Major League Baseball’s annual winter meetings are set to begin in San Diego on Sunday and among the events on the docket is the return of the Rule 5 Draft, scheduled to be held next Wednesday.
Of course, last year’s Rule 5 Draft was cancelled due to the owner-imposed lockout, although the minor-league phase still took place. The 2020 draft took place remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it still featured plenty of action as 18 players were selected across two rounds. And hopefully, this winter’s draft will be just as entertaining as it’ll be the first in-person event since 2019.
Historically, the Toronto Blue Jays have been fairly active in these proceedings and have made 34 Rule 5 Draft selections since their inaugural season in 1977, with George Bell and Kelly Gruber as their most notable draftees. The organization, however, hasn’t chosen a player since selecting right-hander Elvis Luciano – who became a free agent earlier this off-season – from the Kansas City Royals in 2018.
But with one vacant spot on the franchise’s 40-man roster, perhaps that four-year drought will end this winter. If it does, that would mean any player selected must remain in the majors for the entire season or be returned to the organization they were chosen from.
As for who the Blue Jays might be interested in, here are three potential targets they could select in next week’s Rule 5 Draft:
RHP Nolan Hoffman
The Baltimore Orioles feature one of the deepest farm systems in the majors. So when they decided not to protect Hoffman from the Rule 5 Draft, it raised some eyebrows across the industry. He isn’t ranked among their top 30 prospects, although the 25-year-old could make his big-league debut as a reliever in 2023.
Hoffman, a sidearm hurler, was chosen by the Orioles from the Seattle Mariners in the minor-league phase of the draft last winter. And though he missed two and a half months due to injury, the right-hander finished the 2022 season healthy and enjoyed a productive showing during his inaugural campaign inside Baltimore’s organization.
Spending most of his time at double-A Bowie, Hoffman totalled 23.1 innings in 18 appearances, posting a 4.24 ERA and a 3.24 FIP. He doesn’t generate high amounts of swing-and-miss with his fastball/changeup combo but did register a respectable 21.6 per cent strikeout rate and limited walks at a 6.9 per cent clip.
The 6-foot-4 hurler is considered a ground-ball pitcher, as evidenced by his 64.7 per cent GB rate from last season. That hasn’t always been a successful formula, though, as poor luck and his team’s inadequate defence allowed opponents to hit .343 BABIP against him – .074 points higher than his OPP AVG (.269). But his results could improve if he pitched in front of a talented infield defence like the Blue Jays’.
Needing to make up for lost time, Baltimore assigned Hoffman to the Arizona Fall League, where he logged 12.1 innings across 10 outings with the Scottsdale Scorpions. And while he still allowed his fair share of hits, the youngster excelled at missing bats, resulting in a 34.0 per cent strikeout rate and a 4.0 per cent walk rate.
If Hoffman re-creates that magic next season, he could serve as a viable low-to-medium leverage relief arm.
LHP Antoine Kelly
Now here is someone Blue Jays fans should be excited about. Kelly is your prototypical flamethrower, as his fastball reaches 98 m.p.h. with a high spin rate and is complemented by his mid-80s slider, which can overpower hitters because of its devasting horizontal movements.
Thanks to these two weapons, the 22-year-old racked up 119 strikeouts over 91.0 innings in 19 starts with Milwaukee’s high-A affiliate – earning him a 30.7 per cent strikeout rate – before being sent to Texas as part of the Matt Bush trade. He was also showcased at the All-Star Futures Game in July before becoming a Ranger.
Kelly picked up almost immediately where he left off with the Brewers’ organization, recording a 27.9 per cent strikeout rate through 18.2 innings with the Rangers’ double-A affiliate. The left-hander was shifted to the bullpen late in the season due to his recurring command issues, though.
Despite being an effective swing-and-miss hurler, the 6-foot-5 lefty occasionally struggles with repeating his delivery, causing him to lose control of his pitches. And those woes were magnified shortly after his arrival to Texas as his walk rate jumped from 13.4 per cent with Milwaukee to 22.1 per cent post-trade. That also resulted in a 7.23 ERA, but as his 4.88 FIP suggests, he should’ve fared a tad better.
There is optimism that Kelly can refine his accuracy as a reliever, which could also add extra velocity to his electric fastball, as well.
OF Jake Mangum
With outfielders Raimel Tapia, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Bradley Zimmer hitting free agency, Toronto’s depth has taken a significant hit over these last few weeks, and one of the ways they could replenish that position is through the Rule 5 Draft.
For an organization that has struggled to develop impact outfielders, they could look to the New York Mets’ farm system for assistance in that area, with Mangum as a potential option. He’ll be entering his age-27 season in 2023, so he is a little older than you would like, but the 6-foot-1 outfield would bring plenty of speed and defence to the Blue Jays’ roster.
It may also help that he’s a walking highlight-reel machine in the outfield.
Mangum is primarily a centre-fielder and totalled 482.2 combined innings across three different levels last season, with 162.2 occurring at triple-A Syracuse. He has also previously spent time as a corner outfielder, too.
The switch-hitter can also provide upside at the plate as he hit .333/.365/.471 with a .383 BABIP, a .367 wOBA and a 121 wRC+ over 148 plate appearances with the Syracuse Mets. His knowledge of the strike zone was also on display, leading to a 15.5 per cent strikeout rate. And he swiped seven bases in eight attempts.
If Mangum’s spinal stress reaction – which cost him two months – is no longer a concern, he could be a productive fourth outfielder next season.