12/08/08 9:00 AM EST
AFL can influence Rule 5 activity
Eligible players on display for scouts at annual fall league
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
But for a few dozen prospects in this year's Arizona Fall League, you could say they only had one chance to make a good last impression.
More than 80 players eligible to be added to their respective club's 40-man rosters competed in the AFL, waiting for the Nov. 20 deadline to find out if they'd made the cut.
In the end, fewer than half of those prospects emerged with a sought-after roster spot.
This doesn't mean the others will fade off into the distance. Far from it.
While the AFL attendance generally averaged only a few hundred fans per game, a large number of the folks in the stands were scouts from all 30 organizations with several different assignments.
Among those jobs: keeping a close eye on potential Rule 5-eligible players.
"We get a fresh look at the best young talent in the upper echelon of each system," explained Paul Ricciarini, senior director of player personnel for the Houston Astros, who spent time observing players in the AFL this fall. "And we get to see how all that young talent is adjusting against quality competition."
The scouts are well aware of which players are up for their respective teams' 40-man rosters before they take their radar guns and charts into the seats, and as the seven-week season winds down they have their favorites, either obvious ones or sleepers.
"We identify the prospects throughout the year that we're well aware might be available due to non-protection by their current clubs," he said. "And I can tell you this, by Nov. 20, which was coincidentally the last day of the regular season, it was an emotional roller coaster. You'd have interest in a guy for the Rule 5 and he'd be the last guy his team protected. But a few still slip through the cracks."
A good example of how one team's "slip through the cracks" was another team's "perfect fit" is Houston southpaw reliever Wesley Wright, who was scooped up by the Astros in last year's Rule 5 Draft when the Los Angeles Dodgers left him out there after his 2007 Arizona Fall League outing.
A diminutive (5-foot-11, 160 pounds) left-hander originally drafted by the Dodgers in the seventh round of 2003 out of high school in Alabama, Wright had posted good numbers in short relief in 2006 and much of 2007. He limited hitters in the Class A Advanced Florida State League and Double-A Southern League to a combined average below .200 in '06, and went 6-2 with a 2.49 ERA in 61 1/3 innings while fanning 68 at Double-A Jacksonville in 2007.
But Wright struggled in a midseason stint at Triple-A Las Vegas that summer, posting a 9.18 ERA and .406 average against in 16 2/3 innings there before heading back to Jacksonville.
Sent to the AFL while the Dodgers tried to narrow down their protection, he posted a 5.06 ERA in relief for Peoria, striking out 18 in 21 1/3 innings. But many of the scouts on hand saw a lot to like in Wright as a valuable situational lefty.
So when the Astros called his name in the Rule 5 Draft, it wasn't a big shock to those in the know. But even those who might have silently cursed a bit that he hadn't dropped down to them could not have expected just how solid a season he would enjoy in the bigs.
While the majority of Rule 5 players that stick in the bigs see limited time in their first year, Wright appeared in 71 games for Houston, posting a 5.01 ERA and striking out 57 in 55 2/3 innings, limiting the opposition to a .214 average.
"His poise and makeup complement his arsenal so well that [Astros manager] Cecil Cooper started using him in a lot of meaningful situations with the game on the line," Ricciarini said. "The kid really responded well. I don't know if we had envisioned that so quickly ... we had envisioned a kid who would help us down the line. But he did a great job."
Now, much as Wright did in the days leading up to the 2007 draft, the Class of 2008 AFL alumni look ahead to Thursday morning's Rule 5 Draft hoping they've done everything in their power to impress the brass. Certainly, several of them opened a lot of eyes.
Take, for example, Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Rhyne Hughes. In an organization with a very young big league squad, and consequently few free agents leaving to open up roster spots, the Rays added just three players to their 40-man roster at the November deadline, and all of them were pitchers.
And you can be sure that if his .268 average with 14 homers and 52 RBIs at Double-A Montgomery wasn't enough to get people's attention, his .394 average, five homers and 27 RBIs in 27 games for the Peoria Javelinas in the AFL certainly did.
"You know, you've got girlfriends and mamas and daddies out here [at the AFL games] and other than that it's just scouts and GMs," said Hughes, an eighth-round pick in 2004, "So it's a good opportunity for other people to get to see me, and I look at it as an opportunity to try to sell myself here, also."
Among the other AFL players who put up numbers worthy of serious Rule 5 consideration are:
Atlanta Braves outfielder Matt Young, who hit .370 (10th in the league) with three homers, 24 RBIs and 10 doubles for the Mesa Solar Sox.
San Diego Padres outfielder Mike Baxter, who started the season on the Peoria Saguaros' taxi squad (playing twice a week) but was activated in November and finished fourth in the batting race at .402, with three home runs and 24 RBIs in 22 games. He was also his team's nominee for the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award for leadership and character.
New York Yankees right-hander Kevin Whelan's 2.08 ERA ranked third in the league, and he limited hitters to a .175 average with the Peoria Javelinas after spending the first month and a half of the regular season on the disabled list.
Boston Red Sox RHP Beau Vaughan is actually entering his fourth year of Rule 5 Draft eligibility, but his new side-winding delivery brought with it fresh success and new life on the mound. He posted a 3.52 ERA in relief for Scottsdale, and struck out 18 while walking just one batter in 15 1/3 innings.
"I think the number that might have caught a few people's eyes was giving up only the one walk," said Vaughan, who combined for 17 saves and a 2.33 ERA between Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket during the regular season. "I don't think any of my other numbers were that exemplary, but I was pretty proud of that."
Vaughan had a pretty good idea of what he was up against from the get-go, and admits he definitely had no illusions of being added to the Red Sox's 40-man roster.
"The thing that made it feel like even more of an audition [in the AFL] was the word that kept getting thrown around by my agent and the organization ... 'exposure,'" said Vaughan, who was originally drafted by Boston in the third round of 2003 out of Arizona State. "So I kind of got the feeling that the fall league was their way of giving me an opportunity to showcase myself."
And even though the league, seven weeks long, is a reasonably small sampling, Ricciarini believes that a strong showing in the AFL "absolutely" gives a player who performs well an advantage heading into Rule 5 pow-wows.
"Honestly, one of the mistakes we're susceptible to is that the last look is always a lasting impression," he said. "If you're seeing a kid do well in an environment with such quality competition, and you Rule 5 him off of only an AFL look, you don't necessarily know for sure if you have the full reference if you've only had marginal data on him before that. But for the money you're putting into it, it's well worth the risk and the gamble."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.