At the end of the Winter Meetings comes an event that might seem as niche as they come. And yet all 30 teams, as well as scores of players, will be paying close attention Thursday morning.
The Rule 5 Draft commences at 10 a.m. ET without the bright lights and cameras that are now part of the First-Year Player Draft in June (though there is live coverage on MLB.com). But rest assured that the results of this Draft will be watched closely. Major League organizations will be selecting players, trying to find that diamond in the rough while also seeing which players from within might be moving to a new location.
Those interested in knowing who the top potential candidates are can check out MLB.com's Rule 5 20 names to know list. The list is in alphabetical, not rank, order.
Players who didn't earn roster spots this offseason will have a keen interest in the proceedings as well, with selection in the Major League phase of the Draft an opportunity to fulfill the ultimate dream and make a big league roster.
These days it's rare to find a future superstar in the Rule 5 Draft -- keep in mind that the eligible players weren't deemed worthy of a spot on a 40-man roster. Since the rule change back in 2006 that gave each team an extra year to evaluate players -- five years for those who signed at age 18 or younger, four for those 19 or older -- fewer standouts have slipped through.
40-man roster status
But the chance to uncover a Josh Hamilton, Johan Santana, Dan Uggla or Shane Victorino -- the Mount Rushmore, if you will, of Rule 5 impact players over the past 30 years or so -- will make fans check in to see what happens. That, and the low-risk aspect of the transaction, will make teams at least seriously consider making one or more selections.
During the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft, an eligible player left unprotected from his club's 40-man roster may be selected for $50,000. He must then remain on his drafting team's active Major League roster during the following season or be sent back to the original club for $25,000.
Last year, only a dozen players were taken in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. None of them approached the upside of the quartet above or made the immediate impact of a Joakim Soria. Anyone who watched the American League playoffs, though, saw 2011 Rule 5 pick Ryan Flaherty collect 11 postseason at-bats for the Orioles. Marwin Gonzalez appeared in 80 games for the Astros, and reliever Rhiner Cruz made 52 appearances for Houston. Lucas Luetge pitched out of the Mariners' bullpen all season. Lendy Castillo and Erik Komatsu have also spent some time in the big leagues.
Of course, just because a player is sent back doesn't mean he won't eventually be a quality Major Leaguer. Victorino was actually taken twice in the Rule 5 Draft, in successive years. Miguel Batista, Fernando Vina and Frank Catalanotto are all examples of players who were returned to their original team after initially being selected.
Just how many selections will be made this time remains to be seen. Only a dozen were made a year ago, and as of Wednesday, five teams were full, with 40 on their rosters. Some teams told MLB.com that they are unlikely to participate in the Major League phase because of roster issues.
Although the overall talent of this year's crop won't match those of yesteryear, not all are down on the available pool of players. Teams looking for pitching depth, especially out of the bullpen, might find exactly what they need. A team such as Houston, for instance, which picks first, has room on its roster and showed by carrying two Rule 5 players last year that it doesn't mind going this route to find help, and thus could be very active. The roster crunches other teams face could mean there's more out there to be had on Thursday.
"The list is better, teams had tougher decisions," one AL executive said. "The teams that have open roster spots will be in good position to get good players. There are less open roster spots in general -- that's why there are some good players on there -- and it's a better list than it has been as a result."
The list of 20 names to know has 13 pitchers on it, nearly all of whom have the profile to fill a bullpen role. Red Sox right-handers Ryan Pressly and Josh Fields, Rockies righty Coty Woods and Royals lefty Jon Keck are among the potential relievers who have been mentioned in the early run-up to the Rule 5 Draft.
Position players aren't as popular -- four out of the 12 Major League-phase selections a year ago were hitters -- but Arizona Fall League MVP Chris McGuiness, fellow first baseman Nate Freiman of the Padres and toolsy outfielder Destin Hood are on the eligible list.