It’s the offseason, and things are slow. But while there isn’t much happening in the world of Nationals baseball, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening.
Wednesday is the deadline for teams to add minor league players to the 40-man roster to protect them ahead of the Rule 5 draft. Here’s the breakdown for Rule 5 draft eligibility, courtesy of MLB.com:
Players who were signed when they were 19 or older and have played in professional baseball for four years are eligible, as are players who were signed at 18 and have played for five years.
All players on a Major League Baseball team’s 40-man roster, regardless of other eligibility factors, are “protected” and ineligible for the Rule 5 Draft. […]
There are also Triple-A and Double-A phases to the Rule 5 Draft. Players put on the Triple-A reserve list cost the selecting team $12,000, and players put on the Double-A reserve list cost the selecting team $4,000.
We took a look at R5-eligible Nats minor leaguers back in September as part of an offseason overview. That list of eligibles includes prospects like RHP Sterling Sharp, RHP Steven Fuentes, LHP Ben Braymer, OF Nick Banks, and C Taylor Gushue. Additionally, team rosters show that a handful of players who were eligible for free agency have stayed with the organization on minor league deals, including RHP Mario Sanchez, RHP Luis Reyes, 1B Aldrem Corredor, and OF Rafael Bautista.
Most R5-eligible minor leaguers will be left exposed but won’t be selected. In fact, the last minor leaguer the Nats lost to the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft was catcher Adrian Nieto in 2013. Winning teams tend to pass on the major league portion of the draft; the Nats haven’t made a Rule 5 selection themselves since 2010.
That being said, there are a few players on the Nats’ eligibility list that might be of interest to other teams and could be protected.
The safe bet
If the Nats don’t protect 24-year-old hurler Sterling Sharp, it would qualify as a genuine shock. Sharp has never been considered a top overall prospect in baseball, but he’s generally considered one of Washington’s better pitching prospects, with MLB Pipeline rating him as the Nats’ #13 prospect as of midseason; #7 among pitchers; and #4 among prospects who appeared in the high minors (Triple-A/Double-A) this past season.
Sharp missed about three months this year with an oblique injury that took awhile to heal, but around that absence, his season stats were solid if not spectacular: 3.53 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 3.47 K/BB. Setting aside a disastrous relief outing in the championship game, Sharp was excellent as a starter in the Arizona Fall League, where he was assigned to make up for lost time: 1.50 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 2.18 K/BB.
Where Sharp will make his money is in his ability to induce groundballs. He employs a four-pitch mix with a two-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, and a changeup, and at his best, he can locate all of those pitchers at the knees or below to get swinging strikes and weak contact on the ground.
In April and May, before he went on the injured list, batters put 95 groundballs in play against Sharp, compared to 55 flyballs (including line drives and popups). Cross-checking those numbers against his game results clearly shows how much he depends on getting those grounders. In only two starts of those nine did opponents hit more balls in the air than they did on the ground against Sharp, and his ERA in those games was 9.39. In six of those nine starts, Sharp racked up more grounders than flies, and his ERA in those games was 2.25.
Sharp has pretty good stuff and is noted for his athleticism, and he’s still on the right side of 25. This is the first year he’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft, and it’s a pretty sure bet he will draw interest unless he’s added to the 40-man roster before then. He’s not likely to get a serious look at cracking the Opening Day roster, but a good showing this spring followed up by minor league results that build on his AFL success could put him in strong consideration for a major league spot start or bullpen assignment before we get too deep into the 2020 season.
The decent chances
The Nats have another top-15 talent (as rated by MLB Pipeline) reaching R5 eligibility for the first time this winter. At 25, left-hander Ben Braymer is almost exactly a year older than Sharp; he went to the AFL last year, not this year; and he spent about half of his 2019 season at Triple-A, a level higher than Sharp.
Unfortunately, Braymer wasn’t very good this year. And it’s difficult to know why that is. Triple-A in general was extremely hitter-friendly this past season, which most observers attributed to a new ball that travels further when struck. Certainly, the Nats would like for that to be the reason why pitching prospects they like, such as Braymer and Wil Crowe (who is not R5-eligible this winter), were promoted to Triple-A and then promptly got the snot beat out of them by opposing hitters.
Braymer was solid at Double-A, tempering his overall 2019 pitching line, which was: 4.53 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 2.13 K/BB. That still isn’t good, but another way to look at it is that he was a better pitcher than Sharp at Double-A, with a 2.51 ERA and 0.97 WHIP (compared to Sharp’s 3.99 ERA and 1.40 WHIP). It’s just that for the entire second half of Braymer’s season, when he was at the higher level, he was pretty much awful, with a 7.20 ERA and 1.93 WHIP.
