Every November, teams around baseball are forced to make tough roster decisions as a new group of prospects become eligible for the annual Rule 5 Draft. Teams can protect these prospects by adding them to the 40-man roster, but those spots are limited and the Yankees have seen players regularly selected over the last few season. While most players are eventually returned to their original team if they cannot stay on their new team’s 26-man roster all season, the Yankees are coming off a winter where they lost Rony García to the Tigers after they made him the first selection in the Rule 5 Draft. Let’s check in on the three players selected as they try to earn a major league roster spot this spring.
The end of spring training and the final roster cuts is a common time of year for players selected in the Rule 5 Draft to be returned to their original team. The Yankees already know that Trevor Stephan will not be returned this March, as he has been told by Cleveland that he has made the team at least for opening day.
The Indians also informed Trevor Stephan that he will be making the Opening Day roster.— Mandy Bell (@MandyBell02) March 21, 2021
Stephan was the Yankees’ third-round pick in 2017, and flew up the ranks to Double-A, becoming just the third player in baseball from that draft class to reach that level. He struggled from that point on and was temporarily demoted to High-A Tampa in 2019 before bouncing back strong to finish the season.
Over his last five games, Stephan struck out 33 batters in 26.2 innings while allowing just two earned runs. That included a seven-inning perfect game in late July. Based off his strong finish and positive reviews of his potential, it was mildly surprising that the Yankees did not invite him to the alternate training site this past year.
Cleveland had seen enough and brought him in through the Rule 5 Draft. Since arriving in camp, he has impressed with 10 strikeouts in 7.1 innings pitched. In his last outing, Stephan seemingly sealed the deal when in one inning of work he struck out Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Jose Abreu – all swinging. Now the Yankees will wait to see if Stephan can stick with a Cleveland team that could be contending for the AL Central or a Wild Card spot this season.
Another talented arm that has impressed his new team this spring is Garrett Whitlock. After battling an injury during his sophomore year of college, Whitlock was available to the Yankees in the 18th round of the 2017 draft. The Yankees paid him an over-slot bonus, and he was pitching well for Double-A Trenton in 2019 when Tommy John surgery ended his season.
Whitlock’s rehab progressed well even as the minor league season was shut down and he was hitting mid-90’s on his fastball during bullpen sessions last September. The Yankees still chose not to protect him in the Rule 5 Draft, and Boston was waiting to pounce as they attempt to rebuild a pitching staff that was among the worst in baseball in 2020.
Whitlock has excelled this spring, throwing nine innings and allowing just one earned run with Boston. He has struck out 12 and recorded a WHIP of 0.889.
Garrett Whitlock -- the Red Sox's Rule 5 pick from the Yankees -- showing off some nasty stuff (3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 K). pic.twitter.com/Tr664kSGAm— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) March 19, 2021
Whitlock caught the attention of Boston manager Alex Cora early on, who said to the Boston media “Whitlock is a guy that I’ll be paying a lot of attention to.” Cora continued “the most impressive thing about him is the way he acts, the way he takes care of his body and what he does.”
Fellow Boston pitcher Nathan Eovaldi was also impressed, calling Whitlock “our secret weapon.” While not officially announced yet, it is almost certain that Whitlock will remain with the Red Sox into the regular season.
The third Yankees player selected in the Rule 5 Draft was shortstop Kyle Holder. The Yankees first-round selection in 2015, Holder was coming off a solid finish to his 2019 season with Double-A Trenton. He had shown the Yankees enough to be invited to the alternate site but he did not earn a 40-man roster spot.
He was originally selected by the Phillies but then traded to the Reds shortly after the team re-signed Didi Gregorius. Despite the trade, all the Rule-5 restrictions remain in place and Holder will have to make the Reds’ roster.
Holder came through the Yankees’ system as one of the best defensive shortstops in the minor leagues but with a bat that never caught up for a full season. He has only produced a .488 OPS through his first 33 plate appearances this spring. Working in his favor is that Cincinnati has not addressed their shortstop position this offseason and is still searching for answers. Holder is competing against veteran utility player Kyle Farmer.
Farmer is having a solid spring hitting .316, but is not considered a strong defensive option at short. Barring a strong final week of spring training with the bat, Kyle Holder will likely be offered back to the Yankees as spring training wraps up.
The roster decisions of late fall carry a risk for teams as they choose which players to protect on their 40-man roster. The Yankees left some talented players exposed to the Rule 5 Draft and may not get a chance to bring all of them back.