A big week for Rule 5 protection and non-tender decisions!

Tomorrow is “Rule 5 day” to add any eligible players, that a team wants to protect, to their 40-man roster, and Friday is the non-tender deadline. For the Washington Nationals, they should have a clear path to the Rule 5, and the tougher decisions are on the non-tender deadline.

The Nats have over three dozen players eligible as Rule 5 players. There is former first round pick Mason Denaburg on the list, as well as the newly acquired DJ Herz and Kevin Made who were acquired in the Jeimer Candelario trade. There are also Mitchell Parker and the once highly touted Cole Henry who is a year removed from thoracic outlet surgery.

The Nats cleared a 40-man spot last week with the DFA of Jeremy De La Rosa. Do they clear another spot to protect another player or just go with Herz? Could general manager Mike Rizzo non-tender a player like Victor Robles tomorrow for another spot? There are plenty of other DFA possibilities discussed below. Many teams will be doing DFAs ahead of tomorrow’s Rule 5, and that also opens up the possibilities for waiver claim(s) that would also require 40-man spot(s).

Any Rule 5 players not protected are then eligible to be drafted at the end of the Winter Meetings in the Rule 5 draft. The acquiring team must add a drafted player to their 40-man roster and essentially keep them on the MLB roster all year. There are exceptions such as placing a Rule 5 acquired player on the 60-day IL that they must have been on the active roster for at least 90 days, and if so, the team that selected him gets to keep him. If he doesn’t have 90 days on the active roster, the team must keep him on the active roster the following year. You saw the Nats do that with Thaddeus Ward this past season in the Rule 5 by placing him on the 60-day IL after he was on the active roster for at least the 90 day. But you also saw how poor the results were with Ward (6.37 ERA and 1.613 WHIP). To his credit, Ward got an opportunity to participate in the Arizona Fall League and finished with a 2.12 ERA — but then again he was facing mostly Double-A players.

Also consider how Ward was generally used in low leverage appearances. You are essentially taking a player who should be in the Minor Leagues and putting that player up against MLB players. It rarely works out — yet teams still do it. The juice is rarely worth the squeeze as compared to claiming waived players like the Nats did with Robert Garcia is the type of move that usually pays higher dividends.

The Rule 5 draft won’t actually be held until December during the Winter Meetings again. 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 of unprotected Rule 5 eligible players. There are criteria for eligibility, namely if a player was drafted out of college at least four seasons ago (so, in this case, 2020), drafted out of high school at least five seasons ago (2019), or an international amateur signing from at least five seasons ago (2019). Players on the 40-man major league roster are ineligible and considered to be “protected” from the Rule 5 draft.

A team can technically 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 during All-Star week. The draft ends when an entire round goes by with no players chosen.

There are monetary consideration in exchange for the player’s contract in the Rule 5 draft. The selecting team must pay a $100,000 fee to his original team. 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.

A few years ago, the Washington Nationals lost pitching prospect Sterling Sharp to the Miami Marlins, as they 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 — and the Nats crushed him leading to Sharp’s DFA 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 re-acquire him from the Marlins. As we know, Sharp made it to the Majors but the sinkerballer just couldn’t stick, and his career ended with a 10.13 ERA in those four career games with Miami.

The Nats selected Ward last year in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft, and before that, Jim Riggleman was the manager in 2010 when Rizzo picked up pitchers Brian Broderick and Elvin Ramirez. Both were ultimately returned to their original teams, and Broderick was a costly reminder that season that you hurt yourself by hiding your Rule 5 pitchers. Back then, Riggleman only had seven bullpen arms — six since he didn’t want to use Broderick — and who can blame him. The team had some success with catcher Jesus Flores — but generally speaking, Rule 5 in the past 15 years has not produced the results like it used to. The reason for that is that you are taking career minor leaguers and expecting them to sink-or-swim against MLB players that feast on marginal players.

Historically, Rizzo has been rather tight on giving up 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. So maybe the Nats don’t protect Parker and Henry, and roll the dice.

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 — but he has never pitched again in the Majors. Rizzo needed a 40-man spot on May 27, 2022, and he DFA’d Braymer.

Of course as free agency and waiver claims are going on, any new acquisitions will require roster spots if the free agents require MLB deals. There are certainly names like Cory AbbottRoddery Munoz, Ward, and Amos Willingham from the pitching ranks as well as Jake Alu,  Jeter Downs and Israel Pineda as position players who could all be DFAs. You would think that Andres Machado and Alex Call are bubble players going into Spring Training and could be cuts. It is also decision time for Joan Adon and Carter Kieboom as they are both out of options like Machado too. Call has remaining options, and that will probably save him.

The team has seven remaining arbitration eligible players. Five players all appear to be locks for contract tenders by the November 17 deadline with possibly Dominic Smith going the Luke Voit route of either agreeing to Rizzo’s salary offer or getting a non-tender which was the road travelled by Voit at the tender deadline.

Here is the list of arb-eligible tender candidates sorted by service time and the MLBTR estimates:

The roster shuffle is a complicated dance when you start getting to names like Robles, Kieboom, Smith, Machado and Call, and even Pineda and Ward. Many decisions are made when a GM believes he can pass a player through waivers and keep him on the roster back in Triple-A.

Did we miss any names?

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