Red Sox face 40-man roster decisions ahead of Rule 5 Draft

CLEARWATER, FLORIDA - MARCH 07: Jeter Downs #20 of the Boston Red Sox at bat against the Philadelphia Phillies during the fourth inning of a Grapefruit League spring training game on March 07, 2020 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
CLEARWATER, FLORIDA - MARCH 07: Jeter Downs #20 of the Boston Red Sox at bat against the Philadelphia Phillies during the fourth inning of a Grapefruit League spring training game on March 07, 2020 in Clearwater, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

The Red Sox have several prospects to protect from the Rule 5 Draft

One of the more interesting and overlooked aspects of the MLB offseason is approaching: The Rule 5 draft. That means important decision are looming for the Boston Red Sox.

The Rule 5 draft was put into place to help speed the development of prospects drafted out of high school, or those signed internationally at high school age or younger. Players signed at age 18 or younger must be added to their organization’s 40-man roster within five seasons of signing, or they become Rule 5 draft eligible. If the player was drafted or signed at age 19 or older, they become Rule 5 draft eligible after the completion of their fourth minor league season.

If drafted by another organization, the player must be added to the 26-man active roster, and remain there for the duration of the season. If they are not added to the 26-man active roster (or injured list), or if they are optioned to the minor leagues at any point during the season, they can be returned to the organization they originally signed with for a fee of $50,000. If an organization selects a player in the Rule 5 draft and they are kept on the 26-man active roster, they must pay the players original organization a fee of $100,000.

The 2021 Rule 5 Draft will take place on December 8, as part of Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings. All thirty organizations have until November 19 to finalize their 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 Draft.

Most players exposed to the Rule 5 draft are not nearly ready to be contributors at the Major League level, but other organizations are tempted by the opportunity to get first-round, or highly skilled raw talent into their organization with the hopes that their development plan and a change of scenery land them a diamond in the rough without having to invest the financial resources that it would take to acquire a player of that skill set on draft day.

In most cases, Rule 5 players are either returned to their original organization or are kept on the active roster through IL manipulation for the entire season before being optioned to the minor leagues by their new team. However, there have been examples of players having All-Star careers as a result of the opportunity presented in being selected through the Rule 5 draft. Some of the most notable Rule 5 players are Johan Santana, Josh Hamilton, and Dan Uggla. The Red Sox seem to have found a Rule 5 gem of their own, selecting key, high-leverage reliever, Garrett Whitlock, away from the Yankee organization.

The Red Sox face some 40-man roster decisions ahead of the 2021 Rule 5 draft. They have a list of players that will be eligible that each make a unique case for protection. With a finite number of spots on the 40-man roster, the organization must decide if the eligible players and their current development path outweigh the potential of the player up for replacement for the coveted 40-man roster spot.

This year’s crop of eligible players is headlined by Jeter Downs, a current organizational Top-5 prospect, and the key prospect coming back from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade. Downs is joined on the Rule 5 eligible list by notable prospects Gilberto Jimenez (OF), Brayan Bello (RHP), Thad Ward (RHP), Kutter Crawford (RHP), and John Winckowski (RHP).

It’s a certainty that Downs will be protected. It’s also very likely Jimenez and Bello are protected as well. The Red Sox have an offensive heavy farm system, but Bello emerged as their top pitching prospect heading into 2022. The 22-year-old Dominican has never pitched above Low-A coming into 2021, but blew through two levels in the minors to finish with a 7-3 record, a 3.87 ERA, and 132k in 95 innings pitched.

Jimenez jumped on the prospect radar in 2019 after hitting .359 with 14 stolen bases and showing elite defense in his first taste of stateside professional baseball after signing for just $10,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2017. He hit .306 this year in his first full season. While he hasn’t taken an at-bat above Low-A, his speed and defense may stir enough intrigue for an organization to consider him as a late inning defensive replacement and baserunning threat on the end of the bench for the duration of a full major league season to get that type of talent into their system.

Beyond those three, the right-handed pitching trio of Ward, Crawford, and Winckowski all rank among the Top-30 Red Sox prospects, and could provide depth to a team looking to add fresh arms and new faces to their pitching staffs without having to trade for a pitcher or look to the free agent market for pitching.

