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The Nationals 40 man roster: What will they do before the Rule 5 Draft?

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The Nationals claimed reliever Eric Fornataro off of waivers Monday, which means that the 40 man roster is full once again. There are several players who still aren't on the 40 man roster that the Nats will likely try to protect by November 20 so that they aren't available in December's Rule 5 draft. Let's run down the roster and see if we can find some spots where the Nats can make room.

With several players likely to draw interest in December's Rule 5 Draft, Ryan Mattheus may have thrown his last pitch as a Washington National.
With several players likely to draw interest in December's Rule 5 Draft, Ryan Mattheus may have thrown his last pitch as a Washington National.
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

With the impending free agents now gone and the sixty day disabled list cleared, the Nats had one open spot on their forty man roster.  On Monday, they used that spot to claim Cardinals reliever Eric Fornataro.  The 26-year-old reliever may end up becoming another under the radar pickup by Rizzo, who also plucked Matt Thornton and Pedro Florimon out of the waiver pool during the 2014 season.  However, the Nats are probably going to have to make room for a handful of players in the next two weeks.

MLB's Rule 5 Draft will take place on December 11.  The deadline to place a player on the forty man roster and protect him is November 20.  The good folks at Nationals Arm Race put together a nice spreadsheet which breaks down when most of the players in the Nats farm system are eligible for the Rule 5 draft. There are a handful of players in the Nats system who will almost certainly draw interest if they're left unprotected.  Let's break some of them down.......

A.J. Cole

Cole would be Rule 5 eligible for the first time in December if he's not added to the forty man roster.  Cole split the 2014 season between Harrisburg and Syracuse.  He dominated in the first half of the season in AA, finishing with a 2.92 ERA, a 2.58 FIP, and a 61:15 strikeout to walk ratio in 71 innings before being promoted to Syracuse.  Unless you believe strongly in the power of the "pitcher win" (Cole went 7-0 in AAA), he wasn't nearly as impressive in AAA.  Cole had a 3.43 ERA, a 4.48 FIP, and a 50:17 strikeout to walk ratio in 63 innings for Syracuse.  He figures to enter the 2015 season as the Nats number two or three prospect.  While he'd most likely be ticketed to start the year at Syracuse, the expectation is that Cole will make his big league debut next season.  There's no way that the Nats leave him unprotected.

Brian Goodwin

Despite a strong pro debut in 2012, Goodwin has lost some of his luster as a prospect.  He's struggled quite a bit with his contact rate in the past two seasons.  He hasn't shown quite the power or stolen base production that the Nats were hoping for when they selected him with a supplemental round pick in 2011.  He spent the whole 2014 season on the Syracuse roster, though he missed the entire second half after being placed on the DL with a mysterious injury in July.  When healthy, he struggled to a .219/.342/.328 line with 4 HR and 6 SB (in 10 attempts).  I love his willingness to work the walk (15.2% BB rate), but that's cancelled out a bit by his poor contact rate (28.9% K rate).  Though he's been surpassed by Michael Taylor (and maybe Steven Souza, who fits better in a corner spot) on the center field depth chart, Goodwin is a toolsy player who would almost certainly be selected if left unprotected.  He still has enough of a ceiling to be an interesting trade piece, even if his future in the Nats organization is questionable.

Matt Grace

Unlike Cole and Goodwin, Grace is actually entering his second season of eligibility for the Rule 5 Draft.  He didn't draw much interest last season, but after posting a 1.17 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and a 62:25 strikeout to walk ratio in 77 innings between AA and AAA, he's sure to draw some interest this time around.  The 25-year-old lefty struggled as a starter from 2010 through 2012 before moving to the bullpen to begin the 2013 campaign.  Working out of the bullpen, he has a strong two pitch mix (sinker/slider) which is death to lefties and effective enough against righties so that it looks like he has a big league future.  He likely wouldn't be a top target in the Rule 5 draft if the Nats leave him unprotected, but relievers tend to be popular choices.  Grace's ability to work multiple innings (77 IP in 50 appearances) could make him attractive as a long reliever that a team could work in more easily in mop up duty while they see what they have.

