Nats face 40-man roster decisions on deadline day

One of baseball's key offseason deadlines arrives later today when all clubs must add eligible players to their 40-man rosters or leave them unprotected in next month's Rule 5 draft.

It's not a day that garners a ton of headlines, but it's an important day nonetheless because it offers some clues about an organization's feelings about some of its prospects, which ones it believes have a future and which ones less so.

And in the Nationals' case, there are several decisions to make before day's end.

There are at least three dozen prospects in the Nats' farm system who are eligible to be taken away in this year's Rule 5 draft, but only three spots currently open on the 40-man roster to protect them. So club officials need to make some really calculated decisions, not simply on a player's talent but on his readiness to play in the big leagues as soon as 2022.

The way this works: The Rule 5 draft gives all teams an opportunity to snatch unprotected minor leaguers away from other organizations for a nominal fee. The catch: Any player selected in the draft must remain on the active, 26-man big league roster (or on the injured list) the entire season or else be placed on waivers or offered back to his original club.

So teams are only going to draft players they believe can handle a full season in the majors despite a lack of minor league experience.

nats-nationals-park-overhead.jpgNot all minor leaguers are eligible to be drafted. Only those who signed their first contract at 18 or younger and have spent five years in professional baseball, or those who signed their first contract at 19 or older and have spent four years in professional baseball, can be selected. This year, that essentially means any high school players drafted in 2017, international players signed as teenagers in 2017 or college players drafted in 2018 who aren't already on the 40-man roster are eligible.

The most prominent Nationals prospects who fall into this category are outfielder Donovan Casey, left-handers Tim Cate and Evan Lee, catcher Israel Pineda and infielder Jordy Barley. None are considered among the organization's elite prospects, but all profile as potential big leaguers in the future, some sooner than others.

That timeline is key in making these decisions. Pineda and Barley both are 21, having just played at Single-A this season. You wouldn't think another organization would be willing to use a big league roster spot on either player yet, so they seem less likely to be protected.

Casey would seem to be the most likely choice to be added to the 40-man roster today. The 25-year-old outfielder was one of the four players the Nationals acquired from the Dodgers this summer in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner blockbuster deal. He spent most of the season at Double-A, but was promoted to Triple-A Rochester in mid-August. And he's played in the Arizona Fall League for the last month, a high-profile assignment. He would probably be snatched up by another organization.

Cate, a second-round pick in 2018 from Connecticut, had a rough season at Double-A Harrisburg (2-10, 5.31 ERA, 1.552 WHIP), but was much better his previous minor league season (2019 at both levels of Single-A). The lefty might be more of a longshot to stick in the majors this year as a Rule 5 pick, but the Nats might still think enough of him to not take any chances.

Lee, a 15th-round pick in 2018 from Arkansas, struck out 104 batters in only 77 innings this season at Single-A Wilmington, finishing with a 4.32 ERA and a 1.312 WHIP. He was sent to the Arizona Fall League, and though his numbers there haven't stood out, he continues to strike out more than one batter per inning pitched, making him an intriguing prospect.

The Rule 5 draft is scheduled to take place Dec. 8 in Orlando, the final event of the annual Winter Meetings. That is, it's scheduled for now. The event could be postponed or canceled if MLB institutes a lockout if the league and the MLB Players Association cannot agree to a new collective bargaining agreement before the current one expires Dec. 1.

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