With the bleak prospect of a Red Sox-Cardinals World Series confronting us, we continue our pivot into the offseason. In Chapter 1, I took a brief look back at 2013. In Chapter 2, I offered a modest proposal on possible tweaks to the roster that the Nationals could consider. This chapter will look at a few basics of roster mechanics that the Nationals will need to negotiate as the team moves through the winter months.
Currently the Washington Nationals have 42 players on their 40 man roster. This is because two players, Ross Detwiler and Christian Garcia, are on the 60 day disable list; such players do not count against the 40 man limit during the season. They will lose that exemption five days after the conclusion of the World Series. But since there are two players (Dan Haren and Chad Tracy) who will become free agents on that same day, the Nationals will not have to make any moves. Yet.
But another date will likely force some moves. The MLB Winter Meetings will be held from December 9-12. On the last day of the winter meetings is the Rule 5 draft. The Rule 5 draft was developed as a way of keeping teams from unfairly holding major league ready talent in the minor leagues. The standard minor league baseball contract generally lasts for seven years. But if the player has not made the 40 man major league roster within a certain number of years, then he may be claimed by another team through the Rule 5 draft. The number of years depends on the age of the player on the June 5 preceding the signing of his first contract. If he is 18 or younger on that date then he cannot be taken in the Rule 5 draft until after four minor league seasons. If he is 19 or older on that date, then he can be taken in the Rule 5 draft after three minor league seasons. The catch: in order to retain the drafted player the drafting team must keep him on the 25 man active roster for the entire season (excepting DL time – there are special rules about how to handle that time that I’m not going to go into here). And this is exactly what happens for the vast majority of Rule 5 players. This is what happened to both of the Nats selected in the major league portion of the rule 5 draft in 2012 (Danny Rosenbaum and Jeff Kobernus). Both of the Nats selected in the 2011 Rule 5 draft (Erik Komatsu and Brad Meyers) were also returned, although Meyers’s return was delayed by his injury. The last player that the Nationals actually lost in the Rule 5 draft was Michael Martinez in 2010. I know some Phillies fans that have never forgiven the Nationals (or Ruben Amaro) for that. Still, no team wants lose talent if they can avoid it. To keep their record of not losing talent intact, the Nationals must examine their minor league players that are eligible for the Rule 5 draft and elevate those that they don’t want to risk losing to the 40 man roster.
Guess Who’s Coming to Nats Town
To find out what Nationals’ minor league players are potentially available in the 2013 Rule 5 draft I used a table originally compiled by Brian Oliver from the old Nats Farm Authority site, now maintained by SpringfieldFan. Of those players available in the 2013 Rule 5 draft, I believe that two (LHP Sammy Solis and OF Steven Souza, both currently playing in the AFL) are absolute locks for the 40 man roster. Solis was a 2nd round pick in 2010, and is frequently mentioned by Rizzo and his staff as a player they believe will play at the major league level.
Steven Souza is an interesting case. Drafted in the third round in 2007 out of high school, he was actually available for both the 2011 and 2012 Rule 5 drafts but was not selected. This is because, frankly, he wasn’t very good before 2012. As in, possibly on the verge of being released. But he was good in 2012, putting up 23 HRs and a .297/.366/.572 slash at Class A Hagerstown and High A Potomac. He actually hit better at Potomac after being promoted. Despite that showing, he went unprotected and unselected in the 2012 Rule 5 draft. This is likely because one good season does not a prospect make. But Souza kept right on raking at AA Harrisburg this year, posting a .300/.396/.557 and stealing 20 bases while only being caught six times. And he has continued to play well in the AFL, with four hits, five walks and a league-leading six stolen bases in just 18 plate appearances. Because Souza was drafted out of high school he’s still only 24. Clinching his roster status is that I believe that the Nationals will lose him after this season because this is his 7th (and final) season on his minor league contract. If they don’t promote him he will be a minor league free agent. That’s not going to happen.