Matt Skole

After missing almost the entire 2013 season with Tommy John surgery, Skole got his first real taste of the high minors this summer.  He didn't wow us with the power like he did in 2012 while he was in Hagerstown (27 HR), settling for a .241/.352/.399 line with 14 HR and 29 doubles at AA Harrisburg.  The 25-year-old first baseman still figures to have plenty of power moving forward with plus patience at the plate.  While it's not easy to see him cracking the roster in 2015 without significant improvement, he does possess a skill that isn't really present with many of the Nats minor league hitters... left-handed power.  While I could say that Cole or Goodwin would certainly be selected, I'm not so sure another team would draft Skole knowing that he'd have to stay on the big league roster all next season.

Wilmer Difo

Patrick gave us more of a full profile on Difo a few weeks ago. The 22-year-old second baseman had a breakout year at Hagerstown, batting .315/.360/.470 with 14 HR, 49 SB (58 attempts), 91 Runs, and 90 RBI.  It definitely appears as if there could be a future middle infield option for the Nats here, but he hasn't played above Low A ball.  I suppose it's possible that a team would fall in love with his potential and select him in the Rule 5 draft, but it's unlikely that he'd be selected in the major league portion.

How many spots will they need to clear?

In all likelihood, I'd say that they're going to need to clear two to four spots if they want to keep all of these players.  Cole, Goodwin, and probably Grace would be selected if they aren't placed on the forty man roster.  Skole could get picked, so the Nats could be proactive and try and find him a spot (if they can make room).  Difo seems unlikely to get picked.  Let's have a look at the forty man roster and see who, if anyone, could be expendable....

Spots Pitchers Primary Position Probable 25 man spot? Minor League Options Remaining
1 Aaron Barrett RP Yes 2
2 Jerry Blevins RP Yes 0
3 Tyler Clippard RP Yes 0
4 Ross Detwiler RP Yes 0
5 Doug Fister SP Yes 3
6 Gio Gonzalez SP Yes 2
7 Tanner Roark SP Yes 3
8 Craig Stammen RP Yes 1
9 Drew Storen RP Yes 3
10 Stephen Strasburg SP Yes 2
11 Matt Thornton RP Yes 2
12 Jordan Zimmermann SP Yes 2
13 Xavier Cedeno RP No 0
14 Erik Davis RP No 2
15 Eric Fornataro RP No 3
16 Taylor Hill SP No 2
17 Taylor Jordan SP No 2
18 Ryan Mattheus RP No 0
19 Matt Purke SP No 1
20 Felipe Rivero RP No 1
21 Sammy Solis SP No 2
22 Blake Treinen SP No 2
Catchers
23 Jose Lobaton C Yes 0
24 Wilson Ramos C Yes 1
25 Sandy Leon C No 0
26 Jhonatan Solano C No 0
Infielders
27 Ian Desmond SS Yes 2
28 Danny Espinosa 2b Yes 2
29 Kevin Frandsen 2b Yes 0
30 Anthony Rendon 3b Yes 1
31 Ryan Zimmerman 1b Yes 3
32 Pedro Florimon SS No 0
33 Jeff Kobernus 2b/OF No 1
34 Tyler Moore 1b No 0
Outfielders
35 Bryce Harper LF Yes 1
36 Nate McLouth CF Yes 1
37 Steven Souza Jr. LF Yes 2
38 Denard Span CF Yes 1
39 Jayson Werth RF Yes 0
40 Michael Taylor CF No 2

The first columns that we're going to have to look at are the two on the right.  We'll notice that a handful of players who probably aren't expected to make the 25 man roster next season are out of options.  This list includes......