Working in Braymer’s favor is the fact that he is a lefty in a system that’s starved for them, and he looks a lot closer to being able to pitch in The Show than the likes of Tim Cate, Nick Raquet, Carson Teel, Matt Cronin, and Seth Romero, the Nats’ other notable southpaw pitching prospects. But working against Braymer is the fact that, like many lefties, he doesn’t have much velocity, and his raw stuff is pretty humdrum.
Braymer could still attract some interest from second-division teams that could see him as a free lefty reliever to try out. With their only other left-handed ‘pen options in the organization right now being Sean Doolittle and Roenis Elias, the Nats might be inclined to give him a look, too. But it wouldn’t be a big surprise if, after falling flat in his chance to impress at Triple-A, Braymer is left unprotected.
The other real possibility in this category is Steven Fuentes, who would be an interesting R5 candidate for several reasons. One is Fuentes’ age; despite pitching at Double-A this year, the Panamanian just turned 22 midway through the season. The other is his roster status; he was slapped with a 50-game suspension in early August after testing positive for a banned cardiac stimulant.
Normally, a team would have to carry a player it takes in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft on its 26-man active roster all year, or else lose its rights to that player. But if a player has been suspended, he is placed on the restricted list, freeing up a roster spot until he’s served his time. Fuentes will miss the first month of the season, making it easier for a team that selects him in the Rule 5 draft to stash him. Similarly, if the Nats do add him to the 40-man roster, Fuentes won’t take up a roster spot for the first part of the year, since he’ll go onto the restricted list as soon as the preseason gets underway.
Unfortunately, all of Fuentes’ results from the 2019 season have an invisible asterisk next to them, because that’s what happens when you get caught cheating. But here they are: 2.23 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 4.05 K/BB. Fuentes worked out of the High-A Potomac bullpen before being promoted to Double-A Harrisburg around the time of his 22nd birthday in early May, and with the Senators, he was quickly transitioned into a starter role.
The real question here is whether the Nats believe in Fuentes’ numbers from before he was suspended.
It’s unclear how much of a benefit Fuentes could have derived from heptaminol (which, for what it’s worth, since Fuentes has denied taking a banned substance knowingly, has been detected in measurable quantities in supposedly innocuous “fat-burning” dietary supplements). But it is a drug that is widely banned in athletic competition, so it’s hardly a weird quirk of MLB anti-doping statutes that he was suspended for testing positive. If the Nats believe Fuentes owes his breakout season to an illegal substance that stimulated his heart muscles, they should leave him off the 40-man roster. Furthermore, if they see him as a cheater who will take unfair advantages to get ahead, leaving him off the roster could be a character call.
But if the Nats don’t think heptaminol had much, if anything, to do with Fuentes’ success — and if they believe that he ingested it unknowingly, or at least that he made a mistake that won’t be repeated — the case for protecting Fuentes looks good from here. He’s significantly younger than most of his teammates at the Double-A level; in fact, the only 2019 Senator who is younger than Fuentes is Luis Garcia. He posted excelsior results with strong peripherals. He has vaulted onto MLB Pipeline‘s top 30 prospects list, where he now ranks as the #21 prospect in the Nats’ system.
It’s a judgment call. Trust the Nats to get this one right.
The dark horses
The Nats acquired Andrew Istler from the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018, when they traded Ryan Madson. Istler turned 27 in September, and he’s never been on any top prospect lists. He’s a one- or two-inning reliever, not a starter. He’s also undersized for a pitcher, standing less than 6 feet tall.
But why might Istler have his name called on Rule 5 draft night? His 2019 stats: 0.75 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 4.70 K/BB. The important caveat here is that of those 36 innings, about two-thirds were pitched in High-A, where Istler was old for the level and generally not facing very polished competition. That being said, he didn’t seem to miss a beat in Double-A, where he was used in higher-level opportunities, including two save opportunities he successfully converted.
The Nats probably won’t protect Istler, although they might want to invite him to major league spring training to see how he looks against top-level competition. But it wouldn’t be shocking if another team decides to take a flier on Istler, either.
The same is true of 24-year-old Jhonatan German, another right-handed reliever who finished the year strong at Double-A Harrisburg. German is the Nats’ #28 prospect, by MLB Pipeline‘s reckoning, and while he didn’t match Istler’s ludicrous run-prevention numbers in 2019, he arguably outpitched him.
German made appearances for Single-A Hagerstown, High-A Potomac, and Double-A Harrisburg during the season. All in all, he amassed a pretty nice pitching line: 2.78 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 4.14 K/BB. He didn’t blow a ton of batters away, but he demonstrated good control and effectively limited hits.
If German had put up those numbers in the high minors, he might even be considered to have a strong likelihood of being protected. But while Istler pitched at Double-A and Triple-A on the Los Angeles farm in 2018, German has just 13 innings above A-ball, all of them this year, and he turns 25 this winter. It seems likely the Nats will accept the risk and leave German off the roster. If he can repeat his strong performance in the high minors in 2020, it could be a different story one year hence.
