The non-tender deadline is looming, the baseball world is still awaiting word from on high as to teams’ minor league affiliates, and with the coronavirus pandemic raging now worse than ever, there’s no way to know for sure when baseball will resume in 2021 or what it will look like when it does.
Yet the offseason’s parade of notable dates marches on, and the next big item on the calendar is the Rule 5 draft protection deadline.
The Rule 5 draft won’t actually be held until December, but major league teams only have until this Friday to promote minor leaguers onto their roster so they are not eligible to be taken by another team.
The Rule 5 draft works like this: Going in reverse order of the season standings, each team is given the opportunity to select a player from the 29 other teams’ minor league organizations. There are criteria for eligibility, namely if a player was drafted out of college at least four seasons ago (so, in this case, 2017), drafted out of high school at least five seasons ago (2016), or an international amateur signing from at least five seasons ago (2016). Players on the 40-man major league roster are ineligible and considered to be “protected” from the Rule 5 draft. A team can select as many players as it wants, but only one per round, with the Rule 5 draft cycling through the teams and then beginning again with the team with the worst record in MLB, just like the Rule 4 draft (better known as the first-year player draft) held in the summer.
There is a small catch and a significant catch. The small catch is that in exchange for the player’s contract, the selecting team must pay a $100,000 fee to his original team. The significant catch is that a team that selects a player in the Rule 5 draft must immediately add him to its major league roster, and unless he ends up on the injured list (or other temporary inactive status), that player must remain on the team’s active roster for the entirety of the following season before the team gains full rights over him, including minor league options. If the player is designated for assignment and clears outright waivers, he must be offered back to his original team for $50,000, or half of the acquisition fee.
Last year, the Washington Nationals lost pitching prospect Sterling Sharp to the Miami Marlins, which had one of the early picks in the Rule 5 draft. Sharp made four appearances out of the Marlins’ bullpen; ironically, his fourth and final was at Nationals Park. Sharp was designated for assignment after giving up five runs (four earned) while only getting one out against the Nats. He cleared outright waivers and the Nats paid $50,000 to reacquire him from the Marlins.
The Nats haven’t selected a player in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft themselves since 2010, when they picked up pitchers Brian Broderick and Elvin Ramírez. Both were ultimately returned to their original teams.
Historically, general manager Mike Rizzo has been rather stingy about awarding 40-man roster spots to players ahead of the Rule 5 draft. There is a reason for that. The last time the Nats actually lost a player for good in the Rule 5 draft was catcher Adrian Nieto in 2013, and while he stuck on the Chicago White Sox roster through the 2014 season, he never played in MLB again.
However, the Rule 5 draft does have symbolic importance. Even if it’s rarely of any real consequence, it gives each organization a decision point for each of the prospects it’s been cultivating, and it gives those of us on the other side of the screen some insight into how they assess those prospects.
In 2019, the Nats chose to protect left-handed pitcher Ben Braymer, while leaving Sharp and other Rule 5-eligible prospects unprotected. Braymer ended up tossing 7⅓ innings of 1.23 ERA ball for the Nats during the 2020 season, including a five-inning spot start in which he earned the win over the Marlins. While Braymer wasn’t among the Nats’ key contributors amid a disappointing season, he did serve a function down the stretch. He performed well enough to vindicate Rizzo’s decision to protect him.
Before we launch into the list of candidates here, it is worth noting that the Nats have already promoted one minor league player to their 40-man roster this winter: Steven Fuentes, who would have been eligible for minor league free agency. That decision both keeps Fuentes from free agency and protects him from the Rule 5 draft. The Nats made the same move after the 2017 season with Wander Suero, who has become a bullpen fixture over the past three seasons.
The likely candidates
Speculation has focused mostly on three names: Joan Adon, Yasel Antuna, and Israel Pineda.
Joan Adon is a 22-year-old right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republican. Listed at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, he’s about average size for a pitcher, maybe a little bit on the wiry side — not, in other words, an exemplar of the Nats’ well-known predilection for big, physical pitchers in the mold of Stephen Strasburg and the aforementioned Wander Suero.
Adon has pitched across five minor league seasons, never above Low-A ball, and was in the 60-man “player pool” based at Fredericksburg during the 2020 season. His career numbers, which closely track his 2019 results at Low-A Hagerstown, are solid if unexceptional: 3.85 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 4.1 BB/9, 8.9 K/9.
As is his job, Nats assistant general manager for player development Mark Scialabba talked up Adon during and after the 2020 season, getting a chance to see him perform at Fredericksburg. Scialabba described Adon as a “power arm” with an effective fastball, slider, and changeup who can work vertically in the strikezone. His heater reportedly tops out in the mid-90s.
