Throughout the year we’ve talked about the Rule 5 roster crunch that the Pittsburgh Pirates will face this off-season. Some of that has been over-blown to the point where people suggest trading prospects like Starling Marte just because the Pirates might not have a spot to protect him. Make no mistake, the Pirates aren’t at risk of losing any significant prospects to the Rule 5 draft. They currently have five spots open on the 40-man roster, and several candidates to remove if they need extra space.
What the Pirates could lose is another Nathan Adcock type prospect – someone who could serve as a back of the rotation starter or a strong bullpen arm one day in the majors. That might not sound like a big deal, and might not sound like anything worthy of the term “roster crunch”. Maybe that’s correct, but it does ignore the outrage over losing a guy like Adcock last year. The anger was understandable. The Pirates aren’t in any position to just give up prospects for nothing, even if they profile as number five starters or middle relievers. But there might be a risk of another Adcock this year, due to the amount of players who are eligible to be picked.
The Pirates have to turn in their list tomorrow in order to protect players from the upcoming Rule 5 draft. In order to protect a player, the team must add the player to their 40-man roster. Teams can’t make additions after tomorrow’s deadline, even if they clear a new spot on the 40-man roster. If they don’t add a player to the roster by tomorrow, that player becomes eligible to be selected in the upcoming draft.
For a list of the eligible players this year, take a look at my post from back in September. All of the players who were eligible for minor league free agency have declared, so you can remove them from your list. Here is a rundown of the significant players from this year’s eligibility.
Starling Marte - There’s no question that the Pirates have to protect him. I don’t see any scenario where they won’t protect him.
Justin Wilson - He’s got some of the best stuff in the top two levels of the system. A left hander who can throw 99 MPH out of the bullpen is a must protect.
Rudy Owens - He had a down year in 2011, with struggles in his jump to the AAA level, and a shoulder injury at the end of the year. Prior to that he was the minor league pitcher of the year in 2009 and 2010. I don’t think he will go unprotected.
Jordy Mercer - Shortstop is the hardest position to fill, especially with a guy who has a bat. Mercer is an offensive minded shortstop who can handle the position defensively. I can’t see him going unprotected with the long term need for a shortstop in Pittsburgh.
Matt Hague - It wouldn’t surprise me if Hague was protected, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he wasn’t. He’s coming off a year where he hit for a .309 average with an .829 OPS in AAA. However, he’s 26 years old, doesn’t have the power you’d want from a starting first baseman, and corner infielders are the least likely to be picked in the Rule 5 draft. Since 2006, only three corner infielders have been selected in the draft. The decision doesn’t come down to protecting anyone who is eligible. It comes down to protecting guys who are a risk to be drafted and protected all year in 2012.
Aaron Pribanic - The Pirates love sinkerball pitchers. They protected Michael Crotta last year, they currently have Jared Hughes on the 40-man roster, and Pribanic could be the next in line. He doesn’t strike out a lot of batters, but also doesn’t walk a lot, and is a ground ball machine. I could see him being protected.
Andrew Lambo - He was one of the top 50 prospects in baseball prior to the 2009 season. Now he’s far from a prospect, and coming off a year where he struggled at the AAA level. The Pirates have a good situation in the outfield, but it’s not perfect. Jose Tabata and Alex Presley are both unproven in the majors, and there are no guarantees with Starling Marte, Robbie Grossman, or any prospect. What is forgotten is that Lambo is only 23 years old. He’s still got potential, which is why I wouldn’t be surprised to see him protected, even with the 2011 struggles in AAA and the good outfield situation.
Tim Alderson - Alderson is similar to Lambo in that he was once a top prospect, and has seen his stock fall since then. Unlike Lambo, I don’t think there’s any chance that Alderson gets protected. He started off the 2011 season on a strong note, but by the end of the year his fastball was around 86 MPH and he was still a reliever at the AA level. I don’t see him as any risk of being selected in the Rule 5 draft and protected in the majors all year long.
