The Nationals chose to protect six prospects from being lost in next month’s Rule 5 draft before today’s leaguewide deadline, which forced them to remove four more players from their 40-man roster, including outfielder Yadiel Hernandez.
Hernandez and right-handers Jackson Tetreault and Evan Lee all cleared waivers and were outrighted to Triple-A Rochester, so they remain in the organization, though off the 40-man roster. Right-hander Tommy Romero was designated for assignment to clear another opening for prospects who needed to be protected.
The Nats took those four openings, plus two they already had entering the day, and promoted six prospects to the 40-man roster: third baseman Jake Alu, outfielder Jeremy De La Rosa, right-handers Jackson Rutledge and Jake Irvin, plus lefties Matt Cronin and Jose Ferrer. All six of those players would have been eligible to be selected by other organizations in the Rule 5 draft.
The decision to demote Hernandez isn’t necessarily a shock, but it underscores the club’s desire to look for younger alternatives in the outfield who have a better chance of being part of the long-term plan.
Hernandez, 35, has been an above-average hitter across 644 major league plate appearances the last three seasons, with 27 doubles, 19 homers, 79 RBIs and a .727 OPS. But he spent the last two months of this season on the injured list with a calf strain, and the fact the Nationals never activated him in late September suggested they were already thinking about moving on from the veteran outfielder.
Tetreault and Lee both made their major league debuts this summer, then both suffered injuries that landed them on the 60-day IL. They will remain in the organization, but their paths back to Washington just got tougher with their outright assignments to Triple-A.
Romero, a waiver pickup from the Rays during the season, was lit up by the Phillies in his one major league start Oct. 1. He’s likely to become a free agent once he clears this round of waivers following today’s move to designate him for assignment.
With six 40-man roster openings, the Nationals chose to protect a host of players from being lost in the Rule 5 draft and perhaps indicated a few prospects they believe could make their big league debuts in 2023.
Alu, the 25-year-old who turned heads with a .323/.372/.553 slash line in 59 games at Rochester late in the season, seems to fit that description. With third base a big question mark heading into the winter, the Nationals could give the 24th-round pick in the 2019 draft a shot at competing with Carter Kieboom and Ildemaro Vargas for the starting job next spring.
Vargas, by the way, agreed to terms today on a 2023 contract with the Nats, avoiding arbitration.
The Nationals also will consider left-handers Cronin and Ferrer for bullpen roles after protecting both players today. Cronin, a fourth-round pick in the 2019 draft, had a 2.42 ERA in 48 games between Rochester and Double-A Harrisburg. Ferrer, signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017, had a 2.48 ERA in 48 appearances between Harrisburg, high Single-A Wilmington and low Single-A Fredericksburg.
The other protected players aren’t as close to big-league ready, but each is still viewed as a potential long-term piece by the organization. De La Rosa, 20, remains one of the Nationals’ top prospects after batting .280/.358/.436 with 11 homers, 67 RBIs and 39 stolen bases in 101 games split between Fredericksburg and Wilmington. Rutledge, the organization’s first-round pick in 2019, had a 4.90 ERA in 20 starts for Fredericksburg after returning from a shoulder injury. Irvin, a fourth-round pick in 2018, had a 3.83 ERA in 24 starts between Wilmington and Harrisburg.
Among the players the Nationals chose not to protect from the Rule 5 draft were catcher Drew Millas, shortstop Jackson Cluff and right-hander Mason Denaburg. They are banking on none of those prospects being selected by another club and then sticking on a big league roster for the entire 2023 season.
The Nationals also announced the signings of two players to minor-league deals with an invitation to big league camp next spring: right-hander Hobie Harris and outfielder Derek Hill. Harris, 29, had a 2.04 ERA in 53 relief appearances for the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate this season. Hill, 26, owns a .240/.291/.339 slash line in 95 big league games with the Tigers over the last three years.