People like to throw the names of ex-Rule 5 picks turned stars to inspire hope when their team makes a selection, but these names come from an era gone by- an era that died with the 2006 rule change that gave players an extra year of rule 5 safety and eliminated the chances that another Roberto Clemente, Dan Uggla or Johan Santana might slip through the cracks. However, the good news for Astros fans and the squad's 2012 Rule 5 selection, reliever Josh Fields, many of the successful Rule 5 draftees since the '06 rule change have been relief pitchers, including journeyman specialist Darren O'Day and former All Stars Joakim Soria and Evan Meek. Fields, a player with higher pedigree than most Rule 5 selections, has a good chance to follow in their footsteps.
During the 2007-2008 college baseball season, there was no better closer in the nation than the University of Georgia's Joshua Fields. Appearing in 36 games, Fields recorded a whopping 63 strikeouts in just 37 and 1/3 innings, walking 22 batters and surrendering just seventeen hits, good for a .133 batting average against. Fields, playing alongside current MLB players Gordon Beckham and Justin Grimm, and former top prospect Rich Poythress, helped the Bulldogs reach the College World Series, garnering national attention and earning plenty of draft helium. Coming out of college, Fields was seen as a player who could pitch late in major league games in short order on the back of his mid-90s fastball and plus curveball, which can both be seen in all of their 2008 glory here.
The Seattle Mariners liked what they saw out of Fields, and made him the 20th overall selection in the 2008 draft, ahead of players like Christian Friedrich, Lonnie Chisenhall, Casey Kelly and a California high school pitcher named Gerrit Cole. However, things did not go as planned initially, as Fields toiled through 33 and 1/3 AA innings, walking 22 batsmen and posting an ugly, though unlucky, 6.48 ERA. There were positives to be drawn though, as he allowed just two home runs and did rack up 36 strikeouts. After getting some innings in the AFL, Fields returned to AA in 2010 with similar peripherals, but his ERA dropped to a prettier 3.23, in line with his 3.20 FIP that year. He did not allow a home run. In 2011, many thought Fields was a dark horse to burst onto the major league scene as a "post-hype sleeper," but he remained stagnant in his development in the first half, seeing his walk rate spike to new highs as he issued 19 free passes in just 26 innings. The Mariners were tired of waiting for Fields to harness his raw stuff, and shipped him up out to Boston in the Erik Bedard trade.
Once in the Red Sox organization, it was like a switch had flipped. In his 17 and 1/3 innings with the organization in 2011, Fields struck out 25 hitters, walking a more manageable 10 hitters, which was good for his lowest BB/9 of any stop to that point in his career. Fields built on his success with his new club, and in 2012 he pitched 58 and 1/3 innings across AA and AAA, fanning 78 batters and walking only 18, showing control he had never even flashed a glimpse of before. On most rosters, he would have been protected from the Rule 5, but the Red Sox and their crowded pitching staff had to let him go, and the Astros pounced.
So just how good can Josh Fields be as a big league reliever? To me, the sky is the limit. He still has the same fastball/curveball combo that made him the 20th overall selection, and his experience closing on a big stage in college should give Bo Porter plenty of confidence trotting him out to finish games for the 'stros. If he can maintain the command he showed in 2012 in the high minors, I have utmost confidence in him seizing the closer role and running with it. Some will consider this a bold statement, but he may be the most dynamic relief pitcher in terms of raw stuff that the Astros have had since Brad Lidge left town.