Mario Sanchez had quite a year after returning to the Nats organization. Washington traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies for reliever Jimmy Cordero in 2016, and Sanchez spent two years in the Phillies system before becoming a minor league free agent and re-signing with his original team. He finished the 2019 season as the staff ace at Double-A Harrisburg.
It was good to see Sanchez, who turned 25 last month, remain in the organization instead of becoming a minor league free agent again. Although it’s skewed by a disastrous cameo at Triple-A, his pitching line is still strong for the season, with most of it logged at the Double-A level: 3.82 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 5.13 K/BB. That kind of minor league season can earn you an invitation to major league spring training, and perhaps it will. We don’t yet know the terms of Sanchez’s deal to stay with the Nats in 2020.
Realistically, though, if Sanchez were going to be added to the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft, he would have been already. The Nats didn’t want to let Wander Suero become a minor league free agency after the 2017 season, so they promoted him to the major league roster. Clearly, since Sanchez is still in the organization, he and the Nats worked out a deal to keep him on a minor league deal.
If Sanchez isn’t protected in the Rule 5 draft, his advanced command and excellent overall results could make him attractive for a team that would like to round out its rotation as cheaply as possible. He’s not too old to be considered a real prospect, and his Double-A stats (2.85 ERA and 0.98 WHIP) suggest he might be ready for the next step. But on the other hand, Sanchez isn’t ranked as a top-30 organizational prospect, and as with Braymer, the fact that he got an opportunity in Triple-A and bombed there (11.85 ERA and 2.34 WHIP in four appearances) could hurt his value.
There are also a couple of position player prospects with an outside chance at being selected, or protected. The most notable is probably outfielder Nick Banks, who has been a fringe prospect for a few years but finally managed to put together a decently effective season this year while reaching Double-A for the first time. Banks also was named to play in the Arizona Fall League, where he wasn’t great but didn’t embarrass himself.
Banks, who turns 25 next week, amassed a .278/.338/.431 line across High-A and Double-A this year. He went on to contribute a .250/.295/.464 triple slash for the Surprise Saguaros, with his on-base percentage dipping against the better pitching he saw in the AFL but his power numbers ticking up a bit. Defensively, Banks mostly played right field this season, with some time in left field and a few cameos in center field.
Banks has a couple of problems. One is the problem that is endemic to all players of his type, mid-round college draft picks (he was a fourth-round draftee out of Texas A&M in 2016) who take a few years to get their sea legs in pro ball. The clock starts ticking as soon as you’re drafted, and when it takes you a few years to start playing well, and you were good enough before Draft Day to buy some extra patience but not good enough to be groomed as a top prospect, you run the risk of your breakout year being too little, too late, to change the “career minor leaguer” trajectory of your baseball career. The other problem is that the Nats already have such a good young outfield core that players like Gerardo Parra, Michael A. Taylor, and Andrew Stevenson, who would have been playing every day or on the long side of a platoon for some second-division teams, spent the season either riding the pine or playing in the minor leagues. As with Jake Noll this year, adding Banks to the roster would effectively be giving the Nats another rostered player they don’t have much use for at the major league level.
While it’s possible Banks could be spirited away in the Rule 5 draft, it’s not much of a risk for the Nats to leave him unprotected. Even though Washington likes him well enough to have him go play in the AFL, he likely won’t crack the 40-man roster this winter.
The Nats are already carrying two minor league catchers on their 40-man roster, which will doubtless be reinforced with at least one veteran catcher this winter, so the odds also don’t look too good for Taylor Gushue. Since being acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016, Gushue has flirted with a promotion at times, but the Nats have never found a spot for him on the roster, and that probably won’t change now.
Gushue, 26 next month, had a very characteristic season, turning in a .312/.358/.517 batting line that looks really good for a catcher until you consider that he spent the entire year in the hitters’ haven known as the Pacific Coast League. (By way of comparison, rostered catcher Raudy Read hit a broadly comparable .275/.317/.546.) The story of Gushue since joining the Nats has been like that: He’s a good hitter, but not good enough to be considered elite, and while he plays a premium defensive position adequately, he doesn’t play it well enough for his catcher ability to be what leads him to the majors.
There’s probably no room at the inn for Gushue, but his salvation might lie in the fact that Read is out of options and isn’t expected to make the Opening Day roster. Although Gushue is less than a year younger than Read, the Nats could stash him or have him on a shuttle for up to three years, same as Tres Barrera. Of course, because they have Barrera, the Nats would seem to have less need for Gushue on the roster. And each roster spot is precious, meaning that adding Gushue without a clear need for him doesn’t seem likely or advisable.
