Rule #1: Have fun out there.
It’s rare for a Rule 5 pick to work out, exceedingly so for a competitive team. There’s a reason that most picks were available to be chosen. The Rule 5 Draft happens once a year at the end of the Winter Meetings, and it allows teams to pick players from other organizations who are (a) not on the 40-man roster and (b) have been in pro ball for at least 5 seasons if originally signed at 18 or younger or 4 seasons if signed at 19 or older. The drafting team has to pay the original team $100,000.
The reason it usually doesn’t work out is that players have to stay on the drafting team’s 26-man roster for the entire following season. (Going on the IL still counts as the MLB-roster, but they still have to be on the active roster for at least 90 days of the season.) The new team has to put the player on waivers if they want to demote him, and even if he clears waivers, the old team then has the chance to buy the player back for just $50,000 and does not have to put him on their 40-man roster. That’s what usually happens to Rule 5 picks. The new team needs to really like the player to keep him on the MLB roster for an entire season.
Usually when a Rule 5 pick sticks around, it’s because the new team wasn’t really competing, so they’re not losing anything by sacrificing the roster spot and they’re not overflowing with more qualified alternatives. This is what happened with the two Dipoto-era Rule 5 picks that stayed with the Mariners: Brandon Brennan and Yohan Ramirez. (Ramirez was even easier since 2020 only required the M’s to keep him through 60 games and gave the team 30 spots on the MLB roster.)
So Chris Clarke will probably head back to the Cubs eventually. The Mariners are both awash in reliever talent, at least relative to 2019 and 2020 when they kept Rule 5 relievers, and are at a spot on the win curve where every single game makes a big difference to their playoff odds. So Clarke should try to make the most of his time in the organization. He likely won’t win a spot, so he can’t really lose. The best thing to do in a situation like that is to enjoy yourself.
Rule #2: Listen to the Mariners pitching-development staff.
But there’s still that slim chance that it will work out. And if it does, I’d bet Seattle’s pitching-development staff will be a big reason why. They’ve made a habit out of seeing something in fringe relievers and turning them into MLB-caliber players. Paul Sewald is the poster child, but Nick Vincent, Casey Sadler, Connor Sadzeck, JT Chargois, and Austin Adams all come to mind too.
Having had Tommy John surgery at just 16 years old and losing 2020 to the pandemic, Clarke’s missed a lot of development time. And it’s not as if his old organization, the Cubs, is famous for developing pitchers. So maybe the Mariners can unlock something. But he’ll have to be open to what they have to say.
Rule #3: Keep the ball on the ground.
Clarke’s main offering is a 93-mph sinker that he pairs with a curveball. Throwing two pitches with good depth has helped him earn a consistently high ground-ball rate: Among AA pitchers with at least 50 IP last year, his 58% ranked in the 97th percentile. Among pitchers with at least 20 IP at High-A, his 56.1% put him in the 93rd percentile. The worst he’s ever been was still well above average.
It’s good for any pitcher to have a high ground-ball rate, but it’s especially helpful for a fringy reliever, who can carve out a role as a pivot guy to come in mid-inning with a runner on first to try to induce the double play. And it’s a particularly nice fit for the Mariners. They’ve made infield defense one of their calling cards and Gold Glover Kolten Wong is about to get Hill-pilled. It could be enough to give Clarke a role on the roster.
Rule #4: Keep it in the zone.
Of the batters he’s faced in his pro career, Clarke’s walked a trifling 4.9%. In AA last year, the 6’7” righty showed terrific control, throwing strikes more than two thirds of the time, good for the 95th percentile in AA. To be sure, Major-League hitters won’t chase as often. Sometimes that can scare guys into nibbling. But Clarke’s shown temerity before, actually increasing his strike percentage when making the biggest minor-league jump in talent, from High-A to AA.
But to pump the brakes on the hype-mobile for a minute, he’s hardly dominated his competition. He was available in the Rule 5 Draft, after all. Teams still prioritize strikeouts above all, even though they’re fascist, and Clarke’s 20.2% strikeout rate ranked 479/610 in AA last year. That’s not usually something that improves upon moving to MLB. Chris Clarke is nicknamed “the Ice Maker,” on the thought that his fastball will freeze you. And, hey, it probably would freeze you. But color me skeptical that it’ll freeze MLB hitters.
So if Clarke’s going to stick on the roster, he’s going to have to avoid free passes: Just as walks matter less for pitchers with high strikeout rates because they’ll leave guys on base; strikeouts matter less for pitchers with low walk rates because balls in play don’t hurt you so bad if the bases are empty. But he really does have to keep that walk rate low to make this work.
Rule #5: Wear sunscreen.
Chris Clarke grew up in Ventura County, California, just north of Los Angeles, went to college at USC, and has spent most of his time in the pros in Knoxville and Myrtle Beach. That’s the kind of person who’s often surprised by Seattle’s summers; outsiders tend to expect it to rain all year long. But the Emerald City gets over 300 hours of sunshine in July, making SPF necessary for someone with Clarke’s complexion. So even though he can’t mix it with rosin anymore—something he was pretty upset about—Clarke would do well to remember some sunscreen.