  • Xavier Cedeno - I guess you can never have enough lefties, but the Nats currently have three left-handed relievers that would be expected to make the opening day roster in 2015 (Blevins, Detwiler, Thornton) and one of the players they might be better off protecting in the Rule 5 draft just happens to be a left-handed reliever.
  • Ryan Mattheus - We all love the Firework because he was a key piece of the bullpen during the Nats 2012 breakthrough season.  Still, he hasn't had a lot of success these past two seasons.  His 2013 performance (6.37 ERA in 35 innings with the big club) saw him suffer from some bad luck, as his FIP was just 3.44.  He didn't have quite as much of an excuse this past year, as he had a 5.80 ERA (4.28 FIP) in 40+ innings at Syracuse before throwing a surprisingly solid 8.2 innings with the big club in September.  As he's out of options and unlikely to make the roster, it could be time to cut ties.  It's possible that the Fornataro claim (Fornataro has options remaining) was Rizzo being proactive since he's about to release a right-handed reliever who is out of options.
  • It's disappointing to see that every catcher outside of Wilson Ramos is out of minor league options.  It's expected that Lobaton will again be the backup in 2015, but neither Leon nor Solano have any minor league options remaining.  It's hard to imagine the Nats releasing either of them.  They'll likely try to sign at least one of them to a minor league deal.
  • Moore might get that final bench spot (I only put 24 in the "Yes" category, and included Souza, who isn't a lock), though the Nats will also be looking for a second or third baseman this offseason.  Unless he's traded over the offseason, it's hard to imagine him not at least getting an invitation to Spring Training.
  • The lack of middle infield depth probably means that Florimon is unlikely to be released to make room, though he's out of options himself.  I really can't foresee a 25 man roster that has both Florimon and Kevin Frandsen, who I think also needs to be in this discussion.  Florimon is a plus defender at SS who can slide around the infield but can't hit a lick....
  • Frandsen is a mediocre defender at second base who can slide around the infield but can barely hit a lick.  He's out of options himself.  Faced with that last spot on the roster being a plus defender who can't hit at the big league level or a slightly below average defender who isn't much of a hitter himself.... well.... you make the call.

Other options

Kobernus, who was actually selected by the Tigers a few years ago, could always be an option, but it's doubtful they'd release him.  His hitting hasn't really come along in the minors, though he's capable defensively and may be their best pure stolen base threat in the system.... It's possible that the Nats decide to just cut ties with Matt Purke, who has a fourth minor league option this season because of his injury (Tommy John surgery).  He'll spend most (or all) of next season on the sixty day disabled list recovering, and with an 8.04 ERA (5.84 FIP) in his eight AA starts prior to season-ending surgery in 2014, he doesn't look like he's going to step off the disabled list in 2016 and be ready to contribute.

There's also the possibility that they try and trade one or more players on the forty man roster before November 20.  I won't speculate on that today because there's a variety of things that they could do that might free up a spot.  They could try and deal a player on the forty man roster to help restock the farm system.  They could try and trade one or two players on the forty man roster to secure a second or third baseman for next season (and beyond?).

What would I do?

They clearly have to make room for Cole, and I expect them to make room for Goodwin and Grace.  Fornataro helped make Ryan Mattheus more expendable, so it's time to grant Mattheus free agency, freeing up a spot for Cole....  Xavier Cedeno is likely out the door, and Matt Grace actually fills that vacancy with a similar player (left-handed reliever) who can start the year in Syracuse.  That last spot is tough....

If I'm playing GM, I'd probably rather hold onto both minor league catchers and hope that I can clear at least one of them through waivers (I don't think either will be claimed) during Spring Training.  That leaves us with the two middle infielders.  I'd prefer to improve the bench with a stronger hitter, but if neither of the two options is much of a hitter, I'll take the younger (28 vs. 32), cheaper (Florimon is still a year away from arbitration, Frandsen is entering his final year of arbitration) guy with the better glove.  I don't see Rizzo cutting Frandsen, the "glue guy."  I just don't think Frandsen really adds much.  I'd rather keep the potential of Goodwin (or trade the potential of Goodwin) than keep Frandsen for one more year at $1.5 million or so.

I'll take my chances that Skole and Difo make it through the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft.  As long as they're placed on the AAA reserved list (38 more protected players beyond the 40 man MLB roster), they can't be selected in the minor league portion of the draft.  I don't think either are ready to spend a full season at the big league level even on a second division team.