With today being the deadline to add players to the 40-man roster before the Rule 5 Draft, the Arizona Diamondbacks have selected the contract of four players: right-handed pitchers Taylor Widener and Riley Smith and infielders Andy Young and Wyatt Mathisen. All four players had significant playing time with the organization’s top minor league affiliate, Reno, in the 2019 season. All four players will be protected from the Rule 5 Draft, which comes at the end of the Winter Meetings next month.
The Rule 5 Draft is a bit complicated but for all intents and purposes it’s designed to prevent teams from stashing talent in the minors. Players that signed over the age of 18 have 4 seasons before they’re eligible and players who signed under the age of 18 have 5 seasons. For $100k, a team can take a chance on a player in any organization who isn’t on a 40-man roster and eligible for the draft. The player must all spend the entire season on the active roster, which is now 26 for the 2020 season (28 in September) or be offered back for $50k.
Teams have used the process to take slow-developing prospects, add them to the roster and stash for a year to add to the farm system. The Dbacks did this in 2015 with Oscar Hernandez, but a more notable example would be Johan Santana. Santana was taken by the Astros in the draft before being traded to the Twins. The Twins stayed patient with Santana and we know what happened next: All-Stars, no hitter, and other accolades that made Santana one of the better pitchers in baseball during the mid to late 2000s.
Here’s a brief scouting report on the 4 players added to the roster today:
Taylor Widener: After acquiring him in a 3-team deal that centered around outfielder Steven Souza Jr., Widener had a breakout campaign in 2018 at the AA level. He was not able to build on that with an extremely difficult jump to Reno where the elevation and rabbit baseballs helped contribute to a season-long funk. He flashed the occasional brilliant start, but could never seem to string them together due to serving up long balls and the inability to pitch out of jams. The best thing he can do is put that season behind him as fast as possible, because the organization very much still believes in him as a potential starting rotation pitcher. He’s not likely to crack the rotation out of Spring, but could be the first name on the list. Widener throws low 90s with a plus slider and average change-up, which gives him the profile of a mid-rotation starter (3/4) with average command.
Andy Young: The Dbacks elected to buy out Flores, which could open up an opportunity for Young to make the roster out of camp. He handled AA and AAA pitching to the tune of a 140 and 131 wRC+, and could be in line to replace Flores as a top bench bat on the infield. Young does have some positional versatility, having played shortstop and third base in the minors although most of his starts have come at second. He’s a 50 across the boards tools guy who profiles as a high-usage reserve infielder to semi-regular starter (300-400 PA) that starts at the keystone against LHP and is one of the first bats off the bench in a pinch hit situation. His playing time could be determined by the organization’s ability to land Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama, as that would move Marte to a mostly regular 2B role. If not, the team can do much worse than start Marte in CF and Young at 2B to open up the season.
Riley Smith: Smith has flown under the radar compared to other higher profile arms in the system from the 2016 draft in Widener and Jon Duplantier, but he’s caught up to them. Making steady and incremental progress, Smith simply executed his way to the door step of the majors. He doesn’t miss bats, but he doesn’t issue free passes and doesn’t allow a lot of fly ball contact. Smith is another starter who could be making his debut in 2019 given that last year showed us how quickly rotation depth can deplete over the course of a season. Smith offers a similar mix of pitches as Widener, although Widener’s slider has more depth compared to Smith. How he performs in Spring could determine if he’s leapfrogged Widener on the depth chart.
Wyatt Mathisen: A year ago, the Dbacks picked up an infielder prospect from the Pirates organization who had washed out in 6 years. Mathisen was a former 2nd round pick who had made it to AAA with the Pirates but the organization let go. The Dbacks swooped up and grabbed him with Mathisen benefitting from the rabbit ball to a 1.004 OPS. Regardless of the hitter friendly league, a 1.000 OPS is still good unless there is an obvious skill set deficit that wasn’t exploited in Reno. Mathisen also comes with 1B, 2B, and 3B versatility, so he’ll challenge Ildemaro Vargas, Domingo Leyba, and especially Andy Young for a top reserve infield job.
None of the four players have previously spent time on an organization’s 40-man roster, so they should all have three options left. If any of the players spend more than 20 days in the minors on an optional assignment, the option is burned for the season and they would have 2 remaining going into 2021. It seems likely that barring major circumstances that these four players will be seeing a lot of time in AAA this year while waiting for an opportunity to contribute to the MLB club.