The Royals acquired two pitchers Thursday in the annual Rule 5 draft at the winter meetings. Their method for landing that talent was more complicated than the final result.
Selecting 13th overall in the first round, the Royals opted to pass on that pick. Yet they essentially purchased two selections higher in the draft and came away with right-handed pitcher Brad Keller from Arizona and right-handed pitcher Burch Smith from Tampa Bay. Keller was taken fifth overall by the Cincinnati Reds; Smith went sixth to the New York Mets.
The club sent cash in exchange for the picks. The traditional Rule 5 rules will follow Keller and Smith to Kansas City. The Royals’ 40-man roster is now full.
“We just wanted to be aggressive in getting some pitching,” said Royals assistant general manager Scott Sharp.
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Keller, 22, is a 6-foot-5, 230-pound right-hander who was drafted in the eighth round by Arizona in the 2013 draft. He spent the 2017 season at Class AA Jackson, logging a 4.68 ERA in 26 starts. He struck out 111 batters and walked 57 in 130 2/3 innings. Sharp said the Royals viewed him as one of the top two talents available in the draft. He also graded out well in FanGraphs’ projections of the best available Rule 5 picks.
“We just felt like he was a high-upside right-handed pitcher that could start,” Sharp said.
Smith is a 27-year-old right-hander with a blazing fastball and an injury history. He made his major-league debut with the San Diego Padres in 2013 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2015. He missed all of 2015 and 2016 before pitching in the minors in 2017. He recently competed in the Arizona Fall League, where Royals scouts saw him hit 100 mph.
“He was the safest pick in the draft,” said Gene Watson, the Royals’ director of professional scouting.
Smith posted a 2.40 ERA and struck out 56 in 56 1/3 innings last season while pitching in the Rays’ system. He also made 12 starts. The Royals will likely use him as a reliever, though they could look at him as a starter.
To make a Rule 5 selection, a team must send $100,000 to the player’s original team. Both Keller and Smith must stay on the Royals’ 25-man roster all season or be offered back to their respective clubs.
Players are eligible to be drafted in the Rule 5 draft if they are not on a team’s 40-man roster and have spent four or five years in an organization, depending on their age when they were signed.
The Royals did not lose any players during the major-league portion of the draft. They did, however, lose pitcher Andrew Ferguson and infielder Wander Franco during the minor-league portion while also drafting pitcher Daniel Duarte, 21, from the Texas Rangers system.