The Nationals chose to protect two prospects from being selected in next month’s scheduled Rule 5 draft, adding both outfielder Donovan Casey and left-hander Evan Lee to their 40-man roster in advance of today’s league-wide deadline.
Casey and Lee were among the likeliest of the more than three dozen minor leaguers eligible for this year’s Rule 5 draft to be protected by the Nationals, who did have room to add one more player to their 40-man roster but opted to leave that spot open for now.
The 25-year-old Casey was one of the four prospects the Nats’ received from the Dodgers in this summer’s blockbuster deal for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. Catcher Keibert Ruiz and right-hander Josiah Gray are already in the big leagues, and right-hander Gerardo Carrillo already was on the 40-man roster, so Casey now joins the rest of the group in that category.
Rated by Baseball America as the “Best Athlete” in the Nationals farm system at season’s end, Casey excelled in his short time at Double-A Harrisburg following the July trade (.965 OPS in 12 games), but struggled after getting promoted to Triple-A Rochester (.536 OPS in 38 games). The Nats sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he is batting .255/.368/.447 in 13 games heading into today’s season finale.
A gifted defensive outfielder who can play all three positions, Casey could conceivably challenge for a spot on the Nationals’ opening day roster with a strong showing this spring. At minimum, he seems likely to make his major league debut sometime in 2022.
Lee, a 15th-round pick in 2018 from Arkansas, posted a 4.32 ERA at Single-A Wilmington this season, but struck out a whopping 104 batters in only 77 innings. Currently rated the 21st-best prospect in the Nationals system by MLBPipeline.com, the 24-year-old also has spent the last month in the AFL and has 10 strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings, allowing five runs on 10 hits and six walks.
Less experienced than Casey, Lee figures to need more time in the minors before challenging for a spot on the Nationals’ big league staff. He’s likely to open the 2022 season at Double-A, though as a member of the 40-man roster, now he’ll be a part of big league camp next spring.
The Nats must now hope none of the players they left unprotected will be scooped up by other clubs in the Rule 5 draft (scheduled for Dec. 5, but potentially delayed or canceled if there’s a labor work stoppage). Among the notable names they chose not to protect are left-hander Tim Cate, catcher Israel Pineda and infielder Jordy Barley. All would seem to be a stretch to stick in the major leagues for the entire 2022 season, the requirement for any player taken in the draft.