The Upcoming Rule 5 Draft Crunch

I am always thinking about roster “stuff”: construction, transactions, contract status, et cetera et al. I don’t pay nearly as much attention to what’s happening on the field, so I have to fill my time with something, and this is what truly interests me.

In all honesty, I’ve been thinking about this particular topic since last season, but Wilbur’s recent in-depth breakdowns really got me thinking—just how many players can the Pittsburgh Pirates realistically protect from the 2021 Rule 5 Draft?

It’s a tricky question that goes well beyond just a list of eligible player names or who you think may be the most deserving of a roster spot, so I’m going to try and peer into my crystal ball and come up with a reasonable outlook of just what we can expect come mid-November when Reserve Lists must be filed with the Commissioner’s Office.

A big part of this exercise is working through important dates on the league calendar that affect spots on the 40-man roster; the first one to consider is the Trade Deadline on July 30th. While we obviously don’t know for sure, it’s probably a safe bet that the Pirates will be pretty big sellers at the deadline, but the better question is just how many players will be on their way out and what kind of return can we expect?

Combing over the roster, I came up with five names that I see a with a good chance of being traded at or around the deadline: Tyler Anderson, Adam Frazier, Richard Rodríguez, Chasen Shreve, and Chris Stratton. It could be more—Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, and Trevor Cahill have probably excluded themselves due to injury and poor performance, while there are outside possibilities with the likes of Jacob Stallings and Colin Moran—but a deadline deal column this is not. Those are the names I find most likely, so we’ll clear five spots off a full 40-man roster; however, the Pirates won’t leave those spots empty at this point, so they will need filled. Returns from injury took care of some of the spots on the active roster—while Brault returning from the 60-day IL filled one spot on the Reserve List—but I also purchased the contracts of Jandel Gustave and Shea Spitzbarth, two optionable relievers that I see getting a shot at some point before the season is out. I also think Anthony Alford will get another chance at some point this season, but I think the likeliest move to facilitate that will be the designation of Ka’ai Tom, so I switched those two players, leaving two open spots on the 40-man roster after all these additions and subtractions. I didn’t leave those vacant, but I’m not assigning a specific player to them. It’s hard to tell what kind of return these players could net, but it’s possible that the trades return a few players that are already on a 40-man roster. In fact, I would find that to be more likely. With so many names left to be protected over the off-season, it’s possible Ben Cherington targets players without regard to their pending Rule 5 status, but probably not likely.

Next on the calendar is the end of the World Series. The day after it’s completed players who are able will become free agents, while teams have five days to make decisions on contractual options and to remove players from the 60-day IL. In this alternate timeline the only pending free agent is Cahill, while Gregory Polanco has a $12.5 million option that is sure to be bought out at $3 million. However, those two slots would immediately be taken by Tommy John recipients Blake Cederlind and José Soriano. That leaves a full 40-man roster at the end of October/beginning of November, with the Reserve List needing set by November 19th.

I personally keep tabs of Rule 5 status for every player in the system, so referencing my list, I came up with a group of players that I personally think have at least some possibility of needing protected: Yerry De Los Santos, Cristofer Melendez, Lolo Sanchez, Santiago Florez, Travis MacGregor, Braeden Ogle, Hunter Stratton, Cody Bolton, Omar Cruz, Mason Martin, Cal Mitchell, Liover Peguero, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Travis Swaggerty, Tahnaj Thomas, and Eddy Yean.

That’s sixteen names, which is a ton, and it should go without saying that protecting even half of them probably isn’t realistic. Seven of them have been left unprotected before and went unpicked, so it’s possible that could happen again; however, coming off an actual minor league season after not having one prior to the last Rule 5 Draft could complicate that thinking somewhat. To me personally, Bolton, Martin, Mitchell, Peguero, Smith-Njigba, Swaggerty and Thomas are the most likely names to be added, with Florez currently making a strong case to make his way onto that list. I’ve been back-and-forth on Bolton and Swaggerty as of late, with both losing much of or all of this minor league season, meaning each have now lost two seasons, are coming off injuries, and have limited experience above High-A. It at least leaves some question as to their protection status, where it probably used to be a no brainer—if they didn’t make the roster during this season anyway—but I’d still be surprised if either were left unprotected.

Now that we’ve established how many players need protected and how many spots there are available, this is what I really wanted to figure out—what’s realistic? I’m going to do that by jumping ahead and looking at the 2022 Opening Day Roster.

When we consider players that need protected from the Rule 5 Draft, it’s often ones that aren’t necessarily ready to contribute to the Major League team, but the organization doesn’t want to risk them being lost for nothing. If they aren’t ready to start a season on the active roster or even an early callup, a club still needs to field a team with the rest of the 40-man roster. So, what does that look like heading into 2022?

At the start of the season, the team has to field a full 26-man roster, so that automatically leaves fourteen spots for players on option. Soriano and Cederlind will very likely start the season on the 60-day IL, but they wouldn’t be placed on that until they needed to be, which would be around the start of Spring Training. Obviously, at that point all of the Rule 5 players will have been added, so while those two will have affected how many the team could have theoretically protected, they won’t be taking up roster space to start the season. As for players we already know will be around, I believe players like Roansy Contreras and Oneil Cruz will not be starting the season on the roster or as potential early season callups, if only due to service time implications. While I considered placing Max Kranick and Rodolfo Castro in this group, I think they are slightly further along or aren’t on the same prospect level for their service to matter as much. If you include a now optionable Luis Oviedo, who at this point will seemingly need seasoning in the minor leagues, that’s three spots that won’t be productive to the Major League roster, leaving eleven spots for up-and-down players.

If you agree with my seven “sure things” who need protected this off-season, do you see any of them making the Opening Day roster or contributing before midsummer? Personally, I do not, meaning the Pirates would have at least ten players who won’t see the Major League roster until June or July—can a team survive with only four players that they are willing to call up at any time? While there are plenty of players currently on the roster I could see being moved off to make the necessary space, an active roster still needs to be filled—I can’t imagine a scenario in which that few optional players is doable or even makes sense. Consider that at this point in the 2021 season, the Pirates have already used thirty-four of their original 40-man roster to start the season, with two of the remaining six being designated for assignment before they could see the roster and their replacements being used in the majors.

Cherington has spoken at length about wanting to stockpile the system with as much talent as possible. That’s a valid and reasonable plan, but this is a possible pitfall when all of that talent is running on the same timeline. There are at least two remedies for this crunch, either of which fans may or may not be too thrilled with. Could we see a trade at the deadline involving a couple of these prospects that need protecting for younger, high upside prospects, or even an established Major League player with a controllable contract? Trades like that happen all the time, so it’s certainly possible.

The other possibility is simply gambling and leaving some of these players unprotected. Maybe they feel safe leaving Swaggerty or Bolton off the roster for the reasons I speculated, or they don’t see the likelihood of any given player getting picked or sticking for an entire season. I’d speculate that a rule change in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement could save them, but the current one doesn’t expire until December 1, which is after players need protected, so that is probably a moot point.

There is still a lot of season left, and maybe this is an unnecessarily early thought process, but it sure seems like the Pirates are shaping up to be facing a really tough roster crunch come this off-season.