The major league phase of the annual Rule 5 Draft is on hold due to MLB’s lockout of the players, but the less heralded, minor-league portion of the event still took place on Wednesday afternoon with teams making a total of 51 selections across five rounds. The Yankees were involved in just three of those picks, as they added two arms and saw another player leave the organization. Unlike the major league portion of the event, there is no stipulation that could see the players rejoin their previous organization. Let’s take a look at the players coming to and going away from the club.
To be eligible for the minor league phase, a player has to not be on the 40-man roster, but also not on an extended 38-man roster assigned to each organization’s Triple-A team. Once a player is selected, he can be assigned to any minor league level. Last year alone, five players selected in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft played in the major leagues, including Tyler Gilbert of the Diamondbacks who threw a no-hitter on his way to posting a 3.15 ERA in 40 major league innings. In the past, players such as Justin Bour and Omar Narváez were selected in the minor league phase before starting their major league careers.
With their first pick in the Rule 5 Draft, the Yankees selected right-handed pitcher Steven Jennings from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 23-year-old was the second round pick of the Pirates in the 2017 draft, commanding a $1.9 million signing bonus to forgo his commitment to the University of Mississippi. After working as a starter for his first three professional seasons, he was moved to bullpen in 2021. The Yankees had an up-close look at his best outing of the season as he tossed four innings of one-hit, six-strikeout ball against the High-A Hudson Valley Renegades on September 16th.
As recently as 2019, Baseball America ranked Jennings as the Pirates’ 13th-best prospect. His arsenal at the time was described as 89-92 mph with a good slider and feel for a curveball and changeup. In 295 minor league innings, he has a good 3.0 BB/9 but did not display big swing and miss stuff, with a rate of just 7.3 K/9. He will likely start next season with either High-A Hudson Valley or Double-A Somerset.
With their second pick in the draft, the Yankees selected right-handed pitcher Manny Ramirez out of the Houston Astros system. Ramirez has not pitched in an official game since 2019 after COVID cancelled the 2020 season and he landed on the injured list for the entirety of the 2021 season. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, Ramirez was not a big-time prospect when he signed with Houston in 2017 as a 17-year-old. He quickly showed the ability to throw his 95-97 mph fastball past hitters and started climbing the ranks. His control has often betrayed him, however, as he has a 7.2 BB/9 rate for his career.
One game that stands out is from August 4, 2019, where Ramirez pitched 3.1 innings of one-run ball. He allowed no hits, struck out three batters, but allowed eight walks. In his last seven games from the 2019 season, he posted a 3.37 ERA, with 26 strikeouts but 19 walks across 18.2 innings. This is a very live arm for the Yankees to work with who could turn into a player if it all comes together for him under the guidance of the Yankees player development staff. He has only briefly touched the Low-A and Short-Season A levels as a professional, and will likely play the coming season with Low-A Tampa and High-A Hudson Valley. The Yankees may have the vision of a player who could transform the way Luis Gil did, as Gil struggled with his control while in the Twins system before finding enough improvement to reach the upper levels of the minors and have a successful major league debut in 2021.
With the two additions to the Yankees minor league system came the loss of a player who rose to the cusp of the major leagues before hitting a bump in his path in 2021. The Yankees selected Brian Keller in the 39th round of the 2016 draft, but he pitched well above that draft position as he moved up the Yankee system. Keller displayed solid control, as he never walked more than 3.0 BB/9, until this past year. With the Yankees moving Keller to the bullpen, he lost the strike zone and saw his BB/9 jump to 7.5 across 55 innings pitched.
While Keller’s walks were troublesome, he did appear to gain some more control as the season went on, as he only walked zero or one batter in eight of his last ten outings. He entered the Yankee organization after four years of college, and will get a fresh start as a 27-year-old who could be in the majors as soon as next year.
Brian Keller. inning. Collision course. pic.twitter.com/P9QROcz6dx— SWB RailRiders (@swbrailriders) September 10, 2021
The highlight of Keller’s time in the Yankees system was no-hitter for Double-A Trenton in 2019, immediately before he was promoted to Triple-A. He also tossed an immaculate inning late this season while pitching for Scranton. He finishes his time in the Yankees organization with a 3.16 ERA across 441.1 innings pitched.
The Yankees lost one player and gained two young arms in this years minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft. While the odds are that these players will not become impact players at the major league level, there are a growing number of players selected in this process that are providing value to their teams.