The Rule 5 draft hasn’t been particularly eventful for the Astros in recent years, but tends to be one of the first curiosities each offseason. For the unaware, the Rule 5 draft, in the simplest terms, allows teams to select players with the requisite minor league service time (the exact amount depends on a player’s age at signing) from other teams’ rosters, provided they haven’t been placed on the 40-man. Players selected this way must be placed on their new team’s active big league roster, and must remain there for the duration of the season. It is rare for standout players to move through the Rule 5, but many solid contributors have changed teams this way over the years, including recently. There is also a Triple-A phase following the big league phase, where players not on a Triple-A roster may be selected in similar fashion.
The Astros, as a contender, have not used a Rule 5 pick in some time, but once acquired Marwin Gonzalez through a Rule 5 day trade back in 2011. Their greater concern, as a team with a more crowded 40 man than most, has been losing prospects to other clubs, which has been a pretty frequent occurrence in recent years, with a few examples being Ronnie Dawson, Jose Alberto Rivera, Jonathan Arauz, Brandon Bailey and Chuckie Robinson (in the Triple-A phase). Robinson was the only player from this group not to be returned to the Astros at a later date. Last year, no Astros prospects were chosen in either phase of the Rule 5- are they likely to avoid any losses again this year?
Last night represented the deadline for teams to protect prospects from the Rule 5, and the Astros opted to add just one prospect, outfielder Kenedy Corona, to the 40-man. While Corona needs to prove his contact skills a bit more to receive consideration for a promotion to the big leagues in Houston, his broad range of tools, including above average power and speed, could’ve made him an interesting gamble for a team with a barren big league outfield and no 2024 expectations. This leaves a handful of frequent Astros top 30 picks exposed, including Colin Barber, Justin Dirden and Zach Daniels.
If I had been told that Barber would be left unprotected entering the 2023 season, I would’ve assumed he was to lose another year to injury, but that wasn’t really the case. While Barber did miss some stretches for medical reasons, he managed to set a career high in games played and plate appearances. His performance wasn’t bad by any means- he posted a 111 wRC+ in Double-A with a .358 OBP- but he failed to show a standout tool. While his pitch selection is excellent, which could make him a viable fourth or fifth outfielder some day, his combination of middling contact ability to this point (22.7% strikeout rate in 2023) and mediocre power (11 HR, .189 ISO) and speed that has declined since he was drafted make him a questionable bet for a major league role in 2024. I still think Barber is the best prospect the Astros have exposed long term, but he doesn’t provide enough right-tail upside to justify trying to carry him next season in my opinion.
Likewise, I’d be shocked if Daniels were to be selected. While he does offer huge power speed upside, more than Corona, even, there’s no indication he can hit big league pitching. The 24 year old has hit 36 homers over the last two campaigns while stealing 44 bases, but has failed to get his strikeout rate under 30% at any stop. There are multiple factors that contribute to his contact woes- he has poor barrel accuracy and frequently misses pitches in the zone, and also frequently expands and chases bad pitches. He might be able to survive without the latter issue, but he’s no longer a young player by prospect standards and has had over 1000 MiLB PAs to show improvement in the pitch selection department. I’m not particularly high on his chances to hit, and don’t think other big league teams will be either- especially as far as the 2024 season is concerned.
There was a lot of hype for Justin Dirden following his massive Double-A stint in 2022 and outstanding 2023 spring training, but he is yet to replicate that production at the Triple-A level, hitting just .231/.314/.396 in the 2023 regular season with a 29.7% strikeout rate. He turned 26 over the summer, and now has a 500 plate appearance track record with Sugar Land, so it’s fair to wonder whether there’s anything more in the tank here. He has at times shown a promising hit/power combination, but it’s hard to be supremely confident in his big league prospects going forward. Perhaps he can recapture his earlier form, and I think he’s more likely to be selected than Barber or Daniels, but I’d still be pretty surprised if it happened.
A final name that might merit consideration from other clubs is catcher Miguel Palma, who had a very solid 2023 season- albeit at the High-A level. Palma is undersized at 5’8”, 170 lbs., and is unlikely to have meaningful power at the plate, but thus far in the low minors he has shown strong contact ability and what projects as playable defense. With the offensive bar at catcher sitting very low, this skillset gives Palma a chance at a big league role if he progresses steadily. However, teams have found it difficult to carry catchers all season, and none have been selected in the major league phase of the Rule 5 since 2016, when two were selected. It’s a more popular route in the Triple-A phase, so the Astros would probably be wise to protect him there. It’s often difficult to tell which players have been placed on the Triple-A roster before the draft actually happens, so it’s unclear whether or not they have done so.
In short, the Astros look safe from any Rule 5 losses for a second straight year, at least as far as the big league phase is concerned. While a few of their exposed prospects have at least somewhat persuasive cases for a selection, I’d expect teams to go for higher upside routes than the Astros players offer. They’re also almost assured to pass on their major league phase selection, but have been active in the Triple-A phase in the recent past, so that is something to monitor come draft day.