NASHVILLE – After taking a big, hard-throwing Canadian pitcher in first round of the amateur draft in June, the Braves took another one in the Rule 5 draft Thursday.
The Braves took left-handed reliever Evan Rutckyj from the Yankees with the third overall pick of the draft, and must either keep him on their 25-man major league roster for the entire 2016 season or offer him back to the Yankees for half of the original $50,000 claiming price.
Rutckyj, 23, posted a 2.63 ERA in 36 appearances for Yankees high Single-A and Double-A affiliates in 2015, with an impressive 82 strikeouts and 21 walks in 61 2/3 innings. He allowed 57 hits and four homers.
“He was a guy that checked a lot of boxes for us,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said of the 6-foot-5 native of Windsor, Ontario. “Cold-weather kid, late-bloomer, big body, really good fastball – 92-95 (miles per hour) – really good breaking ball. Struck out 40 percent of lefties that he faced this year.”
In the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, the Braves took right-hander Enderson Franco from the Marlins’ Double-A roster and lost 25-year-old lefty reliever Mitch Lambson to the Brewers. The Braves got Lambson in a midseason trade from the Astros, and he wouldn’t have been a candidate for a bullpen spot with Atlanta’s big-league club.
Rutckyj will be, and not just because he’s a Rule 5 pick.
“He’s a guy that’s going to get a shot with us in the spring, and we’ll see how he does,” Coppolella said. “But these are the types of players that you can (carry on the roster), because he can get lefties out. He’s a former starter, someone we were really excited to add to our organization.”
The Braves, who took 17-year-old Canadian pitcher Mike Soroka with the 28th pick in the June draft, liked a lot of the same things in Rutckyj. He’s come a long way since posting a 4.76 ERA in rookie ball in 2011 and finishing with a 5.03 ERA, 60 walks and 10 homers allowed in 118 innings in his first full season in Single-A in 2013.
He was switched to a full-time bullpen role in 2014, and in 2016 Rutckyj will have a good opportunity to nail down a spot in the Braves’ major league bullpen. Unless the Braves add another lefty before spring training, Rutckyj’s competition for one or two lefty spots in the bullpen will come from Ian Krol, who came from the Tigers in last month’s trade for Cameron Maybin, and Matt Marksberry and Andrew McKirahan, who made their major league debuts with the Braves last season.
Paco Rodriguez, a quality lefty acquired from the Dodgers as part of the Hector Olivera trade in July, had Tommy John elbow surgery and will miss the 2016 season.
“Rutckyj would fill a big need,” Coppolella said. “It’s tough to find lefties. Paco Rodriguez had Tommy John surgery, so he’s out for (2016). But we’re trying to build up a lot of depth there. That was a big area of need last year, and we’re trying to really get lefties stacked up. If you think about Paco, Ian Krol, the two guys who pitched up here last year, Marksberry and Andrew McKirahan. Now you’ve got lefty depth, so let’s see who comes to spring training and wins the job.”
McKirahan was a Rule 5 pick by the Marlins last December, so the Braves had to keep him on their roster all season after claiming him off waivers late in spring training. He missed 80 games serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs and posted a 5.93 ERA in 27 appearances.
It’s the second consecutive year the Braves took a reliever in the Rule 5 draft. A year ago they selected right-hander Dan Winkler, who missed most of the 2015 season recovering from TJ surgery and thus must be kept on the 25-man roster for the first couple of months in the 2016 season, or be offered back to the Rockies for $25,000.
“We’ve said we’re going to be better in 2016, and we will,” Coppolella said. “Whoever gives us the best chance to win is who we’re going to keep. Just because we have someone else on Rule 5 or we don’t, it doesn’t matter. Whoever the best 25 guys are, that’s who we’ll go north with (out of spring training).”