Nick Burdi could be Rule 5 prize for Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

They had hoped he might fall during that 2014 baseball draft, even more deeply than a possible first-round pick had so far tumbled as the second round began.

But it wasn’t going to happen. Nick Burdi’s pitches were too explosive, too high-velocity.

And so the Tigers watched as the Minnesota Twins snagged Burdi with the 46th overall pick of the 2014 sweepstakes, leaving Detroit to take with its second-round pick Spencer Turnbull, a right-handed starter from the University of Alabama.

It’s possible the Tigers, this time, won’t miss on Burdi and a fastball that can hit 100 mph.

They have the first overall pick Dec. 14 in the Rule 5 draft, which allows big-league teams to acquire, for $100,000, minor-league players who in most cases have had four years of service on the farm and aren’t part of their team’s 40-man roster.

Burdi is one of several Twins pitching prospects who didn’t crack this offseason’s 40-man roster and who now could be poached by the Tigers. The hook is that a swiped player must remain on the acquiring team’s 25-man active roster for all of the following season, or be returned to his old team for one-half the $100,000 fee.

This also is where a situation becomes complicated for any team taking the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Burdi, who was a power-pitching star at the University of Louisville and a one-time teammate of another Lousville pitching alum now on the Tigers farm, Kyle Funkhouser.

Burdi had Tommy John surgery last May. He will remain on the disabled list for at least a good portion of 2018. Baseball’s rigid Rule 5 rules say an injured player must be placed on the 25-man active roster for 90 days, minimum, once he is freed from the DL.

But that requirement comes with a caveat. The 90-day stipulation can, under the right circumstances, be extended into the following year, which in this case, would be the 2019 season.

This could be done by making Burdi available for a minor-league rehabilitation assignment in July, nearly 14 months after his Tommy John surgery, and at a point where recovery often allows competitive pitching. He could then join the Tigers for August and September and accrue 60 days of the 90 days required for Detroit to maintain control.

All that would be necessary is for Burdi to resume, with no interruption, time on the 25-man roster on Opening Day 2019. Once he had completed his 90 days of continuous service, dating to the end of 2018, he would be free and clear and Tigers property. He could also be returned to the minors, if necessary, without penalty.

It is a complex and somewhat risky process the Tigers might well say is worth the gamble, all because of Burdi’s blow-away pitching package.

His fastball has been a consistent high-90s blur and is paired with a hard breaking ball that explains some staunch minor-league numbers: 80 games, 3.20 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, with 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings.

Pitching at Double-A Chattanooga, prior to his spring Tommy John surgery, Burdi worked in 14 games, worth 17 innings, allowing nine hits and one earned run. He struck out 20 and unintentionally walked three.

One scout from a National League team, who asked to not be identified due to industry sensitivities, disclosed this week his past scouting notes on Burdi.

The scout raved about Burdi’s swing-and-miss arsenal but had concerns about his delivery and mechanics, which could be interpreted as one reason for last spring’s Tommy John surgery.

The scout saw a fastball that consistently held at 98-99, as well as a slider-curve that cruised 84-88 and, late in a count, could spur hitters to swing early. The scout said Burdi’s portfolio represented to him a pitcher who could immediately be branded a closer on his way to the big leagues.

Do the Tigers agree? More to the point, do they believe they can take a chance on a timetable that might or might not enable them to keep Burdi, especially when, with that first overall Rule 5 pick, they have other options.

Those choices will include another Twins prospect, a right-handed starter, Kohl Stewart, a former first-rounder (fourth overall) who has been singularly unimpressive with his strikeout rate (5.9 per nine innings) for a pitcher 6-foot-3, 23 years old, and who was drafted as a power-throwing prospect.

Stewart tends to have his dates with the disabled list and pitched in only 17 games in 2017 between Double A and a single start at Triple A. He had a 4.28 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, and .258 opponent batting average.

The Tigers could also opt for a position player when the Rule 5 draft wraps up next week’s Winter Meetings at Orlando, Fla. One popular possibility: Travis Demeritte, 23, an infielder and former first-rounder with the Rangers who can play second or third base. Demeritte has right-handed power (15 homers last season at Double-A Mississippi), albeit alongside a light batting average (.231 in 124 games in 2017) and knack for striking out plenty (134 whiffs in ’17).

The Tigers are meeting this week to decide a Rule 5 draft order and are offering zero hints at preferences or potential picks. Their 40-man roster is at 39 after Tuesday’s signing of veteran outfielder Leonys Martin, so they have room to draft a player.

But it is known they long have been interested in Burdi, whose high-caliber pitches made him a 24th-round Twins pick in 2011, when he pitched at Downers Grove (Ill.) South High and subsequently decided to pitch at Louisville, all before he became, three years later, a Twins second-rounder.

The Tigers might also know something about Burdi’s reputation. Louisville coach Dan McDonnell told the Louisville Courier-Journal in 2014 that Burdi was the hardest-working player he had coached during his then-21 seasons with the Cardinals.

Whether any of that prompts the Tigers to make Burdi a roulette-wheel spin next week is impossible, today, to forecast.

But with a rebuilding job under way, back-end bullpen help of his potential scale figures to tempt a team from Detroit.