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Henning: Rule 5 draft is sticky business, but it might have paid off for the Tigers

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, left, talks with outfielder Victor Reyes during a game earlier this season.

New York — Baseball’s version of the retail bargain bin is that annual final act to the Winter Meetings, the Rule 5 draft.

Not everyone understands why it’s viewed by most teams as a necessary final-morning chore they can’t wait to complete ahead of their flights home.

That’s because it rarely offers teams any meaningful help, as even the Tigers would agree, despite Sunday’s events at Yankee Stadium when their most recent Rule 5 gamble, Victor Reyes, had a home run, two doubles, and a single in Detroit’s 11-7 knockout of the Yankees.

The reason is one of numbers.

Players available in the Rule 5 draft are minor-leaguers not good enough to be carried on their possessing team’s 40-man roster.

Think about it.

A player not good enough to be considered one of his team’s top 40 players is now going to be carried, for an entire season, on the claiming club’s 25-man, big-league active roster.

It seems nonsensical. And most times it proves to be just that: an idyllic plan that crashes against baseball’s practical realities. Often the player washes out quickly and is returned to his old team, as rules prescribe.

But sometimes it works.

More: Winners and losers from a year of revival on the Tigers’ farm

The Tigers, as one example, are delighted they took on reliever Daniel Stumpf, who has a Rule 5 history.

But to add a Rule 5 player is to complicate a big-league team’s life.

Reyes was taken last December by the Tigers, who because of their grim 2017 season, had first choice in the Rule 5 sweepstakes.

They had been close to opting for a reliever. They instead chose Reyes, a switch-hitter from the Diamondbacks’ farm, who was 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and who was only 23.

No guarantees

Reyes had played no higher than Double A. And he had shown little power — 12 home runs in five seasons.

But they considered his age, and how much heft might yet be added to that 6-5 frame, and how much power might evolve. And they took a flier.

They aren’t sure it will ever pay off, even after Reyes on Sunday catapulted a Sonny Gray fastball 390 feet into Yankee Stadium’s upper deck. He earlier had poked opposite-field doubles down the left-field line, and later he popped another single to left-center.

The Tigers have been hoping only to get Reyes through his obligatory big-league year, after which he can be sent to the minors for more bolstering and polishing. It’s an investment all the way. And there are zero guarantees it ever will produce a regular, or even semi-regular, big-leaguer for the Tigers roster.

The man who has had to deal with it most directly is manager Ron Gardenhire.

“This kid has some ability,” Gardenhire said after Sunday’s game.

Gardenhire has had to handle the ticklish task of keeping a player who more accurately is a minor-leaguer engaged in a big-league culture. He also has been charged with making Reyes more than a clubhouse mannequin in terms of his role with the team.

That means Reyes has needed to play. At least on occasion.

Powering up

Gardenhire was regularly donning sackcloth earlier this year, doing penance for not using Reyes as much as he believed Reyes deserved to play.

It was noble sentiment from the skipper. But there was no way a team had room to play Reyes when it was tasked with trying to win early-season games and when genuine big-leaguers were there and available.

Gardenhire slipped Reyes in here and there. Later, after Mikie Mahtook struggled, and then got hurt, and after Leonys Martin was traded, and after JaCoby Jones headed for the disabled list, the opportunities for Reyes — and for Gardenhire — grew.

The skipper had mentioned something else when Reyes was discussed. For those wondering how a man would ever make it as a big-league outfielder when he seemed only to hit singles, Gardenhire said: Hold on. Notice his batting practices. Balls he wasn’t hitting deep during spring are now, on occasion, traveling actual distances.

Reyes’ sixth-inning rocket Sunday against Gray followed quite a flight plan: 101.7 exit velocity, on a long arc into the balcony in deep right field.

“You’re going to see me hit for power,” Reyes said afterward, by way of interpreter Rafael Martinez, who is the Tigers’ batting-practice pitcher and translator for Spanish-speaking players. “It takes time. It takes effort and hard work.”

For this low-percentage lottery ticket to pay off, Reyes likely will need to show more of Sunday’s extra-base habits when he, almost certainly, next year reports to Triple A.

And if it happens, as it could, the Tigers will have done more than yank a bargain from the retail bin. They’ll have made a steal, improbable as odds yet suggest it will be.