Roster moves coming on Rule 5 draft deadline day

There are two significant roster-related deadline days across baseball this week. On Friday, all teams must tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players, with the possibility looming that some could be non-tendered. But before we get to that, today all teams must decide which of their prospects they want to add to their 40-man rosters in order to protect them from being lost in the Rule 5 draft.

This is a day that usually didn’t garner much attention from the Nationals’ perspective when they were consistent contenders and basically sat out the Rule 5 draft for a decade. But it became important again last year, both because they owned (and used) the No. 1 pick in the draft and because they had a high number of prospects they wanted to protect, forcing them to part ways with several big leaguers.

A refresher course, for those who don’t remember how this works: The Rule 5 draft gives teams the opportunity to select unprotected minor leaguers away from other clubs for $100,000, with one critical caveat: Any player selected must remain on the major league roster the entire season (90 days on the active roster) or else be offered back to the original club.

The Nats, who hadn’t selected a Rule 5 player since 2010, finally got back in the game last year by taking Thaddeus Ward with the first overall pick. The right-hander missed several months with a shoulder injury but met the required standard by staying on the active roster enough to remain with the organization, which can now option him to Triple-A if it wants.

The Nationals did not, however, have anyone selected away from them in last year’s Rule 5 draft, evidence perhaps of some smart decisions they made to protect certain players and perhaps of the lack of big-league-ready talent further down the organizational depth chart.

The team wound up protecting six eligible prospects last year: Jake Alu, Jeremy De La Rosa, Jackson Rutledge, Jake Irvin, Matt Cronin and Jose A. Ferrer. It’s quite notable that four of those players wound up making their major league debuts, with Irvin in particular spending most of the season in D.C. and it’s notable that the two who didn’t (De La Rosa, Cronin) were recently dropped from the 40-man roster after disappointing seasons.

Among the players they did not protect last year: Drew Millas, Jackson Cluff and Mason Denaburg. None was drafted by another organization. Millas made his MLB debut in September, while Cluff and Denaburg struggled in the minors.

So, for the most part, the Nationals made some smart decisions in this regard last year. Now they face another round of decisions in advance of today’s deadline.

Which players are Rule 5-eligible? There’s a bit more to it than this, but essentially it’s anyone who was drafted out of high school or signed as a teenager out of a foreign country in 2019, or drafted out of college in 2020, and isn’t already on the 40-man roster.

There are a number of Nationals minor leaguers who fit that description, some of them ranked prospects.

At the top of the list are three pitchers: DJ Herz, Mitchell Parker and Cole Henry. Herz, drafted by the Cubs out of high school in 2019, was acquired in this summer’s trade deadline deal for Jeimer Candelario and immediately impressed at Double-A Harrisburg as well as this month in the Arizona Fall League. Parker, a fifth-round pick out of college in 2020, was less effective at Harrisburg and Triple-A Rochester this season than he was at Single-A Wilmington the previous season, but he remains a potential depth starter for the Nats in the near future. And Henry, a second-round pick out of college in 2020, was one of the organization’s top prospects before having thoracic outlet surgery in 2022 and then struggling in his first season back.

Herz seems like the most likely of the group to be protected, given that he very well could be in the Nationals’ 2024 pitching plans. Parker is more of a risk but could still be protected because he’s already at Triple-A. And Henry probably isn’t big-league-ready at this point, but if some other team out there was willing to stash him in their bullpen for a full season, it could theoretically get itself a legit prospect for only $100,000.

Other pitchers the Nats could consider protecting include relievers Tim Cate, Holden Powell, Orlando Ribalta, Zach Brzykcy and 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg, plus starter Andry Lara (who appears on prospect rankings but hasn’t pitched above Single-A yet).

There are fewer ranked position players among the Rule 5-eligible group. Most notable could be Kevin Made, the shortstop acquired with Herz in the Candelario trade. First baseman/outfielder Roismar Quintana, catcher Brady Lindsly and shortstops Cluff and Jordy Barley are also eligible but probably aren’t huge risks to be lost in the draft.

Once the Nationals decide how many players to protect, they’ll also have to clear some 40-man roster spots for them. A year ago, they cleared four spots on deadline day by outrighted Yadiel Hernandez, Jackson Tetreault, Evan Lee and Tommy Romero to the minors.

There are 39 players currently on the 40-man roster, so there’s a good chance several others will be dropped today. Those in danger could include third baseman Carter Kieboom, outfielder Alex Call, infielder Jeter Downs, catcher Israel Pineda and relievers Cory Abbott, Joe La Sorsa and Amos Willingham.

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