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Targets for the Mariners in the 2023 Rule 5 Draft

Since it seems like the Mariners will again be shopping in the bargain bin this off-season, here are some names to watch for the upcoming Rule 5 Draft

Fall Stars Game
R.J. Dabovich already comes with an excellent Pitch Face
Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

To those of you whose offseason hopes have been dashed before the calendar has even turned to 2024, I’ve got good news! The Winter Meetings conclude on Wednesday with the Rule 5 Draft, where the Mariners will have the opportunity to add a player to the Major League roster at a cost that should fit their budget - the major league minimum.

If you need a refresher on the Rule 5 Draft, click here. If you want to follow the Draft, it’ll be streamed live on MLB.com at 11 AM PST this Wednesday. The Mariners will have the 21st pick in the Rule 5 Draft, where draft order is still determined by reverse standings order and not by a lottery.

With the club having cleared several roster spots as we wrap up the Meetings, it’s reasonable to expect the Mariners to make a selection in the Rule 5 Draft, as they’ve done in each season since 2017. Unsurprisingly for a team allegedly attempting to compete, the Mariners have selected a relief pitcher with each of their last four Major League selections, and given the uncertainty at the backend of the Mariners’ bullpen as things stand today, that may well be the route they go again this year. That said, the club also seemingly has an opening for a backup corner infielder given that the team’s official depth chart currently lists their starting second baseman as their backup third baseman, and only Dylan Moore and Sam Haggerty return as players that appeared at first base behind Ty France in 2023. Shoot, they may even snag an outfielder given the recent vacancy of a second outfield position this off-season.

As you likely know, it’s somewhat uncommon for Rule-5 picks to stick with their selecting team for the entirety of the season, and even less common for players selected to have much of an impact, but without further ado, enjoy shopping in the aisle of products the 2024 Seattle Mariners can theoretically afford!

Note: big thanks to Baseball America for whittling the list of literally hundreds of Rule 5-eligible players down to a couple dozen of the most intriguing options. Every year BA is the number one clearinghouse for Rule 5 info, as well as your one-stop shop for info on prospects both professional and amateur. And because it’s that time of year, it’s a great time to point out a BA subscription makes a great gift!

Hitters:

1B Blaine Crim, Rangers

Boasting one of the strongest minor league track records of anyone left unprotected at this year’s edition of the Rule 5 Draft - oh, the perils of having a roster filled with World Series Champion-caliber talent - there’s a fair chance Crim goes off the board early on Wednesday to a team that intends to make him an everyday player, and it’s hard to argue he hasn’t earned it. The righty slugger of Ty Francian proportions has hit at least 22 home runs in each of his three full-season stops since being selected in the 19th round of the 2019 Draft out of Mississippi College. In 133 Triple-A games last season, he posted a career best 12.2% walk rate and strikeout rate of just 18.4% en route to a 114 wRC+. Even if he is somehow on the board when the M’s are on the clock, it’s a little tough to imagine them taking a flier on a player that at best would expect to land somewhere between “backup first baseman” and “part-time DH”.

1B Troy Johnston, Marlins

Like Crim, Johnston was a bit of a surprise to be left unprotected, coming off an impressive season he split between Double and Triple-A, where he slashed .307/.399/.549 with 26 home runs and 116 RBI. His 133 wRC+ and sub-20% strikeout rate all indicated he may be ready for a big league test in 2024. While his defensive limitations will confine him to likely nothing more than a Mike Ford-style 1B/DH role, he provides far greater athleticism and, at just 26 years old and coming off his best campaign to date, there may just be untapped potential there. Again, will the club commit a season-long spot to an unproven, backup position player for a chance at unearthing the next Rule 5 diamond in the rough? Unlikely, but given that he’s a Tacoma native and Gonzaga product, it would make for a pretty cool story!

OF Matt Koperniak, Cardinals

Thank goodness the Cards have hit the max on the number of left-handed-hitting white dudes you can have on a roster, because Koperniak likely wouldn’t be a roster casualty otherwise. A teammate of Harry Ford for Great Britain during last year’s WBC, Koperniak has just steadily improved while climbing the ranks of the Cardinals’ system, culminating in a .275/.353/.431 96-game campaign at Triple-A Memphis last season. Praised for his ability to find the barrel, the undrafted DIII product posted a 10.4 BB% and 14.5% K% while swatting 14 homers and stealing nine bags during his time with with Memphis. Also capable of playing above-average defense in the outfield corners, Koperniak offers a different skillset than the similar-aged alternatives the Mariners have routinely dedicated at-bats to in recent seasons without much success. Given the obvious desire to shy away from players with a propensity to swing and miss, Koperniak makes for an intriguing alternative.

C/1B Stephen Scott, Red Sox

If there’s two things I love, it’s a Vanderbilt baseball product, and a left-handed hitting catcher, so Scott’s 2-for-2 there. At the risk of invoking memories of a recently departed superutility player whose name spoonerizes to Hooper Cummel, Scott offers versatility in that he has spent time at first base and a both outfield corners throughout his four-year minor league career, but MLB.com’s Prospect Pipeline called him “a potentially average to solid receiver with some aptitude for framing”, and reports are negative regarding his ability to cut down base stealers. Scott fits the Mariners’ desire to cut down on strikeouts heading into next season, having posted walk rates north of 13.0% and strikeout rates under 23% each of the last three seasons, including a 13.8 BB% and 20.1 K% at Triple-A last season (he moved from Double-A to Triple-A midseason) while swatting 13 homers in 63 games. A .235 BABIP drove his wRC+ with Worcester down to just 99, but his compact swing, advanced approach, and Seattle’s lack of depth at his primary positions make it easy to see a situation where Scott is heavily involved for the backup catcher competition in Peoria this spring.

