From the Minor League Ball mailbag (submit questions to Johnsickels@sbnation.com if you like):
"I'm a Braves fan and like most I'm excited about the improvement in the farm system since the new staff took over. However I can't help noticing that J.R. Graham is pitching very well with the Twins and I don't think we'll get him back as a Rule 5. I know he was hurt last year but I wish we still had him. Thoughts?" Cliff B., Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Several come to mind, Cliff.
First, Graham is doing OK for the Twins: 3.64 ERA in 30 innings, 21/8 K/BB, 34 hits. The ERA and K/BB aren't bad but he's already given up six homers and his FIP (5.23) and xFIP (4.34) aren't as good as the traditional run measure.His fWAR is actually negative at -0.3. He hasn't been horrible and this is much better than what he was doing last year in Double-A. He'll hold his job but he isn't exactly a dominant force at this stage.
Graham was available because he simply wasn't very good last year, hampered by shoulder trouble. Here's the capsule report on him from Rule 5 day back in December:
Age 24, a fourth round pick from Santa Clara in 2011. Once one of Atlanta's top prospects, he was waylaid with shoulder trouble this year and posted a 5.55 ERA with a 50/26 K/BB in 71 innings in Double-A. When healthy he shows impressive stuff with a mid-90s fastball, good slider and change-up, but his velocity tailed off after getting hurt. Intriguing reclamation project.
It has worked out pretty well for the Twins and Graham on the health front: his shoulder seems OK and his velocity is back, his fastball clocked as high as 98 this spring and averaging 95. However, his best role going forward is middle relief. He doesn't have the durability to start and while it is theoretically possible for him to be a closer at some point, the same can be said about fifty other short/middle relief pitchers with similar stuff. Most guys like this are fungible bullpen parts, so while Graham has talent I wouldn't lose a bunch of sleep over the fact that the Braves didn't protect him, not yet anyway.
This does bring to mind the issue of investment in injured pitchers. All the Twins risked for Graham in Rule 5 was $50,000 and a 40-man roster spot. However, much larger risks were taken in the recently concluded 2015 MLB Rule 4 amateur draft.
The Indians committed the 17th overall pick to Brady Aiken and his balky elbow. The Rangers gave a $2,000,000 bonus to Duke University right-hander Michael Matuella and his Tommy John procedure. In 2014 the Blue Jays dropped the ninth pick and $3,080,800 on Jeff Hoffman and the Nationals (who have a long record of investing in injured pitchers,i.e. Lucas Giolito) drafted Erick Fedde at 18th overall. Both Hoffman and Fedde were on the shelf with Tommy John but both look like they've come back successfully this spring.
Of course, those guys all had elbow injuries. Tommy John is not always successful and recovery is not automatic, but elbow procedures seem less risky than shoulder issues. Matt Purke, another Nationals prospect, is a cautionary tale still trying to fight his way back from shoulder injuries that first cropped up in 2011.
So let's throw out a discussion question. I think we'd all agree that expending a Rule 5 choice on a high-upside arm with injury troubles is a low-risk move that could pay off well. A high-level injured Rule 4 pick is a different matter; some times shy away from the risk involved but other teams have no issue with that and will take a risk, trusting their medical and training staff for the investment to pay off.
How much risk is too much risk in these cases? My personal opinion is that taking a Rule 4 risk on a pitcher with elbow trouble is a reasonable thing to do if your doctors sign off on it, but that shoulders are much more problematic. I would pick a guy with known shoulder trouble in Rule 5 given the small amount of money involved; grabbing Graham was a defensible move for the Twins. However, I would strongly lean against making the same decision using an expensive early Rule 4 slot on a guy with shoulder problems.
What say you?