Even though they had eight available spots on the 40-man roster, second most in MLB, the Cubs opted to protect only four players from the Rule 5 Draft on December 12. Catcher Miguel Amaya was a no-doubter all the way around, righty Tyson Miller was the most obvious pitcher, and shortstop Zack Short has the kind of all-around skill to contribute in Chicago. Flame-throwing righty Manny Rodriguez was a surprise because he’s never pitched above A-ball, but that elite velocity is enticing.
Outside of the intriguing Rodriguez, the most interesting aspect of the Cubs’ 40-man decisions was who they chose to leave unprotected. Before we continue, I suppose I should offer a brief explanation of all this for those who aren’t fully aware of how it works. At a certain point, a minor leaguer becomes eligible for the Rule 5 Draft and can be protected by his team by being placed on the roster.
A team that selects an eligible player in the draft must pay his original team $50,000, then must keep that player on the 25-man (or 26 for next season) roster for the entirety of the next season and have him active for a minimum of 90 days. If those conditions aren’t met, the player must be offered back to his original team for a $25,000 fee. There’s more to it than that, but now we’ve all got enough info to be dangerous.
The Cubs actually had 79 minor leaguers eligible for the Rule 5 Draft heading into Wednesday, but most of those are in no danger of being plucked away by another team. There are, however, a few prospects who could be chosen, including Dakota Mekkes, Jhonny Pereda, and Oscar De La Cruz. But given the stipulation of keeping a player on the MLB roster all season, all three were risks the Cubs were willing to take.
Of the remaining 72 unprotected players, the one who stands out as most likely to be selected by another team is catcher P.J. Higgins. The 26-year-old is capable of playing both corner infield spots in addition to his duties behind the plate and could even play second base if the Brewers saw fit to select him. His bat looks to be coming around as well, with an .895 OPS at Triple-A standing out as the best of his professional career.
That defensive versatility and maturing offensive output should be very attractive to several other teams, especially with the 26th man a reality for 2020. As proposed, the roster changes coming to MLB would add one player to the active roster and mandate a 13-man pitching staff, which means that extra man is a position player. Higgins fits that role well, especially because he’s very solid behind the plate.
While the circumstantial evidence alone points to Higgins being plucked away, Arizona Phil of The Cub Reporter provided additional confirmation of that eventuality in a Wednesday comment to an ongoing thread. Citing a source, AZ Phil said Higgins was most likely to be selected and that he “will almost certainly” remain on that team’s 25-man. And this isn’t just some rando with a tin foil hat, dude’s got his finger on the pulse of the system like almost no one since the late John Arguello.
First.Pitch.120: Without citing the source, I can say that other than Miguel Amaya, no Cub eligible for selection in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft is more-likely to be selected (if left unprotected) than P. J. Higgins, and if Higgins is selected, the Cubs will almost certainly not get him back.
While he’s not a top 10 or top 15 prospect and might have a greater value to at least one other organization than to the Cubs, as far as his actual value to the Cubs is concerned (that is, why they would care about losing him and not getting him back), Higgins fits the profile of an ideal “26th man” if the 26th man must be a position player and not a pitcher (which is how the rule has been proposed), but even beyond that, Higgins has developed into an above-average defensive catcher with a plus arm who has the athleticism and versatilty to play other positions (1B-2B-3B), and his bat showed significant improvement in 2019.
There are a few other prospects for whom you might want to keep your fingers crossed, though none are particularly likely to be snatched away next month. Jordan Minch is a lefty who came on strong in the Arizona Fall League and is posting bigger strikeout numbers. Michael Rucker got a boost of helium when he started lighting up radar guns this past season, and fellow righty Bailey Clark has legit stuff as well.
If the Cubs are able to hold onto all the pitchers in question here, not to mention some of the young guys already on the 40-man and those like Brailyn Marquez who don’t need to be added yet, they’ve got the makings of a fine staff. One might even go so far as to say that we’re on the cusp of seeing the organization turn a corner in it’s long-running quest to develop waves of homegrown pitching.
So even if they have one less catcher to throw to, things are most definitely looking up for the Cubs’ system.