While Scialabba had nice things to say about Adon, and his inclusion in the Fredericksburg group suggests the Nats are indeed high on him, his case for protection seems rather thin.
In terms of his stats, Adon has been good but not elite. A mid-90s fastball is, again, good but not elite. A three-pitch mix for a starter who projects to a relief role in a major league pitching corps is, again, good but not elite. And, with respect to his instructional reps this year as a member of the player pool, Adon has no experience pitching in anger above what will soon be the lowest developmental level above complex ball.
On the flip side, Adon is ranked as one of the Nats’ better prospects. In a rather weak farm system, he’s ranked 16th by MLB.com. That is comparable to where Braymer ranked before he was protected last year.
While it wouldn’t figure as an upset for the Nats to decide they don’t want to risk another team taking a flier on Adon, he appears to be quite a bit further from MLB-ready than the leading candidates to be protected in 2019. Considering Rizzo’s rather choosy track record, bet against Adon getting a 40-man roster spot this week.
Yasel Antuna is a 21-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic. He’s on the small side, listed at 6-foot-nothin’, 170 pounds, but may still be young enough that the Nats expect him to fill out a little more. He’s also logged appearances at second and third base.
Antuna’s ride has been a weird one. He’s the most expensive international signing in team history, with the Nats writing out a $3.9 million check for his services in 2016, and he’s been one of the team’s most touted position player prospects from the moment he put on the jersey.
The Nats were surely excited by Antuna’s first-year showing, as he slashed .301/.382/.399 as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League, skipping right over Dominican complex play. But he slumped to a .220/.293/.331 line as an 18-year-old at Hagerstown in 2018, and he ruptured his ulnar collateral ligament a few weeks before the season ended. The injury required Tommy John surgery, and while Antuna made it back for three games in 2019, he went back on the shelf after that.
This year, Antuna was a late addition to the player pool in Fredericksburg, spending the final weeks of the season working out with veteran players under the tutelage of high-level coaches. The reviews were positive, with Scialabba (again, as is his job) saying he “made strides in all phases” and talking up his strikezone discipline and ability to barrel up the ball.
While Antuna’s offensive career has been a mixed bag, the same can’t be said for his defense: It’s been terrible. Antuna committed 26 errors in just 36 games in the field during his first professional season in 2017, and he followed that up with 29 errors in 76 games at Hagerstown. By way of comparison, the Nats concluded they had seen enough of Michael A. Taylor as an infielder after he logged 23 errors in 39 games during his first professional season, moving him to the outfield in 2011 and never looking back.
Antuna is still really young, and despite his injuries and offensive and defensive woes, prospect evaluators continue to carry a torch for him. MLB.com ranks him as the Nats’ 12th-best prospect at present, and their second-best position player prospect.
Despite a limited sample size of games with which to judge Antuna, Rizzo may decide it’s worth protecting him. While it seems unlikely a team would pick him up, it’s easier for a non-contender to stash a utility infielder than a pitcher, and the Nats’ cupboard is awfully barren when it comes to hitting prospects.
Even with the obvious knocks against him, losing Antuna would represent a body blow to a farm system that really can’t afford to absorb a body blow right now. This may be a case where, even though he’s not ready and might not even be ready this coming year, the benefit to ensuring Antuna stays in the fold outweighs the cost of sacrificing a roster spot for someone who likely won’t contribute for some time to come.
Israel Pineda is a 20-year-old catcher from the Dominican Republic. Listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, he slots physically into the mold of catchers with compact frames whom coaches hope can avoid the wear and tear on the joints that often plagues taller and heavier catchers.
In evaluating Pineda, the Nats have seemed less interested in his offensive production and more interested in his development behind the plate. That could reflect an organizational vision of Pineda as a backup at the major league level someday, or it could reflect general confidence that the bat will come around as he matures.
Pineda was a high-average hitter during his first two professional seasons, but he floundered as a 19-year-old at Hagerstown, slashing a meager .217/.278/.305. Defensively, Pineda was the proverbial mixed bag: 44% caught-stealing rate, which is excellent, but 26 passed balls over 84 games, which is, uh, not.
Although some evaluators ranked him higher before his 2019 struggles, Pineda still charts at 14th on the Nats’ list of top 30 prospects according to MLB.com. He’s generally regarded as the Nats’ highest-end catching prospect.
