Decision time for Rule 5 draft protection

There really hasn’t been much reason to pay attention to the Rule 5 draft around here for a long time. The Nationals haven’t selected a player in the annual event since 2010, and they’ve had only one player poached from them since 2014.

That’s probably going to change this winter. Because for the first time in a long time, the Nats own one of the first picks in the Rule 5 draft. Specifically, the first pick.

That means Mike Rizzo and his front office have their choice of any unprotected prospect in baseball. All they have to do is pony up $100,000 and be willing to keep any drafted player on their active, 26-man roster (or the injured list) for the entire 2023 season. If they decide at some point they aren’t willing to do that, they can offer the player back to his original club for $50,000.

The Rule 5 draft wraps up the Winter Meetings, so the Nationals have three weeks to evaluate potential acquisitions. When they were annually attempting to contend for a postseason berth, they didn’t feel they could afford to use a roster spot on an inexperienced player like that. Now that they’re in full-scale rebuilding mode, there’s plenty of reason to take a flyer on somebody of their choosing.

And they’ll have a much better idea of the pool of candidates available at the end of the day, because all Major League Baseball clubs are required to add Rule 5-eligible prospects to their 40-man rosters by 6 p.m., thereby protecting them from being snatched up.

Who’s eligible? It’s a bit complicated, but in a nutshell it’s any high school players drafted in 2018, international players signed as teenagers in 2018 or college players drafted in 2019 who aren’t already on the 40-man roster.

The Nationals protected two eligible players last winter, adding outfielder Donovan Casey and left-hander Evan Lee to their 40-man roster. Both would be called up to D.C. to make their major league debuts during the season, though Casey was sent back to Triple-A before ever appearing in a game and eventually was dropped off the 40-man roster altogether, while Lee wound up on the 60-day IL after only four appearances.

Who’s Rule 5-eligible this winter? There’s a fairly long list of names: catcher Drew Millas, first baseman Drew Mendoza, third baseman Jake Alu, shortstops Jackson Cluff and Jordy Barley, outfielder Jeremy De La Rosa, right-handers Jake Irvin, Jackson Rutledge and Mason Denaburg and left-handers Matt Cronin, Tim Cate and Jose Ferrer.

Obviously, the Nats can’t protect all of them. They have only two open slots on their 40-man roster at the moment following Seth Romero's release Monday night, though there’s a chance they’ll clear more today by designating one or more players for assignment.

The front office then needs to decide which players are most in danger of being selected by another club and then sticking on a big league roster for the entire season.

De La Rosa, a 20-year-old outfielder signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2018, is the best prospect from that aforementioned group. But he’s played only 32 games at high Single-A Wilmington to this point, so it might be a stretch for another organization to keep him in the majors an entire season.

Rutledge and Denaburg are the best pitching prospects of the group, each of them acquired in the first round of the draft (Denaburg in 2018 out of high school, Rutledge in 2019 out of college). Both, though, have dealt with injuries during their pro careers, and both spent the majority of this season at low Single-A Fredericksburg. Neither is close to being ready for the big leagues.

So the Nationals might be more inclined to protect Millas, a 25-year-old catcher with Double-A experience who just hit .305 with an .825 OPS in the Arizona Fall League. They might not want to risk losing Alu, an overperforming 25-year-old who hit .323/.372/.553 in 59 games at Triple-A Rochester. And they may be inclined to protect at least one of the left-handers who could be stashed away in a major league bullpen if poached by another club.

These aren’t easy decisions, and there are a lot of calculations that go into them. Even if someone is drafted away, there’s a decent chance he’ll be offered back at some point.

But if nothing else, the Nationals should find themselves as part of the Rule 5 draft conversation this winter, way more than they have been in a really long time.

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