There is a reason why players get left unprotected and exposed to the Rule 5 draft. Likewise there is also a reason why other teams take chances in selecting a player with Rule 5 status. The most likely scenario as to why a player is left exposed is that they are not major league ready and possess some type of flaw in their game that still needs more time to develop. The selecting team usually sees the potential, and feels that it is worth taking a gamble that the player’s flaw(s) can be minimized throughout the season to where they can obtain the rights to the player in hopes that the player achieves their upside.
There are two weeks remaining before spring training is over and the games start counting. That means that time is running out for Rule 5 hopefuls Marwin Gonzalez and Rhiner Cruz to prove that they deserve to break camp with the team. Gonzalez is competing for a utility infielder spot while Cruz is competing for a spot in the bullpen. Gonzalez has looked good defensively at shortstop this spring but has struggled offensively all spring. Likewise Cruz has also struggled on the mound this spring but had a great outing this past Thursday. They still have enough time to show their skills and ability, but their time is running out.
Jeff Luhnow discussed Rule 5 picks in general here, and voiced concerns about losing roster flexibility when choosing to carry a player with Rule 5 status.
Luhnow on the Astros Rule 5 guys: "You would imagine a team that lost 106 games last year would be able to find a spot [for a Rule 5 pick]. But we've got a lot of guys here we're going to be evaluating and we'll see what happens. To keep two is something very few teams are able to do."
If we are going to make assumptions about this statement then you would assume that there is a possibility that the Astros will choose to keep one of either Gonzalez or Cruz, but that it would be unlikely that they will be able to keep both. Brian McTaggart took his stab at the 25-man roster here, and did not show either Rhiner Cruz or Marwin Gonzalez on his projected roster.
McTaggart on Gonzalez: I don’t see Rule 5 pick Marwin Gonzalez sticking. He’s been terrific on defense, but he’s 3-for-25 at the plate.
McTaggart on Cruz: As far as Rule 5 pick Rhiner Cruz is concerned, he hasn’t shown enough to make the team, and I have Henry Sosa starting the season in Triple-A, along with Lucas Harrell.
The Astros roster situation is interesting right now, and there are a couple of different scenarios that could play out in the infield. At this point Chris Johnson appears to be a favorite to win the starting third base job. One possible scenario is that the Astros could choose between one of Brian Bixler, Angel Sanchez, or Marwin Gonzalez to supplement Matt Downs as the utility infielder. In this scenario Brett Wallace would start the season in Oklahoma City as the starting third baseman, which is a spot that just recently became vacant when the Astros announced that Jimmy Paredes was moving back to second base. The other scenario would be that the Astros choose to keep Brett Wallace and utilize him as a platoon partner with Chris Johnson and as a bat off the bench. In this scenario Matt Downs would be the primary backup for Jed Lowrie at short. This would handicap Brad Mills in terms of in game flexibility as he would only have one backup infielder that could play the middle infield (and not as a defensive replacement), but would allow him to utilize Matt Downs more.
If the Astros choose to go with a player who has a decent amount of experience at short then Gonzalez’s competition is Angel Sanchez and Brian Bixler. Sanchez has the most experience in the majors, and has a career .255/.304/.308 line in 628 plate appearances while striking out 14.80% of the time. Bixler has a career .187/.248/.247 line in 260 plate appearances while striking out 31% of the time. The chart below shows what each player has done in the minors.
Offensively Bixler has the best minor league slash line of the three. Sanchez has the best strikeout rate at 12%, while Gonzalez struck out 13.78% of the time, and Bixler struck out 23.8% of the time. Bixler had the best walk rate at 8.1%, while Sanchez walked 6.9% of the time and Gonzalez walked 5.9% of the time. If you’re looking for upside, which is where the focus generally is when making a Rule 5 selection, then Marwin played the entire 2011 season at the AA/AAA level while posting a slash line of .288/.343/.400. He also followed that up with a solid showing in winter ball that caught the attention of some Astros personnel who were able to see him play.
Gonzalez is a switch hitter, and looking at his minor league splits he looks to be stronger from the left side of the plate, which could complement the righty Matt Downs off the bench, but that importance is diminished by the likely abundance of left handed bats in the outfield. Both Bixler and Sanchez have performed best against left-handed pitchers throughout the minors.
Defensive value is also important in the utility role. At this point we know what Angel Sanchez can do defensively, and as long as it’s not shortstop he is at least adequate in the infield. Brian Bixler looks to be more solid in the field than Sanchez, and he also provides more flexibility as he can play in the outfield as well, which as previously mentioned looks to be lefty dominated. That brings us to Gonzalez who can best be described as reports vary. Scouting reports on Gonzalez’s defensive ability in years past have been mixed, but he has looked good this spring at short in the small sample size.
Cruz’s quest to stick on the 25-man roster proves to be equally as tough as it appears that Brett Myers, Wilton Lopez (if healthy), and David Carpenter look to be safe bets to make the team. Brandon Lyon has also proved his health so far this spring and has a good chance of making the roster. Given his performance last year Fernando Rodriguez probably also has an inside track on one of the spots as well. That would likely leave two spots in the bullpen, one of which will be occupied by a lefty. The Astros could decide to go with two lefties, which is what McTaggart projects to happen with Zack Duke being the long man in the pen. If the Astros choose to go with one only one lefty then he is competing with Lucas Harrell and Henry Sosa for the final spot with both of them having the advantage of being the long man out of the pen. Either way Cruz has to outperform one of the aforementioned pitchers this spring to play his way on the roster, and so far has not done so.
Going into the season his control has been his biggest problem, and that has not changed in the early parts of the spring. The Astros do have another power arm that has already been reassigned in Juan Abreu that is also a hard thrower that lacks control. Given that Cruz would be making the jump from AA to the majors with control issues he has his work cut out for him over the next two weeks.
When it comes to Marwin Gonzalez the question is does the 23-year old provide equal or similar offensive and defensive value this year as Sanchez (28) or Bixler (29), while providing the possibility for greater offensive/defensive value over the two in the future. If he projects to turn into a Sanchez or Bixler type then it might not make much sense to take a risk on him, but if has the possibility to be better than the pair down the road then it may be worth trying to hide him on the roster this season. His chances of making the team become increasingly difficult if Wallace and Bixler continue to have a good spring and he continues to struggle. Rhiner Cruz has the upside of a late inning reliever, but would have to figure out his control issues to reach that potential. It is possible that he can do that in the majors, but given the other guys who look to be in the bullpen he may not get that opportunity.