The Nats did give Pineda a spot in the player pool in 2020, so he got a chance to work out alongside older players, something Scialabba said was good for his development. In particular, Scialabba noted Pineda’s “leadership qualities” and said he improved his blocking. Scialabba also talked up Pineda’s potential future as a “frontline catcher” who can hit for power, and it is worth noting that despite his lousy triple slash, Pineda did pop seven home runs in that rough 2019 season.
At 20 and without many games under his belt, Pineda is difficult to evaluate. But the Nats have always prized the few noteworthy catchers their system produces, and with just two catchers currently on the 40-man roster, it’s not as though there is no room at the inn. As with Antuna, it’s difficult to imagine Pineda as a major contributor in 2021, but it’s not completely out of the question that he could serve as viable catching depth in case of multiple injuries at the position.
Bet on Pineda being protected. He’s not ready, but there’s little rush, and for a role like backup catcher (which Pineda would only ever fill in 2021 in the event of injuries), the Nats can honestly say they’ve had worse. As with Antuna, the cost of the roster spot likely outweighs the risk of the system losing its only potential everyday catcher if another team decides it can grin and bear a green backup with the upside of maybe being a lineup fixture a couple years from now.
The fringe contenders
We’ll run through these next names quickly, as while it wouldn’t be a massive shock to see one make the roster, it doesn’t seem particularly probable, either.
Jacob Condra-Bogan is a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher from South Carolina. He was acquired from the Kansas City Royals in 2018 for outfielder Brian Goodwin. Listed at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds — that last measurement might be on the light side — he has a thick frame not dissimilar from that of Tanner Roark.
Condra-Bogan has done nothing but shove since coming to the Nats. His 1.01 WHIP at Double-A Harrisburg in 2019 was a career high. For his minor league career, he’s struck out 103 batters while walking just 17.
But beyond the stats, while Condra-Bogan can hit 98 mph with his fastball, scouting reports aren’t as enamored with his secondary stuff and describe his fastball as having little movement. That might explain why the Nats haven’t demonstrated a lot of interest in Condra-Bogan as a prospect, leaving him out of the Fredericksburg group in 2020 and keeping him at Double-A all year in 2019. After all, some guys can humiliate minor league hitters but still not have what it takes to get major league hitters out.
Gabe Klobosits is a 25-year-old right-handed pitcher from Texas. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, Klobosits immediately stood out from the rest of the Nats’ late-round draftees (he was selected in the 36th round in 2017 out of Auburn) both physically and performance-wise.
Klobosits stormed up the minor league ranks in 2017, reaching Low-A Hagerstown while pitching exclusively in relief. Upon his promotion to High-A Potomac in 2018, he struggled with his command and underwent Tommy John surgery after just eleven appearances. Klobosits did manage to make it back to Potomac late in the 2019 season, with much better command but significantly fewer strikeouts, possibly a sign of diminished stuff.
While he did pitch in the Nats’ instructional league in 2020, Klobosits wasn’t invited to Fredericksburg to be in the 60-man player pool. Losing now the equivalent of two years in his development time really is not ideal for Klobosits, who was drafted as a senior and will turn 26 next May. There’s a lot to like about Klobosits based on the numbers and his physicality, but considering how limited his appearances have been since his first professional season and the fact he wasn’t in the player pool, it’s hard to see him as a serious candidate for a roster spot right now.
Jakson Reetz is a 24-year-old catcher from Nebraska. He stands 6-foot-nil, 205 pounds, rather similar in build to Pineda. The Nats used their third-round draft pick on him in 2014 out of high school, so this will be his third year as a Rule 5 eligible.
Reetz had prospect shine on him when he first entered the system, but it waned over the years as his development stalled. Reetz still has not played above High-A after six seasons in the minor leagues. However, that sixth season was a good one: Reetz slashed .253/.370/.441, far and away the best batting line of his career, and earned a coveted invitation to play in the Arizona Fall League. In 2020, Reetz was invited to participate in major league spring training, and he was asked back when the season restarted in midsummer as a member of the 60-man player pool.
Scialabba really put some muscle into polishing Reetz up for the media, describing him after the 2020 season as a mentor to younger players and predicting a “big year” for him in 2021. Does that “big year” involve a 40-man roster spot right here, right now? The forecast is cloudy. Reetz will be 25 before Opening Day and he still hasn’t gotten a taste of the high minors, and it’s been a while since evaluators regarded him as a genuinely notable prospect within the Nats’ farm system. What’s more, it doesn’t seem all that likely the Nats will protect two catchers, does it? Reetz is borderline, but when push comes to shove, the safe money is that the Nats will feel comfortable taking their chances by leaving him exposed.
