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How at-risk is Ljay Newsome in the Rule-5 Draft?

Seattle didn’t protect one of their breakout pitching prospects. How often do players like Newsome get taken?

2018 Seattle Mariners Photo Day
A youth cast to the wind?

Judging by the comment sections, the past couple weeks have been an intrigue sandwich served on a couple slices of multi-grain frustration bread for Mariners fans. Kendall Graveman and Carl Edwards Jr. were easy moves to approve of - decent upside, low-cost pitchers. But yesterday was at least a mildly frustrating day. Domingo Santana was cut loose, likely for no return, joining a fleet of interesting but limited players in free agency as teams continue to show that they’ll pay for elite talent, but not for middling sorts. Non-tendering Santana may not have been the most cavalier move given how the rest of the league acted on Monday, but there’s a bit of agitation lingering on how the team is handling its talented players. Using a roster spot on 3B/1B/cOF Patrick Wisdom, while choosing not to add RHP Ljay Newsome to the 40-man roster before the Rule-5 Draft eligibility deadline a couple weeks ago, is the perfect baseball thing to be irate about in early December.

Neglecting Newsome is a risk by Seattle, hoping a team will not pull the trigger on a player with just 11 starts above High-A (and both in AAA as an emergency fill-in). Newsome’s numbers are impressive - among all of MiLB (min. 120 IP) he finished sixth in K-BB% at 24.5%, with the lowest walk rate of any qualified pitcher, period. He had a solid 3.54/3.11 ERA FIP, but also saw his strikeout numbers fall off significantly in AA despite continued positive results. Whether that was merely fatigue or a struggle to bring his unremarkable velocity to bear at a higher level is not certain yet. He’s just completed his fifth season as a pro, yet he just turned 23 in early November, merely six months older than his teammate, second-year pro Logan Gilbert. Newsome’s breakout season turned him from a cut candidate to an actual prospect, but in leaving him exposed the Mariners have risked losing not only a piece of their unproven pitching depth, but also a clear potential player development success. So how often do players like Newsome get taken in the Rule-5 draft?

I looked to find pitchers with roughly as many innings - predominantly as a starter - as Newsome above A+ or fewer (<=70 IP) who had been taken. While there is some precedent, their stickiness is more eight-year-old Tevas velcro than Gorilla Glue.

Ljay Newsome Rule-5 Draft Comps 2014-2018

Year Position Name IP above A+ Result
Year Position Name IP above A+ Result
2018 RHP Elvis Luciano 0.0 Taken by Blue Jays, kept in bullpen all year w/5.35 ERA, not returned
2018 RHP Nick Green 17.1 Taken by D-Backs, returned to Yankees in Spring Training
2017 RHP Elieser Hernández 0.0 Taken by Marlins, used in bullpen and rotation w/5.21 ERA, not returned
2017 RHP Brett Graves 31.2 Taken by Marlins, used in bullpen w/5.40 ERA, not returned
2017 RHP Jose Mesa Jr. 34.1 Taken by Orioles, returned to Yankees in Spring Training
2016 RHP Miguel Díaz 0.0 Taken by Twins, traded to Padres, used mostly in bullpen w/7.34 ERA, not returned
2016 RHP Kevin Gadea 0.0 Taken by Rays, got hurt, missed past three years, released in August 2019
2016 RHP Dylan Covey 29.1 Taken by White Sox, 7.71 ERA in rotation mostly, not returned
2016 RHP Glenn Sparkman 17.2 Taken by Blue Jays, returned to Royals midseason
2015 RHP Luis Perdomo 0.0 Taken by Rockies, traded to Padres, 5.71 ERA in rotation mostly, not returned
2014 RHP Jason Garcia 0.0 Taken by Astros, traded to Orioles, 4.25 ERA in bullpen, not returned
2014 RHP Jandel Gustave 0.0 Taken by Red Sox, traded to Royals, claimed by Padres, returned to Astros before season
2014 RHP Dan Winkler 70.0 Taken by Braves, 60-day DL, remained with Braves in bullpen role, not returned
Parameters = SP predominantly with <=70 IP in AA or higher prior to Rule-5 selection

In the past five years we’ve had 13 players taken who were as experienced or less as starters as Newsome in the upper levels of the minors. Of the 13, four were returned to their original team. Another - Kevin Gadea - never pitched for his new club, suffering numerous injuries that ultimately led to his release. Danny Winkler has actually been the most successful player in this group, but he had undergone Tommy John surgery and was known to be missing the majority of his first season. As such, any team simply willing to give a 40-man spot to him until the first day of Spring Training could easily snag him, then 60-day DL him until September, which the Braves did.

That leaves seven players in five years taken, but this general grouping can still be refined. Elvis Luciano, Elieser Hernández, Miguel Díaz, Luis Perdomo, Brett Graves, and Jason Garcia all have a few things in common. Like Gadea and Jandel Gustave, none but Graves had thrown a pitch in Double-A or above, but had shown velocity from 95-100, with varying secondaries. Their selecting teams had looked at them and seen potential high-leverage relievers, with the stuff already in them. Every one struggled significantly in their first season, and only Perdomo has had any degree of success thus far.

The final camp of unreturned players may fit best with Newsome, whose fastball is up to the low-90s at best and does not profile as a high-leverage bullpen option. His likelier ideal outcome is that of a back-end starter, able to eat up innings and fill out a rotation, which is a profile commonly available among slightly more veteran pitchers with Rule-5 eligibility - e.g. Anthony Misiewicz.

At Newsome’s level of experience, there are only a few recent examples who were not returned. Dylan Covey was a highly regarded prospect whose Type I diabetes diagnosis caused him to opt not to sign in the 1st round out of high school. He had a bit more zip on his sinker-dominated arsenal but far less impressive strikeout and command numbers than Newsome. Chicago, with little to play for in 2017, let Covey start, to fairly disastrous results, and while he showed some peripheral promise in 2018, he’s not been able to find himself in the bigs. All the same, the White Sox stuck it out with him, and with the benefit of 26-man rosters, it’s not hard to imagine one of the several tanking clubs taking a flier on Newsome and figuring they’ll have years to work with him yet.Among the returned group, Nick Green is potentially the closest facsimile to Newsome, having low-to-mid 90s heat that is thrown most often as a cutter. Arizona, however, threw in the towel on Green before the season began. Green struggled with command in AA amidst injuries in 2019, perhaps proving the move savvy, or showing the risk of taking such a green player.

Newsome is not a high-upside play like Luciano or Perdomo, nor does he have the pedigree of Covey, and while the 26-man roster and non-competitive teams make stowing a player easier, he doesn’t have the immediate in-season DL/IL option that Winkler offered. I think leaving Newsome exposed was perhaps an unnecessary risk, but there are not many recent examples of players with his combination of low-velo, innings-eater profile being taken without a much richer track record of high-minors success. If forced to guess, I would say Seattle dodges a bullet on Newsome being snatched up, but even if he is taken, he could easily be a candidate to be returned. Perhaps by that time, Seattle will have found a space for him.