NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Rule 5 Draft is usually the tool for the talent-depleted team to find help by plucking other teams' unprotected Minor Leaguers. On Thursday, it was the instrument of improvement for the Detroit Tigers to try to bolster their title-contending roster.
In a move not seen in Tigers circles since 2004, when they were still an also-ran, Detroit picked up two Rule 5 selections, acquiring speedy second baseman Jeff Kobernus and left-hander Kyle Lobstein in separate trades.
Kobernus comes out of the Nationals farm system through the Red Sox, who selected him with their Rule 5 pick and then dealt him to Detroit in exchange for Triple-A Toledo utility man Justin Henry. The Tigers acquired Lobstein from the Mets, who drafted him from the Rays system, in exchange for cash considerations from Detroit.
Both are former second-round picks in the First-Year Player Draft, and both are guys Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said they targeted going in. Both would have to stick on the 25-man roster or be offered back to their original organizations, the same rules that would've applied if the Tigers had drafted them.
The 24-year-old Kobernus hit .282 with a home run, 19 RBIs and 42 stolen bases in 53 attempts over 82 games at Double-A Harrisburg. He has 120 steals in 149 attempts over 290 career games, a reflection of the speed tool that attracted the Tigers to him.
"We've tried to add some speed," Dombrowski said. "If he could be a guy that made our club, then all of a sudden you have a guy that can really run on the bench at that point, it gives you some versatility."
Kobernus has played mostly second base in his career, but the Tigers see him as a potential utility guy.
"We not only like his ability to play second, but we think that perhaps -- and he hasn't really done much of it -- he could have some versatility where we might be able to move him to the outfield and get some playing time there," Dombrowski said.
Kobernus has played very little shortstop, but he's not an answer to the Tigers' potential moves there.
"We didn't really take him because we think he's going to play shortstop," assistant general manager Al Avila said. "We took him because he can play second, we feel he can play some outfield, and he's a pretty decent hitter. If he plays shortstop, that's kind of icing on the cake for us."
The 23-year-old Lobstein went 8-7 with a 4.06 ERA over 27 starts at Double-A Montgomery, striking out 129 batters over 144 innings. It was a pretty good snapshot of his pro career over the last four seasons, but it's the stuff that the Tigers like.
"He's more of an average-fastball guy, good breaking ball and a changeup," Dombrowski said. "We just like him as an overall pitcher. We look at him as a guy that might be able to come in as a starter and compete, but of course we don't look at him as ahead of the other guys. He's a guy that would be protection [in the rotation] and maybe a second lefty [reliever], because we do like him in that regard."
The Tigers, who have had prospects and farmhands as insurance starters for the past few years, do not have much depth at this point. They especially don't have much depth in left-handers after trading Andy Oliver to Pittsburgh. Lobstein provides that.
Of course, depth isn't the design of the Rule 5. If Lobstein doesn't make the team out of camp, the Tigers have to offer him back to the Rays. But if Tampa Bay, which has plenty of pitching depth, decides it doesn't need him, the Tigers can work out a deal to keep him and move him into the Minor League system.
Those usually aren't the kind of decisions contending teams have to make. For a team that once stockpiled players through the Rule 5 Draft with Wil Ledezma, Chris Shelton and others, it's a throwback move.
"You want to improve all the time," Dombrowski said. "You want to be as good as you can at any position all the time. And a lot of times, you don't get the [Miguel] Cabreras, the [Prince] Fielders, the [Torii] Hunters. In some areas, you improve your roster by little bits. And we think that these guys have a chance to do that for us. It's a combination of both.
"I tip my cap. Our scouting department has done a tremendous job for us. You try to get better whatever way you can, no question. That's your job."
The Tigers also added a player in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 Draft, selecting outfielder Eliezer Mesa from Oakland's organization. The multi-tooled 24-year-old saw time at all three outfield position at three different levels this past season, hitting for a .255 average on the year with four home runs, 43 RBIs and 25 stolen bases in 29 attempts. He's batting .321 (17-for-53) so far for Estrellas in the Dominican Winter League.
Detroit lost two left-handers in the Double-A portion of the Rule 5. Left-hander Jay Voss had found some stability in the Tigers organization after coming over in the Nate Robertson trade a few years ago, but will join the Cardinals system after his selection. The 25-year-old pitched in just three games this year for Double-A Erie in an injury-shortened campaign.
Another lefty farmhand, Efrain Nieves, went 4-1 with three saves, a 2.79 ERA and 42 strikeouts in as many innings for Connecticut in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. Having just turned 23 years old a few weeks ago, however, he was left unprotected, and the Blue Jays took advantage with a selection.