Kate’s pick: C Will Banfield, Marlins

I loved Will Banfield in the 2018 draft SO MUCH, and his career with Miami so far has made me very sad. But he’s a true defensive catcher, and this year he finally unlocked some of his power, walloping 23 homers at Double-A Jacksonville, and in the past couple of seasons he’s started to get his inflated strikeout issues under control. He also just turned 24 like two weeks ago. Look at my big beautiful son in action:

Banfield was my favorite player in that draft next to one Jarred Kelenic, and since the Mariners rudely snatched him away, they could make it up to me by bringing in Banfield, who’d make a nifty 2018 first-rounder battery with Jackson Kowar.

But let’s be honest. The Mariners don’t usually target hitters in the Rule 5 Draft. Time to talk about some arms.

Pitchers:

RHP Tanner Burns, Guardians

The 36th overall pick out of Auburn in 2020, Burns spent his first two-and-a-half minor league seasons as a starter before transitioning to the bullpen in Double-A midseason last year. Upon making the move, his strikeouts ticked up as he fanned 31 through 26.1 innings and limited the opposition to a .222 average and 1.25 WHIP. It’s been a few years since the former Alabama High School Player of the Year was touching 97 and posting 12.9 K/9 as a starter at Auburn, and while his track record doesn’t necessarily warrant a jump from Double-A to the bigs, his five-pitch mix and history of starting make him a candidate to possibly fill a Chris Flexen-sized hole in the Mariners’ bullpen, although that spot may end up in the hands of the recently-acquired Jackson Kowar.

LHP Brendan Cellucci, Red Sox

If the front office is looking for the next lefty reclamation project for the bullpen with something sweepy, Cellucci makes for an intriguing option. Despite his 6’4” form and gaudy strikeout rates—he posted 11.1 K/9 in Double-A last season—he’s not much of a flamethrower. The southpaw relies heavily on a mid-80s slider that features eight inches of horizontal break, but also features a cutter and sinker. His major hangup? He’s never posted a walk rate under 5.2 BB/9, and has routinely allowed generous opponent batting averages, boasting a career BAA of .263 through 164.2 innings. He’d definitely be something of a project, but an intriguing one that could rack up K’s from the left side if a team can find a way to uncover some semblance of control.

RHP R.J. Dabovich, Giants

Just a year removed from being dubbed the Giants’ #17 prospect, the former fourth round pick out of Arizona State saw his 2023 season cut well short due to a hip surgery that limited him to just 2.2 innings. Armed with a high-90s heater and hammer curve that FanGraphs considers a 70-grade pitch, the 6’3” right-hander was as good as they come in 26.2 Double-A innings in 2022 before completely losing command of the zone upon a midseason promotion to Triple-A Sacramento. Perhaps the most likely candidate to be both available and appealing to Seattle at their draft spot, it’s not hard to see him slotting right into a big league bullpen if he’s fully recovered from his surgery in time for spring training.

LHP Shane Drohan, Red Sox

Drohan represents the rare opportunity to steal away a semi-highly regarded prospect for next to nothing. A former fifth-round pick out of Florida State, Drohan has worked exclusively as a starter, equipped with an average fastball, slider, and curve in addition to his 60-grade change. Before completely losing command of the strike zone and getting shelled in 89.0 Triple-A innings over which he posted a 5.78 xFIP after being promoted midseason, he’d actually been quite good and was likely well on his way to being added to Boston’s 40-man. Currently listed as the Red Sox #18 prospect, Drohan spent a majority of 2022 at Double-A, and posted 11.6 K/9 and a 3.84 xFIP over 105.2 innings. There’s no world in which he opens the season in the Seattle rotation, but he could pencil in as a left-handed long relief option with the door remaining open to be groomed for a starting role if he were to stick around.

RHP Ryan Fernandez, Red Sox

Another relief option that’s armed with some powerful breaking stuff, Fernandez deploys a power curve that plays off a gyro slider, cutter, and high-90s fastball to form potent strikeout mix for the right-hander. Splitting 2023 between Double-A and Triple-A, he was an elite relief option prior to his promotion, but flashed enough down the stretch to warrant consideration for Draft selection. His arsenal is easy for big league teams to dream on, especially one that is known to place such an emphasis on spin rates.

RHP Justin Slaten, Rangers

One of the more intriguing arms available in this year’s player pool, Slaten boasts the kind of draft pedigree Jerry & Co. seem to covet, being a former third-round selection back in 2019. The big-bodied righty was pretty awful in a short stint in Triple-A last season, but was quite impressive in 51.1 Double-A innings, over which he posted 13.3 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, and a 2.82 xFIP. His four-pitch mix features a fastball that’s been known to touch 97, but his sweeping slider is what he’ll lean on if he has plans of carving out a role in a big league bullpen. Outside of one of the worst full-season walk rates you’ll ever see in 2022 (8.5 BB/9), he’s never struggled much with his command of the zone, and actually had his best year to date in 2023. He’s likely to crack an Opening Day roster for some major league team in 2024, and he fits nicely for the M’s if he’s available when their pick rolls around.

Kate’s pick: RHP CJ Van Eyk, Blue Jays

Staying on my theme of former Draft crushes, I liked Van Eyk (said like IKE) back in 2020 as a polished starter out of FSU with a riding fastball and a deep complement of secondaries. TJ surgery and related complications took his 2022 and most of his 2023, so he’s not even pitched a full season at Double-A, making him an ultra-risky pick and probably why Toronto thought they could get away with leaving him unprotected ahead of the Draft. But he was stellar in the Fall League and the stuff—that riding fastball (92-93), plus a newly developed sinker, a hammer curve, and a slider—will play at the big leagues. A smart team with enough roster space should gamble on Van Eyk, and that team should be the Mariners.