In addition to Solis and Souza, I think it’s possible that the Nationals also elevate RHRP Aaron Barrett. A 9th round pick in the 2010 draft out of the University of Mississippi. He has always been able to get strikeouts (12 K/9 for his career), but his first two years he couldn’t find the plate (42 BB in 47.2 IP). But, like Souza, the light seemingly went on and over the past two years Barrett has advanced from A to A+ to AA baseball. He was Harrisburg’s closer in 2013, with a 1-1 record and 26 saves, a 2.15 ERA and a 1.093 WHIP. He K’d 12.3 batters per nine innings and walked 2.7. Working against Barrett is that he turns 26 on January 2, so he’s no longer young as these things go. It’s also not clear how well he projects to the majors. According to Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt:
[Barrett's] stuff is pretty average — it's an average fastball (91-92) and a slightly above-average slider that eats up hitters at lower levels. He's got a chance to be a big league middle reliever, but not more than that.
Still, that was written before Barrett played well at AA this year, and a relief pitcher is the kind of guy that can be stashed as the last man in the bullpen and so may be vulnerable to the Rule 5.
Beyond those three are a few other players who might be protected: LHPs Matthew Grace and Daniel Rosenbaum; RHP Neil Holland; CF Michael Taylor and C Adrian Nieto. Rosenbaum was actually claimed and returned in last year’s Rule 5 draft but has been, to put it charitably, inconsistent at AAA. I believe that Nieto is the most likely of these candidates to be selected, because catchers who can hit are a commodity. However, Nieto hasn’t been a consistent impact bat, has not played above A+ ball, and according to Luke Erickson at Nationals Prospects, he has a defensive hole in his game as he struggles to block pitches.
Some Lovely Parting Gifts
With the 40 man roster full up, every new addition means someone must go. Haren and Tracy becoming free agents will make room for Detwiler and Garcia to return off of the 60 day DL. After that, who’s next?
Last in, first out? Tyler Robinson and Mauro Gomez were both waiver pickups. Robinson was picked up last June off waivers from Minnesota and assigned to Syracuse, where he put up a 3.05 ERA and a 1.538 WHIP. Not good numbers for a relief pitcher, even one that throws lefty. He’s almost certainly the first off the island. Mauro Gomez, picked up off waivers last month from Toronto, is interesting. He destroys AAA pitching (77 HRs, .289/.350/.542 split over 345 games in the last three years) and was respectable in 37 games for Boston in 2012 (.275/.324/.422, 9XBH, 2HR). But for whatever reason, possibly defensive limitations, he’s never gotten an extensive major league trial. He may be a bit better offensively than Tyler Moore, but he is also nearly 3 years older and can’t play OF. The Nats can't DH him, and haven’t even assigned him a number yet, so draw your own conclusions.
After those two, longer tenured players become vulnerable. Is this the year the Nationals give up on Chris Marrero? I wouldn't be shocked if the Nats hang onto Gomez and let Marrero go first - he's four years younger, sure, but he just lacks the power to play 1b at the major league level. "Warning track power" and sac flies are not what you want from a corner infielder. Gomez has 77 HRs in three AAA seasons, Marrero has 25. Corey Brown is vying for the Roger Bernadina role in Nats Town, and he may get it. But if he doesn’t he will be gone before Opening Day because he’s out of options. If the Nats think they have their 5th outfielder elsewhere (Eury Perez? Tyler Moore?), Brown may go sooner. But Brown hits from the left side, which may be useful on the bench. So before Brown goes, at least one of the two LHRP (Fernando Abad and Xavier Cedeno) may go. Abad probably goes before Cedeno, who was used in some pretty high leverage situations in 2012. But bullpen lefties are a need for the Nationals, so Abad may stick around unless the Nationals replace him with a free agent (O’Flaherty!). A dark horse here could be Ryan Mattheus, if the new manager lacks the faith in him that Davey Johnson apparently had in spades.
The Nationals are going to have a bit of a roster crunch this year even if they don’t bring in any new players. One possibility would be to package some of their roster depth for an impact player the way they did in the Gio Gonzalez trade. That would require finding a player who meets your needs on a team willing to make that trade – easier said than done. Solis and Souza can be stashed pretty painlessly. Adding another player, such as Barrett or Nieto, would likely mark the end of Marrero’s tenure. And of course signing/acquiring a pitcher to compete for the #4/#5 starter role (Josh Johnson?), a lefty bench bat (David DeJesus?), a LHRP (Eric O’Flaherty?) or a backup catcher (Dioner Navarro?) would also require jettisoning a player, likely from the same position as the signed player. Your call, Mr. Rizzo …