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Richie Martin selected by Orioles in Rule 5 draft

A’s lose a former 1st-round pick, but it’s not the end of the world.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Rule 5 draft took place on Thursday, and it cost the Oakland A’s a notable prospect. With the first pick of the draft, the Orioles selected shortstop Richie Martin, who was the A’s 1st-round pick in the 2015 June amateur draft (aka Rule 4). Martin will now have the chance to play in MLB for Baltimore, but if he doesn’t stick in the majors all year long then he must be offered back to Oakland. Click here to see the full draft.

For his part, Martin enjoyed a promising 2018 campaign. His first two full seasons had been a constant struggle against nagging injuries and underperformance, but last summer he finally put together a good year at the plate to go along with his well-regarded defense. He still has to prove that the success wasn’t a fluke, especially since it took two tries at Double-A for him to figure it out, but at least he’s trending in the right direction entering age 24.

Martin, 2018 AA: .300/.368/.439, 121 wRC+, 6 HR, 8.6% BB, 16.9% Ks

In order to protect Martin from being stolen away like this, the A’s would have needed to add him to their 40-man roster in mid-November. They did just that with four other prospects, but apparently Martin didn’t make the cut this winter for that level of commitment.

The optics of losing a former 1st-round pick for nothing are certainly a bummer, but on that topic GM David Forst offered the following words, via Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle: “Once guys have been in the system three or four years, their performance takes precedence over their draft position.” Of course the draft pedigree says something about the perceived talent level and ceiling that a player might possess, but at the end of the day that stuff either shows up on the field or it doesn’t. Lots of 1st-rounders bust, and lots of late-rounders shockingly pan out, so you can only cling to the old draft labels for so long.

This situation is drawing strong opinions from the Athletics Nation community, so let’s take a closer look. We’ll never know the precise thinking behind leaving Martin exposed to Rule 5, but we can look at the evidence at hand. Spoiler alert: The sky is not falling, and this is not as big of a deal as it’s being made out to be.

Reduced stock

First, let’s consider what Martin is and what he meant to the 2019 A’s. His calling card is his defense, but we haven’t exactly spent the last three years hearing rave reviews about it like we did with Matt Chapman and Sean Murphy and some others. In fact, the latest word (via Slusser) is that many talent evaluators now prefer him at second base. That is a significant downgrade, and it changes his profile entirely. His whole value was based around sticking at short.

As for the bat, right now it’s just not enough to carry him. He really did put up a nice season, but he still has a lot to prove on that side of the ball. The low strikeout rate bodes well for a contact-oriented hitter, but his OBP was only decent and he has utterly zero power partly because he only hits the ball on the ground. We just saw Jorge Mateo and Sheldon Neuse destroy Double-A and then flounder in Triple-A, and Martin has his own track record of needing lots of time to adjust to a new level.

Folks on Athletics Nation are thinking about Martin as a plus shortstop with a breakout bat. In reality, he’s looking like a plus 2B with a merely intriguing bat. And that’s still a worthwhile prospect, especially when he’s ready for Triple-A! He probably still would have made our CPL Top 30 next month! The point here is not that Martin is a total bust, not by a long shot. But not every interesting prospect can fit on the 40-man roster.

Roster makeup

So, the concept of protecting Martin on the 40-man roster isn’t a dealbreaker on its own. If anything, the Orioles just proved that he still has value by picking him and literally rostering him.

However, not all teams are built equally. Everyone has their own unique depth chart with its own strengths and weaknesses, and their own unique 40-man with its own priorities and implications. The fact is, there just wasn’t room for Martin in Oakland.

