Royals pitchers Sam McWilliams and Chris Ellis can thank Brad Keller for completely throwing out of whack the perception of a Rule 5 selection.
The entire premise of the Rule 5 Draft is that a team has to be willing to roll the dice in a way that the player’s previous organization — a team which in theory should have a much better sense of the player — wasn’t.
The drafting team gambles that they can keep a spot on their 25-man roster for the entire year for a player who couldn’t make his current organization’s 40-man roster after four or five years in their farm system. In some cases, the drafting team handcuffs itself and its roster flexibility in an effort to keep the player or players.
When asked about the process of making decisions on Rule 5 selections, Royals manager Ned Yost said, “I heard a fighter pilot one time. They asked him — they said if you had 15 seconds before you crashed, what would you do? The fighter pilot said, ‘I’d take 13 seconds and try and figure out how not to.’ All right.
“You take it down to the last day. I don’t make assumptions. I don’t have guys figured out right now. As soon as you think you’ve got them figured out, something happens and it changes your figuring. That’s the thing about spring training.”
You simply can’t expect a high return from that type of scenario. You have no reason to have high expectations, well, until Keller came along last year. He went from unknown and unproven Double-A pitcher to a dependable bullpen arm then into a potential rotation mainstay.
All-Star catcher Salvador Perez even dubbed Keller the ace of the staff when pitchers and catchers reported this spring.
The two acquisitions made this past December, Ellis and McWilliams, made spring training starts during the first week of Cactus League games. If they’re anything like Keller, the experience started off similar to being the new kid wandering around the halls on the first day at a new school.
“For me it was knowing new faces and new names,” Keller said of the hardest part of the transition. “That was kind of the one divide, I guess. You come into a clubhouse and don’t know anyone. You try to meet 60 guys at once and try to remember their names and remember their faces. Once you got that, you felt a lot more comfortable around everyone.”
The first couple weeks before games start, you’re working with a new catcher almost every time you throw in a place you’re not familiar with among teammates whose names escape you. Somewhere along the way, you’ve got to “get your mind right” about what you want to do when hitters step into the batter’s box.
Just when you’re thinking things will slow down, then you face a lineup that gets your heart rate jumping and head spinning.
For Keller, that meant pitching against his former club, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Basically coming up through the minor leagues, all those guys felt like they were so far away,” Keller said of the Diamondbacks. “For me to go in there actually face them, it was one of those moments where it was like this is really cool when (A.J.) Pollack gets up there, (Paul) Goldschmidt or something like that. That was the one moment where I was like this is awesome.”
Probe a little deeper and you find out that Keller’s memory of the moment consists of Pollack “smoking” a ball off his leg and a strikeout against “Goldie.” The rest is a blur of adrenaline in Keller’s mind.
Upon further review, Keller gave up three runs on four hits, including a double, in 1 2/3 innings.
While Ellis didn’t have the same attachment to the San Francisco Giants organization, he found himself in a similar situation on Wednesday.
He gave up a double to the first batter he faced, major-league veteran Gerardo Parra, followed by an RBI triple to Yangervis Solarte and then saw three-time all-star Evan Longoria hit a sacrifice fly.
“These guys are really good, and they make you pay if you miss,” Ellis said.
Ellis, a 6-foot-5 right-hander who hadn’t thrown a pitch above Triple-A, made it through two innings having given up just those two runs.
“(Pitching coach) Cal (Eldred) kind of came up to me between innings about pitching guys in,” Ellis said. “We had a little talk about pitching guys in. They were aggressive early. I was aggressive early. It’s just one of those things where I was kind of pitching into what they wanted. The second inning, we started pitching a little bit more inside, getting guys uncomfortable and it worked a lot better.”
McWilliams, a 6-foot-7 right-hander with blonde hair flowing out from under his cap, pitched a solid first inning in his start against Oakland on Sunday, and then he tried to do too much and got out of his deliver and gave up three runs on two hits and two walks in the second inning.
Yost stressed that you can’t even really begin to evaluate Ellis or McWilliams until the end of the spring.
“I’m probably in the same spot I was with Keller and Burch Smith last year,” Yost said.
While the Royals liked both Keller and Smith as far as the potential in their arms, Keller’s production made it easy to keep him on the roster and secure him for the long term.
Keller (9-6, 3.08 ERA) tied for the team lead in wins after making 21 appearances out of the bullpen before starting 20 games.
Smith elected free agency in November after being designated for assignment and sent outright to Triple-A. He signed a minor-league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers this winter.
“These two kids are like getting a number one pick,” Yost said of Ellis and McWilliams. “But if they’re not ready to pitch in the big league, that’s the rub a little bit, you know. Do you hold onto them?
“Keller made it easy last year. Burch Smith didn’t. We were trying to keep the arm. We liked the arm. Hoping he would get better. It just really never stayed in a spot, never really progressed. But we fought to keep him all year.”