PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Wedged between the All-Stars and the also-rans, the top prospects and the roster fillers, sits the quirky baseball phenomenon known as the Rule-5 pick.
There were only 19 of these players selected in the major-league phase of this special draft at the winter meetings last December, and the Mets chose two of them: Brad Emaus with the 10th overall pick and Pedro Beato at the 18th spot.
The total cost was $100,000 - $50,000 was paid to the Blue Jays and Orioles, respectively, for each player - and the Mets believe they may have filled two big holes for very little money.
The trick is that a Rule-5 pick must remain on the major-league roster for the entire season or be returned to their former team, which must then pay back half the original fee for the player. In the Mets' case, Emaus is competing for the second-base job, along with Luis Castillo and Daniel Murphy, so sticking won't be a problem if he outplays them both.
As for the hard-throwing righthander Beato, who originally was drafted by the Mets in 2005 but not signed, he also has a very good shot of making the Opening Day roster. With the Mets' bullpen pretty much up for grabs at this point, Beato made a good impression during yesterday's live batting-practice session.
"It certainly would be unusual to have two Rule 5s survive an entire year," general manager Sandy Alderson said. "But one's a pitcher, and one's at a position where we have a potential opening, and both have an excellent chance."
The Rule-5 draft was established to prevent teams from stockpiling talented players in the minor leagues, and to give those players a route to the majors before becoming free agents. Under those guidelines, team can protect players from that draft by keeping them on their 40-man roster.
Players that are 18 or younger on June 5 must be protected after four years; those 19 or older have a three-year window before being put at risk. It's not often that members of this unprotected group become impact players in the majors, but some slip through the cracks.
In 2005, the Mets selected righthander Mitchell Wylie from the Giants with the seventh pick in the Rule-5 draft. The Marlins immediately followed them by taking Dan Uggla from the Diamondbacks at No. 8. Wylie never pitched a game in the majors. Uggla, a two-time All-Star, has averaged 32 homers, 97 RBIs withh a .837 OPS in five major-league seasons.
That was a notable whiff by the Mets, who have gained little from the Rule-5 draft in recent memory. And when they did make a smart pick in 2008, by taking righthander Darren O'Day from the Angels, someone else wound up benefitting from it. The Rangers grabbed O'Day when the Mets tried to sneak him through waivers in April, 2009, and he's been huge for the Texas bullpen ever since, with a 1.99 ERA in 126 appearances.
Is Emaus another Uggla? Is Beato another O'Day? The Mets would settle for less, given their needs at those spots, but knowing they can lose those players may give each one a slight edge when those position races tighten up. It's all part of the roster game that made them available to the Mets in the first place.
"The Rule-5 thing can be an advantage or a disadvantage, I suppose," Emaus said. "You just have to play your game and hopefully they like it."
As for the 24-year-old Beato, with a fastball that reaches 97 mph, he should make a strong argument for keeping him on the team. It's much easier to carry a pitcher than a potential everyday starter like Emaus. But partly because of his Rule- 5 status, the Mets believe Emaus, 24, could force them to release Castillo and bump Murphy into a bench utility role.
"Often a Rule-5 guy is somebody who can do maybe one thing well enough to survive as an extra player for a whole year," Alderson said. "Maybe he runs really well, or plays great defense. But in [Emaus'] case, he's competing for a starting position, and it's unlikely that he'll be here if he doesn't earn that starting position."