Let’s start with the 40-man. The following players already have spots:

  • Jharel Cotton (will miss half of 2019)
  • Daniel Gossett (will miss most of 2019)
  • Sean Manaea (might miss all of 2019)
  • Grant Holmes (missed 2018, hasn’t pitched in AAA)
  • James Kaprielian (missed 2018, hasn’t pitched in AA)
  • Jorge Mateo (still developing in AAA)
  • Skye Bolt (hasn’t played in AAA)
  • Luis Barrera (hasn’t played in AAA)

That’s eight spots, or 20% of the entire roster, dedicated to players who might not contribute at all in 2019. Sure, three of those pitchers can eventually move to the 60-day DL, but not until spring training gets going in a couple months. That’s a long way away, and a lot needs to happen before then.

For a rebuilding team, jamming up a roster with a bunch of long-term investments who represent present-day deadweight is not a problem. Heck, it’s a legitimate strategy for stockpiling talent. But the A’s aren’t rebuilding, they’re trying to contend. They need some room to operate this winter, especially if they’re going super-experimental with their pitching staff. You can DFA Aaron Brooks every day and twice on Sunday, but it won’t change the fact that the A’s are working with a 32-man roster this winter and must be particularly judicious about filling those spots.

At some point, there is only finite room to stash prospects, especially on a contending roster. Don’t think of this as Oakland choosing Brooks over Martin, because that is simply not the case in any way, shape, or form. If anything, they chose Bolt and Barrera over Martin, because those guys were the ones who earned the available dormant-prospect spots. Or they chose to dedicate Martin’s spot to keeping Gossett for 2020.

Depth chart

Furthermore, the depth chart was not in Martin’s favor. Let’s be crystal clear on something: Martin was not the next shortstop in line. Mateo is. We can talk about the possibility of Mateo moving to a different position in the future, but the fact is that hasn’t happened yet. There’s also Franklin Barreto, who has clearly moved to 2B but is still at least a middle infielder. And Eli White, another utility-type infielder who just had a better year than Martin on the same team (though he’s not on the roster yet).

If Marcus Semien were to pull a hammy in May and need a brief replacement, there is a long list of things that would probably happen before Martin would get the call. Chad Pinder could cover for a couple weeks. Mateo could make his debut. If Barreto isn’t the everyday 2B, then he could slide over for a minute — he’s really not a SS, but remember Martin might not be either. The point is, Martin is not the next man up at the position, not even close, and I’m genuinely unclear why anyone would think he is.

Heck, in order for Martin to get this theoretical call in real life, he’d first have to earn it by immediately breaking out at a new level of the minors (AAA) in a way that he has never done in his life at any level. And if Barreto and Mateo both wind up in Las Vegas’ middle infield to start the year, would Martin even have a spot there? And if your answer is that Barreto or Mateo could try the outfield, remember the Aviators might already have the likes Dustin Fowler, Tyler Ramirez, Bolt, and possibly Barrera competing for time out there, and White will need a spot somewhere (and not at third base, where Sheldon Neuse already plays).

Furthermore, don’t look over your shoulder, because there are more middle infielders in the lower levels: Jeremy Eireman, Kevin Merrell, and Nick Allen were all high picks in their own rights, and Nate Mondou is another lotto ticket who needs to play somewhere. Some trades could come along to clear out a couple of these names, but even still the list will be crowded.

Martin was not standing alone in some middle infield wasteland. The A’s have a lot of bodies there already, and many of them are significantly bigger prospects.

Draft bust?

So if Martin was still a viable prospect, but not indispensable enough to be protected, then he was a draft bust, right? Another failed 1st-round pick?

I mean, sure, he might fall the rest of the way to bust status, but that hasn’t happened yet. Another team just showed enough interest to roster him and probably give him MLB playing time next year. The book is far from closed on Martin.

On a more local level, though, this could represent the A’s getting nothing for their top pick, which is a different type of draft bust. But to that point, I offer two counters.

The first is that the 2015 class looks fairly weak so far. Bregman, Benintendi, Swanson, and Happ have made their marks already, but they were all off the board in the first nine picks so they were never available to Oakland (Martin was the 20th pick). In terms of 1st-rounders who are already panning out in MLB, the only name the A’s passed on was Walker Buehler. After that you have to go to the 3rd round to find Brandon Lowe and Harrison Bader, and the 4th for Paul DeJong. There is still time for more players to blossom, but so far almost no teams got anything out of the 2015 draft.

