The Cubs lost no players in the major league phase of the Rule 5 Draft, but they did select righty Gray Fenter away from the Orioles. Fenter will be 25 in January and has never pitched above High-A, so the Cubs must have a good deal of confidence that his 2019 performance was indicative of a big step forward in his development. They also have to believe he was able to stay on track during the shutdown.
Drafted by the Orioles in the seventh round in 2015 out of West Memphis High School, Fenter received a $1 million bonus — significantly higher than the $178K slot value — to forego his commitment to Mississippi State. He was already throwing 97 mph as a prep player and had plenty of time and ability to develop his ancillaries, but his career trajectory took a detour when he experienced elbow pain in rookie ball.
Fenter missed the entire 2016 season following Tommy John surgery and pitched just 30.1 innings in 2017, almost all of which came at the rookie level. He worked up to 83.2 innings over 27 appearances (13 starts) the following season, running into trouble with a 6.75 ERA over 26.2 innings at High-A. That all changed in 2019, however, as he absolutely shoved in a return engagement.
Over 94.1 IP at High-A in 2019, Fenter logged a 1.81 ERA with 123 strikeouts (11.74 K/9) and 43 walks (4.10 BB/9), working primarily as a starter. He’s had a difficult time getting the velocity back up to where it was in his younger days, but the experience of having to rehab from surgery and work back to the mound helped him to improve as an overall pitcher.
“I would say I pay a lot more attention to the game and what hitters do before I face them,” Fenter told MASN’s Steve Melewski in 2019. “And I let things go. Short memory. I used to remember everything that happened in a game and it held me back. Like remembering that double I gave up in the first and it was the fourth inning. Things would linger.”
While the fastball can still touch upper 90’s, it’s the breaking ball that really sets Fenter apart and caught the Cubs’ attention. It’s a plus-plus pitch and could be enough to keep him on the roster in a relief or swing role even if the changeup lags a little bit.
“Curveball is my go-to,” Fenter said. “Use it as a strikeout pitch and will also use it early in the count or even behind in the count. It’s my whenever I want it pitch.”
There’s obviously reason for healthy skepticism when you consider Fenter’s age and lack of experience beyond the low levels of the minors, but it’s not unheard of to see a pitcher figure it out and shoot through the system in one season. That may have happened for him last season had the pandemic not ruined things, at which point the Cubs wouldn’t have had a chance to purchase this lottery ticket.
As difficult as it is to get too excited, there are definitely some things to like about Fenter’s potential.
The Cubs’ 40-man roster now stands at 35.
In case you’re not familiar with the Rule 5 Draft and didn’t click the first link above, here’s a primer:
Held each December, the Rule 5 Draft allows clubs without a full 40-man roster to select certain non-40-man roster players from other clubs. Clubs draft in reverse order of the standings from the previous season. Players signed at age 18 or younger need to be added to their club’s 40-Man roster within five seasons or they become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Players who signed at age 19 or older need to be protected within four seasons.
Not every club will make a selection, but those that do pick a player must pay $100,000 to the club from which said player was selected. Rule 5 Draft picks are assigned directly to the drafting club’s 26-man roster and must be placed on outright waivers in order to be removed from the 26-man roster in the subsequent season. Should the player clear waivers, he must be offered back to his previous team for $50,000 and can be outrighted to the Minors only if his original club does not wish to reacquire him. A Rule 5 Draft pick can be placed on the Major League injured list, but he must be active for a minimum of 90 days to avoid being subject to the aforementioned roster restrictions in the next campaign.