The Rule 5 Draft is always a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to finding Major League talent. Yes, it is an opportunity for prospects overlooked in a team’s system to get a Major League opportunity on another club. Yes, there are success stories like Johan Santana and Brad Keller for the Royals. But not every Rule 5 pick works out, as evidenced by Sam McWilliams, who didn’t make the club out of Spring Training, and was returned to the Tampa Bay Rays, his original organization.
In this year’s Rule 5 Draft, the Royals, with the fourth pick selected another Rays pitcher: Stephen Woods, Jr., a 24-year-old right-hander who was originally drafted by the San Francisco Giants (he was acquired by Tampa Bay in the Evan Longria trade). Woods was an interesting pick for a variety of reasons: he has a career 2.61 ERA over 231 innings in the minors, and posted good strikeout numbers in High-A last season. That being said, he missed all of 2018 due to shoulder issues, and he also had a history of struggling to find the strike zone. Here is what Eric Longenhagen said about Woods in his recap of the 2019 Rule 5 Draft on Fangraphs:
“Woods had big stuff in college but struggled to throw strikes. The Giants made him a more viable strike-thrower before trading him to Tampa Bay…At his best, Woods was 93-96 with a plus curveball…He had a labrum issue in 2018 and missed the whole year, then came back in 2019 and posted an ERA under two, albeit as a 24-year-old in A-ball. His velo was down, 91-94 touching 96, but he has the coveted 12:30 spin axis on the fastball and still has quality breaking stuff. If his velo is all the way back in the spring he has a shot to stick, but he’s a high-risk to bounce back to the Rays anyway because of his erratic history of control.”No. 4 Pick: Stephen Woods, Jr. Eric Longenhagen, Fangraphs
Longenhagen isn’t wrong when describing Woods’ pitching acumen: he had a walk rate over 13 percent in three levels with the Giants, and though he lowered that rate to 9.2 percent with the Charlotte Stone Crabs of the Florida State League, his K/9 (8.24) in 86.1 innings of work was also the lowest of his early professional career. Woods certainly has big league-caliber stuff, and if you watch the video below, Royals fans can see why Dayton Moore was enticed by the right-hander who has gone through a lot of adversity to break through at the Major League level.
Furthermore, the success of Keller could also bode well for Woods, as the Royals are an organization that are patient with their Rule 5 picks (after all, the Royals aren’t really going anywhere competitively as of now). Keller had his ups and downs out of the pen in 2018, especially in the first couple of months of play during a rough season. However, once he got the opportunity to start full-time in June, Keller not only proved to be a worthy Rule 5 pick that year, but also a cornerstone of the Royals rotation the following campaign as well.
There is some hope that the same could happen to Woods: develop his control in low-leverage situations out of the pen to start, and then eventually gain a bigger role as the season progresses.
Of course, Woods is a lot further behind the ball than Keller as a Rule 5 pick. Keller had pitched 130 innings in the Double-A Southern League in the Diamondbacks system a season before he was drafted. Woods on the other hand hasn’t pitched above High-A ball. Keller was also two years younger than Woods when he was drafted and made his Royals debut, which also is another red flag for Woods. Yes, there is potential for Woods to make the Royals active roster whenever the season begins and perhaps accomplish what Keller did as a rookie in 2018. But it’s not a slam dunk by any means, as the combo of a so-so Spring (he posted a 4.91 ERA and 1.91 WHIP over 3.2 innings with two strikeouts and five walks) and an ankle injury suffered in Cactus League play definitely hurt his chances in terms of earning an active roster spot on Opening Day.
If the regular season had already started (as it should have until all this Coronavirus stuff hit), it’s probably safe to say that Woods would have been returned to Tampa Bay already. With a 162 game season and plenty of intriguing options in the pen on the 40-man roster (and even beyond, as Greg Holland hadn’t officially made the club before rosters were frozen), the Royals probably would have seen Woods as a surplus arm they didn’t need.
However, the season STILL has not started yet. And not only will the season most likely be shortened due to the Cornoavirus, but when play resumes, the rosters will also be expanded from 26 to 29 for the first month as well.
And that unique situation in 2020 makes Woods’ status on the Royals much more intriguing.
As said before, I do not think Woods would have made the active roster out of Spring Training if everything progressed as normal. Though I thought he did okay considering he hadn’t even pitched at the Double-A level yet, Woods still showed the same control problems that plagued him during his tenure with the Giants and Rays organizations. In an ideal world, Woods would spend the year in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, get a promotion mid-year to Omaha, and then perhaps debut some point when rosters expanded in September, polished and ready to face Major League pitching full time.
Unfortunately, the rules of the Rule 5 draft don’t allow that plan, and the Royals have to make a decision to gamble on whether or not to allow Woods to eat innings out of the Royals bullpen, a huge risk considering his shaky Spring. However, the delayed and shortened season, as well as the expanded roster, should give Woods an opportunity to pitch in Kansas City, or at least an opportunity to show his stuff for that first month of play.
It is likely that the MLB season will not be 162 games. Furthermore, it is also likely that the MLB season will not start until June at the earliest. Even though Woods is technically on the Injured List, it is likely that he would have recovered from his ankle injury by then and be ready to pitch again should baseball start in mid-to-late June. And thus, Woods would have from that mid-to-late June to mid-to-late July to be on the roster, as one or two of those three extra spots most likely would go to the pitching staff.
And if that’s the case, Woods should be utilized out of the pen in low-leverage situations over the first month to show what he can do. Let him work in games where the Royals need mop up duty. Let him come in if a Royals pitcher gets shelled and have him pitch 1-2 innings, and see how he handles Major League hitters. Let him get proper coaching from pitching coach Cal Eldred with the hope that he can learn on the fly. The kid not only has come a long way to earn some innings at the Major League level (read his story from Alec Lewis of The Athletic that I linked earlier; it will make you root for the guy), but the seeds of something special are there as well.
He may not be a Keller, but perhaps he could develop into a Keller lite out of the bullpen or in the rotation, with a little more strikeout potential than the Royals’ current No. 1 starter.
Of course, this is all hypothetical. It makes sense to give Woods an “extended tryout” with the roster expanding to 29 during the first month of play, but ultimately, that’s Matheny and Moore’s call. They may feel the pressure to “win now” more than ever, especially with a shortened season, which gives them a better opportunity to sneak a potential Wild Card spot in the American League. If they can get off to a hot start, that could help the club parlay that stretch into a resurgence to relevancy, something that Royals fans haven’t experienced at Kauffman in two years.
And unfortunately, investing time and innings in a high-risk pitcher who hasn’t pitched over High-A doesn’t necessarily fit into that “competitive” plan at all.
However, the Royals have a unique opportunity with Woods, as the extra three roster spots give Moore the opportunity to try out some different things during the first month of play. Moore should test the limits during this weird, truncated season and period, and going with a Rule 5 guy who is all upside is a strategy that could provide benefits, even if it wasn’t in the plan a few weeks ago.
Who knows when the Major League season will start specifically. As of now, Royals and baseball fans everywhere are itching desperately for games to begin again, and that will only amplify with each week that passes without baseball.
But when the season starts, don’t be surprised to see Woods in a Royals uniform being introduced on Opening Day.
He should have a month to prove he belongs in Kansas City after his Spring Training was cut short.
Let’s hope he makes the most of it.