And anyway, the A’s have been nailing their top picks for a while now. Long gone are the busted picks of 2007-10, and in their place we’ve seen the following:

2011: Sonny Gray
2012: Addison Russell
2013: Billy McKinney
2014: Matt Chapman

Sonny got Cy votes while wearing green and gold, Russell already has a ring and an All-Star berth, McKinney debuted last year at age 23 and showed an above-average bat, and Chapman is now a superstar and the A’s team MVP. And that’s before mentioning 2012 supplemental 1st-rounders Daniel Robertson and Matt Olson, two more young stars. If anything, Martin breaks a lengthy streak of success, because you can’t win ‘em all. And anyway, that year’s 4th-round pick was Bolt, so Oakland still has a chance to get something out of their 2015 class.

Put it all together, and I’m just having a hard time getting worked up about this. Granted, I would have liked to find room to protect and keep Martin, and there is absolutely a chance we could regret his loss. But the A’s also employ a 4-WAR shortstop right now, one who is in his prime and almost never gets injured, so the bar for this being an outright mistake is extraordinarily high. Again, there simply isn’t room to keep everyone, and eventually you have to make a tough choice.

Here’s one final way to look at this. If you give in and add Richie to the roster prematurely to protect him, then you may have to DFA him later to make room for some other emergency need. Then he’ll get claimed and he’s gone. Same if you make a panic trade just for the sake of recouping some trifling asset rather than nothing. At least losing him in Rule 5 means they might get him back next summer.

If you’re upset about losing Martin, my advice is: Don’t be. It’s not a big deal for the A’s, and it’s a great opportunity for the player. If he does play well for Baltimore then he will do so because he was given a chance he would probably never have gotten here on the crowded 2019 roster, and even then, his success would at least mean the A’s actually drafted well in 2015.

And hey, it could be worse. The last time the A’s sent a 1st-round draft pick middle infielder to the Orioles, Jim Johnson came back to Oakland in the transaction. Getting nothing this time around is undeniably a better value.

Oakland’s picks

The A’s also made a few of their own picks in the minor league portion of Rule 5. These players tend to be just org filler, but let’s take a quick look just in case.

  • Corban Joseph, 2B (from BAL)
  • Mark Payton, CF (from NYY)
  • Anthony Miller, RHP (from CLE)

The precise rules aren’t important; all that matters is these players don’t have to be on the 25-man roster like the MLB Rule 5 guys. Payton is a 27-year-old who was alright in Triple-A last year, with his walk rate and OBP as his main strength. He’s one more reason why there won’t be room to push Mateo/Barreto to the outfield in Las Vegas.

As for Miller, he was a first baseman who converted to pitching last year. That model has worked for the A’s in the recent past, so who knows?

The interesting name here is Joseph, though. First off, yes, he is the brother of Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, and the two got to play together in Baltimore last year, which is awesome. Secondly, he’s a middle infielder, so in a way the A’s and O’s just swapped Martin and Joseph (there’s your token trade, if that’s what you wished Oakland had done instead of losing Martin for free). And finally, here is his stat line from last summer in Double-A, as a lefty hitter playing 2B:

Joseph, 2018 AA: .312/.381/.497, 143 wRC+, 17 HR, 9.9% BB, 8.2% Ks

Holy Toledo, he’s Max Schrock! OK, not exactly. Joseph just turned 30 and already has over 1,200 plate appearances in Triple-A, so he was absurdly old and advanced for Double-A. But that batting line is basically Schrock with power, which is neat. His career strikeout rate in Triple-A is 13.5%, though, whereas Schrock kept his in single-digits this summer when he moved up.

Don’t look to this group for any top prospects, but at least now you know they exist.