pitches that are below-average at this point in his changeup and slider. But after such dominance at Short Season-A, the Mets decided not to take any chances.

Two players were also added to 40-man roster by MLB teams out of Low-A franchises, with both teams actually involved in the whole Hamilton situation: Yorman Rodriguez by the Reds and Felipe Rivero by the Rays.

Rodriguez, who turned 20 in August, fits the Hamilton profile but in a many times rawer form, being a 5-tool talent limited by a complete lack of discipline. He started the year at High-A Bakersfield and hit just .156 with a .381 OPS in 94 plate appearances before showing more promise after being sent down to Low-A Dayton, where he had played 2011, posting a .270/.307/.430 line with 17 doubles, 6 homers, and 7 stolen bases in 277 plate appearances, although he did strike out 61 times against just 12 walks. Rodriguez shows outstanding bat speed, prolific power, and even great speed, but immaturity and a stubbornness to improve his game has prevented him from getting anywhere. He’s a free swinger at the plate with zero pitch recognition, and his lack of discipline extends far beyond the plate as he has no drive and never hustles. Baseball America described Rodriguez quite eloquently in their 2011 Prospect Handbook: “But as intriguing as his upside may be, it’s also fair to say that Rodriguez does almost nothing to help a team win at this point in his career.” Who would possibly select Rodriguez in the Rule 5 Draft right now? But the Reds may be scared they’re going to fall into the same trap the Rays did with Hamilton.

Rivero, 21, is somewhat of an exception to the rule- the Rays actually had to consider the possibility of him being a Rule 5 pick if they didn’t protect him on their 40-man roster. Rivero, a slim 6’0″, 151 left-hander, had a nice season at the Rays’ Low-A Bowling Green affiliate, going 8-8 with a 3.41 ERA, a 7.8 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 113.1 innings pitched. He was actually better than that before wilting down the stretch between surpassing his previous career-high in innings by 50 and secondarily, uncomfortableness working out of the bullpen as he managed a 2.86 ERA in 21 starts compared to a 6.16 ERA in 6 relief appearances when the Rays tried to limit his innings at the end of the year. Rivero throws a fastball in the mid-90’s, and he also flashes plus with his curveball to go along with a solid changeup. He pounds the zone with his fastball and can throw his other two pitches for strikes, although he has trouble commanding all his pitches down in the zone. Rivero has work to do getting better movement on his curveball and changeup more consistently, but he has a relatively polished arsenal and has a chance to move quickly through the minor leagues. He could conceivably reach Double-A in the Rays’ system next season. It was still was a stretch to add Rivero, but the Rays must think that it was not worth the risk that they would lose him.

Why did these teams protect these players? The minor league section of the Rule 5 Draft? Absolutely not. You can only select players not on their teams’ reserve lists in the minor league section, and all these players will undoubtedly be on those lists. The main reason teams put these players on 40-man rosters is paranoia that their players may be drafted away from them and blossom into superstars somewhere else. Maybe one of these players will turn out to be a star one day.  But all these teams are doing until the day that materializes is wasting a roster spot on a player they weren’t going to lose anyway. Love him or hate him, the case of Josh Hamilton will continue to resonate throughout baseball. He incited a trepidation over losing high-risk prospects to the Rule 5 Draft that may never go away.