Ward, who was the Red Sox minor league pitcher of the year in 2019 after posting a 2.14 ERA and 11.2K/9 over 126 innings over two Class A levels, underwent Tommy John surgery in June, and while he started throwing off of flat ground last week, he’s not expected to pitch in game action until the midway point of 2022.

While the Red Sox found a key member of their pitching staff in Garrett Whitlock coming off of TJ through the Rule 5 draft last year, he had been cleared to resume normal pitching activities by the time Spring Training started.

Crawford pitched well enough in AAA to earn an emergency start down the final stretch with Boston, as the team dealt with injuries and COVID. He projects to be a back of the rotation starter, and even with his brief experience with the big league club, is likely to go unprotected and be exposed to the Rule 5 draft.

Winckowski, who went 9-4 with a 3.94 ERA between AA and AAA in 2021, is on course to make his MLB debut at some point in 2022. Like Crawford, he projects to be a back end starter, and is on the fence to be added to the 40-man roster to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 draft.

The Red Sox do have room available on the 40-man roster to add players without making corresponding moves. They’ll likely be in search of a mid to back rotation starter in free agency with the news of Eduardo Rodrigues signing in Detroit, and with reported dialogue ongoing with trade deadline acquisition and free agent Kyle Schwarber, it’s a possibility that two of the currently available 40-man spots will be occupied ahead of the Rule 5 draft.  If the organization decides to add additional players via free agency or the trade market in the coming week, additional roster spots will need to be used.

Players currently on the 40-man roster who my find themselves in danger of being removed to prevent the Rule 5 eligible prospects from being drafted include: Eduardo Bazardo (RHP), Phillips Valdez (RHP), Ronaldo Hernandez (C), Hudson Potts (1B/3B), Jeisson Rosario (OF).

Those players, along with 2016 first-round pick Jay Groome, and Boston’s top pitching prospect Bryan Mata, were added to the 40-man roster ahead of the 2020 Rule 5 draft to protect them from being selected by another organization.

Bazardo made a brief cameo with the big league club in 2021, and Valdez looked like he might play a key role in the bullpen down the stretch before being battered in consecutive appearances in early September. Rosario and Potts were part of the prospect package that came to Boston as part of the deal that sent Mitch Moreland to San Diego ahead of the 2019 trade deadline. Both present several raw, loud tools, but are behind on their developmental track in relation to signing their first professional contract. Hernandez came to Boston from Tampa Bay for relief pitchers Chris Mazza and Jeffery Springs prior to the start of spring training in 2021. Hernandez actually profiles similarly to Christian Vazquez, and could become the heir apparent to the current backstop if an extension is not worked out to keep Vazquez beyond 2022.

Another player who could be at least temporarily jettisoned from the 40-man roster is infielder Jonathan Arauz. The Red Sox selected Arauz from the Astros in the 2019 Rule 5 draft, and his time with the organization has met the requirements to keep him from being exposed to the upcoming draft. Because Arauz still has minor league options left, the Red Sox can remove him from the 40-man roster and outright him to the minors without exposing him to other teams by putting him on waivers.

In all, the Red Sox have nearly 50 players in their minor league system that are Rule 5 draft eligible. Beyond the top organizational prospects mentioned above, other recognizable names to keep an eye on include outfielder Franchy Cordero and relief pitcher Durbin Feltman.

Cordero, acquired from Kansas City as part of the trade that sent fan favorite, Andrew Benintendi, to the Royals was underwhelming in his 136 plate appearances with the big league club in 2021, hitting .189 with a .497 OPS.

Feltman, a third round pick in 2018, was thought to be on the fast track to the Major Leagues. A college reliever with a 99 mph fastball, and a pro debut that saw him pitch to a 1.93 ERA with 36 strikeouts in 23 innings over three minor league levels in 2018, he looked to be the heir apparent to the departing Craig Kimbrel. His time in the minor leagues beyond that debut season has been plagued by control issues, and he’s yet to make it to the big leagues.

Neither player is currently on the Red Sox 40-man roster.

We’ll find out on November 19 which players the Red Sox choose to protect, and which players will be exposed to the Rule 5 Draft. On December 8, we’ll find out if the Red Sox have the type of currently underdeveloped talent that other organizations are willing to take a flier on. We’ll also see if Chiam Bloom and the scouting and player development department have identified any players from other organizations that could find their way to the Major League roster in the mold of Garrett Whitlock or Jonathan Arauz.

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