Mario Sanchez is a 26-year-old right-handed pitcher from Venezuela. He’s slight for a starting pitcher at just 6-foot-1, 166 pounds, which could explain why neither the Nats nor prospect evaluators have ever seemed to take him seriously as a future major leaguer, despite very strong career numbers in the minor leagues.
Sanchez was actually signed by the Nats in 2012, but he was traded to the Phillies for Jimmy Cordero in 2016. Upon becoming a minor league free agent in 2018, Sanchez decided to return to his original organization, where he has stuck so far. In 2019, Sanchez topped out at Triple-A Fresno but did most of his pitching at Double-A Harrisburg. Roughed up over four Triple-A appearances, Sanchez pitched to a more aesthetically pleasing 2.85 ERA, 0.98 WHIP with the Senators.
We mentioned Sanchez as a potential Rule 5 protection candidate this time last year, and even after he was passed over, he looked like a decent bet for a non-roster invite to spring training. But the Nats didn’t bring Sanchez to camp either in the abortive spring training of February and March or the do-over in June and July, so 2020 figures as a lost year for him altogether. Considering that, the Nats do not seem likely to protect Sanchez this time, either.
Sterling Sharp is a 25-year-old right-handed pitcher from Michigan. A lithe 6-foot-3, 182 pounds, Sharp was the Nats’ 22nd-round draft pick in 2016 and was selected by the Marlins in the Rule 5 draft a year ago.
Sharp’s results have always been a little uneven. He’s pitched to a 3.71 ERA across his minor league career and has some limited major league experience with the Marlins, but his peripherals are mediocre aside from his elite groundball rate. Basically, Sharp has been able to pitch out of jams by getting well-placed grounders, which is both a useful skill and a little concerning given that major league hitters are, you know, better than minor league hitters — as Sharp discovered during his brief trial run in Miami.
Like the rest of the Nats blogosphere, we confidently predicted in 2019 that Rizzo would protect Sharp ahead of the Rule 5 draft. We were wrong. We then confidently predicted that the Nats would lose Sharp in said Rule 5 draft. We were right. But the Marlins ended up being better than expected, and while a last-place team probably could have lived with the raw, nervy long man Sharp presented as in his first taste of The Show, the Marlins decided they could not, and now here he is. Altogether, while the snub of Sharp last year was somewhat mystifying, it’s difficult to envision Rizzo deciding that he needs to devote a roster spot to Sharp this time around.
Jackson Tetreault is a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher from Florida. A lanky 6-foot-5, 189 pounds, Tetreault actually grew up playing tennis, but he ended up turning pro as a baseball player after the Nats took him in the seventh round of the 2017 draft.
Tetreault has had an up-and-down tenure in the Nats’ minor league system, posting some brilliant stretches — a four-start run in which he didn’t allow more than one run per game to begin the year at High-A Potomac in 2019 earned him a promotion to Double-A — and some unlovely slumps — like the 5.40 ERA-over-nine-starts skid that saw him drummed out of Harrisburg and sent back down to Potomac later that summer. One wonders whether Tetreault’s slender build limits his stamina, especially in a starter’s role. Baseball seasons are long and grueling.
Tetreault is a particularly interesting case to consider here, because he wasn’t invited to the player pool in Fredericksburg this year, but he did pitch in the instructional league after the season in West Palm Beach, where by all accounts, he was very impressive. Tetreault spent the season at his family home in Florida, where his father reportedly built a professional-quality mound in the backyard so Tetreault could keep up his pitching routine. It’s not the same as pitching to live batters, obviously, but Nats pitching coordinator Brad Holman spoke highly of his fitness when he was in West Palm.
Of this fringe group of guys, Tetreault might have the best case to be made for a roster spot: He’s too good for A-ball, he’s dedicated and been recognized for it, and while he’s never been considered a blue-chipper, he has popped in and out of organizational top 30 charts (not listed by MLB.com at the moment, Baseball America ranked him 28th at midseason). But the Nats will likely figure that Tetreault won’t get much of a look from other teams after not seeing much action in 2020, and they can evaluate him more carefully in 2021, which at his age could be a make-or-break season in his development.
Reetz, another up-and-down bobber at the fringe of the top 30 rankings, is also a candidate to consider. While the Nats seem likely to protect Pineda, which could leave Reetz the victim of a numbers game, Reetz spent a lot of time under the observation of Nats’ higher-ups. If they do protect him on his third winter of eligibility for the Rule 5 draft, we can certainly take that as a vote of confidence that he has something to contribute at the major league level. If they do not, however, it would be more than understandable.