What if I were to tell you that the single most dominant pitcher in the 2022 Arizona Fall League was left exposed in this year's Rule 5 draft?
The guy who blazed through AFL hitters to the tune of 25 strikeouts to one hit allowed (No, that's not a typo. Yes, that is ridiculous).
The guy who followed it up by making a serious run at making one of the best teams in baseball out of spring training, striking out 11 in 4 1/3 scoreless spring innings before getting injured.
That would sound like a pretty intriguing Rule 5 pick, right?
I agree. That's why I'd encourage the Brewers to leave a roster spot open and, if he gets to their pick ...
Bring back Evan Reifert.
(Another) One Who Got Away
The Brewers signing Reifert after he wasn't selected in the abbreviated 2020 draft was an extension of their apparent mission to find pitching talent wherever it might be. After two years at (where else) junior college, Reifert pitched 2 2/3 innings at Division 2 Central Missouri before the pandemic canceled the rest of the season.
Still, in an undrafted free agent class that included Noah Campbell, Brandon Knarr and TJ Shook, it was Reifert who got an invite to the Brewers 2020 instructional league squad.
Reifert rewarded that confidence immediately the next spring, needing just nine innings spread out over five appearances at Carolina to convince the Brewers to promote him to Wisconsin.
The transition to high-A didn't go smoothly. In his first 11 1/3 with the Rattlers, Reifert allowed seven earned runs and even more concerningly walked 17 hitters. Over his remaining 39 2/3 innings, however, things went much better. He walked just 15 more, posted a WHIP of just a hair over 1 and totaled an ERA of 1.36. Outside of a rough homecoming against the Quad Cities River Bandits for the Wilton, Iowa, native, Reifert was dominant.
However, that offseason, the Brewers were looking for a platoon bat to improve their offense against left-handed pitching. In came the Rays' Mike Brousseau and, like so many other recent Brewers minor league pitchers I was higher on than general consensus, Reifert was traded away. (Reese Olson, Bowden Francis, Reifert, to some degree Antoine Kelly ... I half expect Alexander Cornielle to be traded before I finish typing this sentence.)
His time with the Rays did not start well, however. He walked seven and gave up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings before being shelved and eventually sent to the complex league to figure things out. And he did, finishing the year strongly enough at high-A to earn him a place in the Arizona Fall League.
The Case Against Picking Reifert
Let's start with the very real concern: He missed most of 2023 with a shoulder injury. They can be brutal.
The results when he came back at the end of the season also were not, well, promising. He walked 15 over 7 2/3 innings spread between rookie ball and high-A. These two factors help explain why the Rays saw fit to leave him exposed to the Rule 5 draft.
The Case for Picking Reifert
It seems silly to me that I am advocating for picking a pitcher largely because of about 16 innings spread out over two seasons, but here we are. Did you see those stats? Against quality competition, he was absolutely filthy.
His strikeout rate has also just always been absurdly high. His 50+ innings with the Timber Rattlers marked the best strikeout rate for a Brewers prospect with at least 50 innings at a level since at least 2006, and it wasn't even particularly close. Aaron Ashby's second place season is closer in K rate to the 17th name on the list than it is to Reifert.
Those results, when he is at his best, seem to signal a back end of the bullpen arm.
There is substantial risk in Reifert's profile, both because of the injury and the sometimes erratic results. It's the Rule 5 draft, however. If a player is both safe and has a high ceiling, he is not going to be left exposed. So you either grab a cheap bench bat type, ignore it altogether, or suck it up, accept the risk necessary and gamble on upside.
For me, especially with where the Brewers are right now, potentially heading into at least a reloading year, I'd gamble on an arm with upside. And I think Evan Reifert is that guy.