As always, the winter meetings ended in 2020 with the rule five draft and the Indians were very involved this year with three of the 16 players taken in the first round were coming from or going to Cleveland and another coming to Cleveland in the first round of the AAA section.
We speculated much on a recent Indians Baseball Insider podcast about which players who were unprotected by the 40 man roster could be snared by another team in the rule five draft and, like always, most of these players were safe. No one wanted to take the risk of rostering Will Benson, Oscar Gonzalez, Juan Hillman or many of the other eligible, but not particularly advanced players. However, two of the Indians more MLB ready players did go in the draft. The ninth pick in the first round was Luis Oviedo, who was selected by the Mets, then traded to the Pirates for cash. Oviedo was signed as an international free agent in 2015 out of Venezuela who advanced as far as A Lake County. A right handed starter, Oviedo showcased a good curveball with great command until a hernia slowed his 2019 season. Instead of finishing the second half of the season in Lynchburg as originally planned, he finished on the IR. While he was ready to pitch in 2020, the cancelled season left him without a game pitched above A ball and some poor stats in his last official season. This made him hard for the Indians to protect, but with his floor being so high, it should be easy for the Pirates to keep him on the big league roster in 2021 in the bullpen with the option of eventually moving him back into the rotation.
The second player lost by Cleveland was taken with the 16th and final pick of the first round, Ka’ai Tom. Most Indians fans familiar with the farm system will be well aware of Tom who had a great offensive season in 2019 between Akron and Columbus and was a regular feature in defensive high light reels. A centerfielder drafted out of Kentucky in 2015, Tom was eligible to be taken in the rule 5 draft back in 2019, but was skipped over. Now, a year older but without any more MiLB experience, the Athletics have decided to take a chance on Blaze. He has sneaky speed and sneaky power, but ultimately looks to have a ceiling as a bench bat. His ability to play all three outfield positions, run the bases well and hit for strong contact make him a great fit for that position, however, and if he succeeds there will certainly be many Indians fans questioning why he was never given a shot in the big leagues in 2020.
Not everyone was leaving Cleveland today, however, as Trevor Stephan was grabbed from the Yankees with the 15th overall pick. He was a third round pick in 2017 out of Arkansas and has been a right handed starter for New York since then, reaching AA in 2019. Now 25 years old, Stephan had a 4.73 ERA across 80 innings between A+ and AA in 2019 with a 10.2 K/9 and 3.3 BB/9. These numbers are fairly inline with his from previous MiLB and NCAA seasons. With the Indians extreme MLB starting pitcher depth, one would have to assume Stephan will be joining the 2021 bullpen.
Players taken in the minor league portion of the rule 5 draft are subject to different rules than those in the MLB portion, so we shouldn’t expect to see the 19th player taken in the AAA portion, Chris Roller, in Cleveland in 2021. Roller was a Dodgers 30th round pick in 2017 and has played just 187 minor league games, reaching single A Great Lakes in 2019. He slugged .455 in that most recent season with 21 doubles, eight triples, seven home runs and 10 steals in 13 attempts. His numbers are somewhat similar to Tom’s and in a way this allows the Indians to replace him within the system without having to worry about 40 man protection.
Ultimately, players aren’t guaranteed to stick with their new franchises until they spend the first season on the big league roster, so there is still a chance that one or all three players taken in the MLB section could return to their original franchise.