NASHVILLE – For more than a decade, the Nationals essentially sat out the Rule 5 Draft.
From 2011-21, they didn’t select a single player in the major league portion of the event that annually closes the Winter Meetings. The thinking: A team that expected to contend each season probably couldn’t afford to use a big league roster spot on a player who wasn’t actually big-league-ready.
That all changed last winter, when a Nats club that lost 107 games now owned the No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 Draft and felt it could afford to take a flier on somebody. The team selected right-hander Thaddeus Ward away from the Red Sox and then hoped for the best from a guy who had pitched some at Double-A the previous season after returning from Tommy John surgery.
It’s hard at this point to call Ward a success story. He pitched in 26 games for the Nationals, all in relief, sported an inflated 6.37 ERA and 1.613 WHIP, all while issuing more than seven walks per nine innings.
But Ward did stick on the major league roster the entire season, even if that included 2 1/2 months on the injured list with shoulder inflammation. And so, the Nats having fulfilled Rule 5 requirements, retain his rights and now have the ability to option him to the minors in 2024 to get him more seasoning.
“I thought it went well,” general manager Mike Rizzo said Tuesday. “You come out of it with a player that you like that has options, and that goes from a major-league player on the 40-man roster that you have to keep, to a guy that goes back into the prospect pool, and you can develop more. Obviously, he had pitched in A-ball and not much experience beyond that. So he’ll return back to that.”
Ward’s case served as a reminder that Rule 5 success stories are few and far between. And it leaves the Nationals now left to decide if they want to give another shot to another prospect this year.
The Nats hold the fifth pick in this afternoon’s draft, which wraps up what so far has been an awfully quiet Winter Meetings. They have the ability to take a player if they like, having cleared two spots on their 40-man roster last week.
“We’re preparing some names,” Rizzo said, stressing they would take the best available player, regardless of position. “We’re going to meet with our scouting people and (manager Davey Martinez) and myself and see if we’re going to be a player at the big-league portion of it, or in the minor-league portion of it, or both.”
Whether the Nationals end up selecting a player or not, they’ll also spend the draft anxiously hoping other clubs don’t poach any of their own unprotected players.
When it came time to add players to the 40-man roster last month to prevent them from being lost, Rizzo promoted four pitchers: lefties DJ Herz and Mitchell Parker, plus right-handers Cole Henry and Zach Brzykcy.
Among the players who were left unprotected: relievers Tim Cate, Holden Powell and Orlando Ribalta; 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg, Single-A starter Andry Lara, shortstops Jackson Cluff, Kevin Made and Jordy Barley, first baseman Roismar Quintana and catcher Brady Lindsly.
None figures to be big-league-ready yet. But the Rule 5 Draft isn’t about selecting players who are big-league-ready. It’s about selecting players who can be stashed away on a big-league roster for a year, then given the opportunity to grow more before ultimately having a career.
* Former Nationals right-hander Erick Fedde is back in the big leagues, reportedly agreeing Tuesday night to a two-year, $15 million deal with the White Sox.
Fedde, the Nats’ 2014 first-round pick who never found consistent success over parts of six seasons in D.C., did resurrect his career this year while pitching in the Korean Baseball Organization. He went a remarkable 20-6 with a 2.00 ERA, 0.954 WHIP and 200 strikeouts in 180 1/3 innings for the NC Dinos, winning the league’s MVP honors.
Major-league clubs took notice. Fedde reportedly had offers from multiple clubs, and on Tuesday the 30-year-old agreed to the two-year deal with the White Sox that guarantees him more money than he made in his entire career with the Nationals.
Also back in the big leagues is Joe Ross, who missed two seasons following the second Tommy John surgery of his career, but this week signed a one-year deal with the Brewers for a reported $1.75 million plus incentives.