Michael Colla - The 2011 season was a surprise for Colla, who made the successful transition to the rotation, after being a reliever throughout his career. Ultimately Colla profiles as a middle reliever in the majors. I don’t see him getting protected due to his age (25 in December), lack of AAA experience, and his upside.
Brett Lorin - He had great numbers in high-A this past year, but surprisingly was left at the level all year long. It’s a situation that was very similar to Adcock, although Lorin is two years older. I don’t think he gets protected.
Quincy Latimore - He lacks any sort of plate patience, and doesn’t hit for average, but Latimore does have one strong tool: power. Still, I don’t think that’s enough to get him protected, or even drafted in December.
Duke Welker - If there’s a dark horse candidate to be protected, it’s Welker. He’s got a fastball that has been at 98 MPH in the last two years, and he made huge strides to improving his control in 2011. He also has a nice slider, which combined with his fastball makes him a risk to be selected. The Pirates have protected similar players in previous years, such as Ramon Aguero before the 2009 Rule 5 draft.
Diego Moreno - He’s in the same situation as Welker, with an upper 90s fastball and a good slider. However, Moreno hasn’t pitched above high-A that much, whereas Welker finished the 2011 season at the AA level. I’d label him a dark horse candidate as well, although I think Welker has the best shot of being protected.
Candidates to Clear a Roster Spot
The Pirates have five roster spots open, although they might need more spaces. I see them protecting Marte, Wilson, Owens, and Mercer, and you could make a case for Hague, Pribanic, Lambo, and Welker. If they need extra roster spots, I’d expect them to come from one of these players:
Jose Veras - He’s arbitration eligible, and I have him listed as a non-tender candidate. There would be no use keeping him around until mid-December when they need roster spots now.
Ross Ohlendorf - Same situation as Veras.
Matt Pagnozzi - With the signing of Rod Barajas, and with Jason Jaramillo, Michael McKenry, and Eric Fryer ahead of him on the depth charts, I could see Pagnozzi on the chopping block.
Xavier Paul - He’s making the league minimum this year, and is a decent player off of the bench due to his speed and defense. I think Gorkys Hernandez brings the same thing to the table with more upside, so I could see Paul being expendable.
Rule 5 Trends
In September I reviewed the trends of the Rule 5 draft since 2006, noting how many players were drafted from each position, and how many of those players ended up being protected. These trends can help the decision process for who to protect by weighing the odds of how likely it would be for a player to be drafted and then protected all year.
In the last five drafts there have been 93 players selected in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft. Out of those 93 players, 75% have been pitchers, with 55% being right handers and 20% being left handers. The most popular out of position players are outfielders and middle infielders, probably because it’s easier to hide those guys on a major league bench. Just think about how often Pedro Ciriaco was on the 25-man roster this past season, and think about how little he played.
The least likely position to be drafted has been corner infield. There have only been three corner infielders drafted in the last five years. This is part of the reason why I could see Hague going unprotected. Two of those three players were third basemen, and the only first baseman was Josh Phelps, who was a unique story. Phelps already had 1203 at-bats in the majors by that point, with a .268 average and an .809 OPS. He was more of a utility player than a first baseman.
The odds of a player being protected after they’re drafted is around 25%. However, there has been a weak trend for position players outside of a strong 2006 draft. Only three position players have been protected in the last four years, compared to nine right handed pitchers and three left handed pitchers in that same time frame. This doesn’t mean that you can leave Starling Marte unprotected, as I’m sure another team will find a spot for him all year. It does mean that you might be able to risk fringe players like Lambo, as the odds of him being protected all year are historically small.
At the same time, with right handed pitchers being the most popular, and the most likely to be protected, it makes it more important to consider fringe pitchers such as Pribanic, Colla, Welker, and Moreno. Remember, it’s not about protecting everyone who needs to be protected. It’s not about protecting the best prospects. It’s about protecting the guys who are at risk of being lost. The Pirates can’t protect everyone, as they’ll need 40-man spots for off-season additions and in-season roster moves. While they might be at risk of seeing someone drafted this year, they won’t be at risk of losing any of their top prospects.