The Indians are unlikely to participate in the 2018 rule 5 draft as they have a full 40 man roster, but they had a bit of a private rule 5 during the past week. On multiple occasions, they have paid a premium (in low minor talent) to access players that teams were not planning on holding on the 40 man roster prior to Tuesday’s rule 5 deadline and before they hit waivers or free agency.
The final one of these deals featured the Indians grabbing Walter Lockett from the Padres in exchange for Ignacio Feliz. Feliz is a right handed starting pitcher that I became very familiar with during the 2018 season as he was initially the ace on AZL Indians 2 before being transferred to AZL Indians 1 mid-season.
A 2016 international free agent, Feliz had a rather pedestrian start to his career with average or below average standard and peripheral stats in the 2017 Dominican Summer League. He came to the United States for extended spring training in 2018, however, and really took off once he began play in the Arizona Rookie League.
With Indians 2, Feliz made 7 starts and allowed just 8 earned runs, striking out 9.5 per nine and walking just 2.6. Following the promotion of Indians 1 ace Yeffersson Yannuzzi to Mahoning Valley, Feliz was moved to team 1 where he had the best start of his young career, striking out 10 in 4 innings while allowing just two hits and one earned run. While he gave up a few runs in his next start, ruining his ERA for his three starts with Indians 1, he had a strong run of seven starts ending with that game with a .180/.252/.230 line and a 1.82 ERA.
Feliz is only 19 and was ranked at #69 in Burning River Baseball’s Indians prospect rankings from earlier this month. He has an outside chance of making it to the big leagues, but any chance will be many years in the future. At the moment, even the most positive of projections would have to have him as a back end of the rotation starter or long reliever. He could obviously improve upon that, but Feliz is far from a high ceiling prospect.
The Indians return continues to show their skin flint approach at revamping the bullpen. Walker Lockett is another straw Mike Chernoff has grasped at with 2019 projections of a 4.73 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9 and 8.5 K/9. Of course, those projections (from Baseball Reference) are significantly better than his actual production in his rookie season of 2018.
His numbers in AAA as a starter last year are a little more comforting, especially since most pitchers are able to increase their strike out rate with a move to the bullpen. He walked just 2.2 per nine and struck out 8 while with El Paso in the high offense Pacific Coast League. His career 4.15 ERA through nearly 500 minor league innings makes him seem no better than many of the Indians internal options, however, including some who were left exposed to the rule 5 draft when they included Lockett on the 25 man roster.
On an individual level, this trade doesn’t look like much, but it continues a trend for the Indians as they try to balance their minor league system. It has been particularly bottom heavy for awhile, but went to the Sir-Mix-A-Lot extreme this year when they added a second AZL team to go with the 1.5 DSL teams and short season team. With so many players at the lower levels, the Indians would either have to promote players more quickly (which they did with a few 2018 draft picks like Nick Sandlin and Richie Palacios) or cut more players at the break between short season and A ball.
Rather than cutting players from the bottom, however, they have taken to trading those closer to the top like Feliz, Tahnaj Thomas, Dante Mendoza and Gionti Turner going all the way back to the trade of Jhon Torres and Conner Capel for Oscar Mercado during the 2018 season. These are all players who are many years away from the big leagues, but still have some value on the trade market.
While none of the players returned in these deals look to be superstars, or even MLB regulars, they do help the Indians replenish their upper minor leagues for a moment. At the end of the season, five players from the RubberDucks became free agents as well as 13 from the Clippers. Some of these holes will be filled internally, but with so many of the Indians top prospects still below A ball, it won’t be by the most elite Indians prospects (with the exception of Triston McKenzie). When you note that the 2018 Clippers featured Mitch Talbot, Miles Jay and Adam Wilk, the players coming back in these deals look a lot better.
This, however, begs the question of why the Indians front office values these players who aren’t good enough to be on the 40 man rosters of the Padres, Pirates and Rays, over their own players like Kieran Lovegrove and Josh Martin (who were allowed to leave as a free agent when he wasn’t added to the 40 man roster earlier this year) and Henry Martinez (who will be exposed to the rule 5 draft in December). Do the Indians have so little trust in their drafting and development that they’d rather take a flier on anyone else’s castaway than give someone in house a chance? It certainly seems that way.