In case you hadn’t realized it, the Washington Nationals are a rebuilding franchise.
As a result, they’ve made roster moves over the last couple days to free up roster space for younger players as during next month’s Winter Meetings, the MLB will conduct its Rule 5 draft.
The Nationals will have the No. 1 pick.
Usually an annual tradition, the Rule 5 draft was skipped last season amidst the league’s labor negotiations – the same travesty that resulted in a condensed Spring Training and late start to the regular season. Since the Nationals haven’t selected a player in the Rule 5 draft since 2010 (likely a result of them being playoff contenders for most of the time since, so every roster space was precious), perhaps a crash course on what the Rule 5 draft is might be in order.
The Rundown on the Rule 5 Draft
In short, it’s an opportunity for teams to pry away players who have been trapped in another franchise’s minor league system for numerous years.
To be specific, players who have been in the minors for at least four seasons (i.e., since 2019) if they signed their professional contract at 19 years old, or those who have been for five seasons if they signed at 18 or younger are eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft.
There are a couple catches. First, teams can protect players from being exposed to the draft by adding them to their 40-man roster. Second, the team who drafts the player must retain him on their active 26-man roster or injured list for the entire 2023 season, or otherwise must return the player to their prior organization – with minor financial compensation received in return.
Easy enough, right? Why not just add any decent minor leaguer to the 40-man roster so they can’t be selected in the Rule 5 draft? Well, it’s not that simple. When it comes to roster construction, 40 isn’t as big of a number as you might think.
What’s Going On With the Rest of the Roster?
At the conclusion of the World Series, MLB free agency officially began. Among those whose contracts expired were pitchers Anibal Sanchez, Joe Ross, Erasmo Ramirez, Steve Cishek, Sean Doolittle and Will Harris, along with second baseman Cesar Hernandez.
What you may not know is that teams also had to return players who were on the 60-day injured list back to the 40-man roster, and soon thereafter determine whether to exercise mutual or team options that were negotiated into any players’ contracts.
The latter had no impact on the Nationals, as they declined their end of Nelson Cruz’s mutual option for 2023, opting to instead pay his $3 million buyout. However, the former was much more significant; as pitchers Stephen Strasburg, Tanner Rainey, Jackson Tetreault and Evan Lee, third baseman Carter Kieboom and outfielder Yadiel Hernandez were all reactivated onto the 40-man roster.
All of that activity got the Nationals to an unofficial total of 41 players on the 40-man roster. They then opted to designate pitcher Francisco Perez and catcher Tres Barrera, each of whom subsequently elected free agency, for assignment.
Who’s Left to Address?
Six of the Nationals’ top 30 prospects according to MLB Pipeline will be Rule 5 draft eligible: outfielder Jeremy De La Rosa (No. 10), right-handed pitchers Jackson Rutledge (No. 12) and Aldo Ramirez (No. 18), left-handed pitchers Jose Ferrer (no. 23) and Matt Cronin (No. 25), and catcher Drew Millas (No. 30). Fellow backstop Israel Pineda would’ve qualified if he hadn’t received a September call-up this season, and third baseman Jake Alu is an ascending prospect who is also eligible.
Due to injuries and lack of progress through the system, Ramirez is on the outside looking in. Millas is worth considering, but his mostly lost 2022 season raises some doubt as well. De La Rosa had a great half-season in Low-A Fredericksburg, but struggled mightily after being promoted, so it’s hard to imagine a team would manage to keep him in the majors for a full season.
That leaves Rutledge, Ferrer, Cronin and Alu as the players I’d feel most inclined to protect. Rutledge is far from the majors, but has the highest upside of any eligible prospects and could be stashed by someone in a mop-up relief role. Ferrer and Cronin could be needed out of the Nationals bullpen in 2023, and Alu has done nothing but hit for the last two seasons and can play multiple positions.
So, how can the Nationals make room for them? Right-handed pitcher Reed Garrett, infielder Lucius Fox and outfielder Josh Palacios seem to be the most likely roster casualties, due to a combination of age, lack of productivity and reluctance by the Nationals to use them at the major league level. If they opt to protect more than those four players and/or want any available spots to place a Rule 5 draftee, names like Cory Abbott, Seth Romero, Jordan Weems, and perhaps even Gerardo Carrillo or Yasel Antuna could find themselves on the hot seat.
The Nationals and all teams across the league will have to decide who to protect by Tuesday, November 15.
Details on Draft Day
The Rule 5 draft will take place on Wednesday, December 7, with the Washington Nationals first on the clock – as long as they have at least one vacancy on their 40-man roster. The draft progresses in reverse order of record (worst to best) and is an unlimited number of rounds, extending until all 30 teams consecutively opt to not select a player or all 40-man rosters are full.
We’ll have a better sense of who’s available next week, once the deadline to protect players has passed. However, here’s a list of MLB Pipeline’s eligible top 30 prospects for each franchise.
There’s plenty of opportunity for anyone the Nationals draft to play a role in 2023 and beyond. The most likely/common types of players to be selected are high-upside pitchers who can initially come out of the bullpen and utility players – either multi-positional infielders or outfielders, or someone who has recently transitioned from one position group to another (Odubel Herrera, an infielder-turned-outfielder for the Phillies, comes to mind as a fairly recent example).
Until then, we’re left to dream about the possibilities, but this year, those dreams likely won’t be for naught. I’d be very surprised if the Nationals didn’t draft at least one player, given their clear position as a rebuilding team in search of youth and long-term upside.