Gushue looks a little like Nieto did when he was plucked off the farm — a couple years older, and with considerably more higher-level experience, but both considered slightly above-average hitters for their position with serviceable glovework. But Gushue has been left exposed and not taken before. The Nats will likely chance it. Expect to see Gushue back in camp next spring either way as an extra catcher.
Final thoughts and some history
While it’s at least something to take note of in the offseason, for the Nats, R5 eligibility isn’t usually something that’s brought about anything resembling a sea change on the roster.
Last November, the Nats protected just one minor leaguer, James Bourque — who ended up pitching all of two-thirds of an inning at the major league level in 2019.
In November 2017, the Nats promoted Suero to prevent him from reaching free agency, and later in the month, they protected pitcher Jefry Rodriguez and infielder Kelvin Gutierrez as well. Suero and Rodriguez made their major league debuts for Washington the following season, with Suero becoming a trusted (well, mostly) member of Davey Martinez’s relief corps and Rodriguez making a few spot starts and long relief appearances to mixed results. While Suero has emerged as a major league regular for the Nats, neither Rodriguez nor Gutierrez are still in the organization, having been fenced to the Cleveland Indians and the Kansas City Royals, respectively.
In November 2016, the Nats made something of a splash by adding a whopping five minor leaguers to the roster. But they might have learned something of a lesson from this. From the quintet of Rafael Bautista, Jose Marmolejos, Raudy Read, Matt Skole, and Austin Voth, only Voth ever became a major league regular for the Nats, and Marmolejos and Skole were both outrighted before they could make their major league debuts. Bautista has 33 major league plate appearances and was released in 2018 before rejoining the organization on a minors deal. Read will likely be cut loose before Opening Day, since he’s out of options. By and large, this group of prospects did nothing but take up roster space as a result of being promoted, and it’s unsurprising the Nats have been more conservative with their protection picks since then, taking chances by leaving the likes of Gushue, Istler, and the since-traded Taylor Guilbeau exposed.
In November 2015, the Nats protected three prospects: infielder Chris Bostick, catcher Spencer Kieboom, and pitcher Nick Lee. Unfortunately for Lee, he fractured his arm in spring training and was released; he’s been scratching out an existence in indie ball. Bostick never suited up for the Nats in a regular-season game; he was traded to Pittsburgh for Gushue the following season. Kieboom made one plate appearance in 2016, then was outrighted, then managed to work his way back in 2018 as the Nats’ backup catcher for most of the season, then spent 2019 in the minors before being outrighted again; he’s now a free agent.
In November 2014, we see where the Nats might have been inspired to be aggressive in protecting R5-eligible prospects in 2015 and 2016, as they rostered pitchers A.J. Cole and Matt Grace, infielder Wilmer Difo, and outfielder Brian Goodwin, all of whom settled into regular roles with Washington. Cole made a spot start in 2015 that went rather poorly, but he earned more extended opportunities in subsequent seasons before the Nats finally cut bait in April 2018. Grace was banished to the minors after a bumpy ride in the bullpen in 2015, but he made his way back for good in 2017 and was one of the team’s most-used relievers until he was finally removed from the roster late in the 2019 season. Difo has been clinging to a role as a utility infielder, occasionally filling in as the starting shortstop, second baseman, or third baseman. Goodwin played parts of three seasons with the Nats before he was the victim of a numbers game in 2018 and was shipped to Kansas City for relief prospect Jacob Condra-Bogan; he finally found an everyday role in 2019 with the Los Angeles Angels.
In November 2013, we see again that the Nats struck gold with the prospects they protected. Right-hander Aaron Barrett was so impressive in his first major league spring training camp that he made the Opening Day roster; nearly six years and several surgeries later, he’s still a major league pitcher for the Nats, although his role in 2020 isn’t clear. Left-hander Sammy Solis didn’t develop as the Nats had hoped, but he was effective enough as a reliever to pitch in parts of four seasons before he was released in spring 2019; he’s now pitching in Japan, and he and his family continue to be vocal Nats fans. Outfielder Michael A. Taylor, like Barrett, is still on the Nats’ roster to this day, although the road hasn’t always been smooth.
In November 2012, though, it was another swing and a miss for the Nats in who they protected. Pitchers Erik Davis and Nate Karns both made their major league debuts for the Nats in 2013, but they contributed little and didn’t suit up for the Nats in subsequent seasons, and neither is still in the organization. Davis was eventually outrighted. Karns at least recouped some value, as he was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays before the 2014 season in the deal that netted the Nats catcher Jose Lobaton, outfielder Drew Vettleson, and left-handed pitcher and accused sex predator Felipe Vazquez (née Rivero).
As you can see, it’s been kind of a mixed bag. Will Sterling Sharp and/or whomever else gets the call end up becoming household names in Natsworld? Or will they toil in anonymity before quietly slipping out of the organization and into the ether? It remains to be seen.