The case for free agent pitcher Aaron Nola
The buzz about Shane Drohan started in spring training, with word trickling through Fenway South in Fort Myers, Fla. that one of the standouts among the minor leaguers was the former fifth-round pick.
And, sure enough, Drohan delivered on the hype, going 5-0 in six starts with Double-A Portland, totaling a 1.32 ERA. It afforded a fairly quick promotion to one step from the big leagues, Triple-A Worcester.
But starting with that May 18 first start with the WooSox, Drohan lost some of that momentum with a couple of mediocre outings. But then the athletic lefty found his way once again, going on a decent run through late May and June.
The final Triple-A impression, however, left the Red Sox feeling thoughts of Drohan's rapid ascension might be putting the cart before the horse. With Worcester, he finished with a 6.47 ERA in 21 appearances (19 starts), seeing a downtick in velocity along the way while also struggling a bit with the smaller Triple-A strike zone.
Still, the potential left Drohan as the Red Sox' fourth-best pitching prospect (according to MLB Pipleline), and in line to be added to the 40-man roster. Then came the news Tuesday.
The Red Sox announced the only two players added to the 40-man roster would be pitchers Wikelman Gonzalez and Luis Perales. What that means is that - much like Red Sox pitching prospect Thaddeus Ward last year - Drohan is eligible to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft in early December.
Such a lot in life can be a blessing and a curse. The blessing can come in the form of a team picking a player, which immediately puts them on the fast track to the majors. If selected in the Rule 5 Draft, the team making the pick must keep the player on the major league roster for the entirety of the season or be forced to send them back to the original team. Ward, for example, spent the entire 2023 season with the Nationals (finishing with a 6.37 ERA in 26 relief outings).
There were other success stories from last year's Rule 5 Draft, with Ryan Noda (the No. 2 pick in the Draft behind Ward) becoming an almost-everyday player with the A's, and the No. 3 selection, Jose Hernandez, making 50 relief outings for Pittsburgh. The best of the bunch? Probably the No. 8 overall selection, pitcher Kevin Kelly, who was taken by the Rockies but then sold to Tampa Bay. Kelly was a key piece of the Rays' bullpen, managing a 3.09 ERA in 57 games.
The curse, can be two-fold. If you are selected and forced onto a big league roster it can warp a previously logical developmental process. And if you aren't taken, that means you are off the 40-man roster and need to be added in order to get a shot at becoming a big leaguer.
So, why is Drohan now in this weird world of Rule 5 eligibility?
While the Red Sox certainly still think the former Florida State pitcher is going to be a major leaguer, the current search for high-end pitching upside in the organization is a very real thing. The two pitchers they added to the 40-man roster - Gonzalez and Perales - represent the kind of Brayan Bello-type dreaming Drohan (at this point) doesn't.
The Red Sox - who didn't draft a pitcher before the 99th overall pick in any of the Chaim Bloom years - are desperate to find pitchers who can start creeping into Top 100 prospect-type conversations. Think Arizona's Brandon Pfaddt, who was taken one pick after Drohan in the 2020 Draft.
There are others who the Red Sox are risking losing after Tuesday's decision, although none offer the kind of intrigue as Drohan. (With the possible exception of the always-intriguing Noah Song, who, by the way, is currently filling some more military/reserve commitments before reporting to early spring training in January.)
When it comes to 40-man rosters and projecting the biggest risks, there are no easy answer. Just ask the Yankees in their approach to exposing Garrett Whitlock heading into the 2021 season.
Craig Breslow, welcome to the unpredictable world of team-building.