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The Mariners and the 2017 Rule 5 draft: an introduction

Some clubs don’t have room for all their prospects. The Mariners are not one of these clubs. But will they add anyone?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Seattle Mariners
With arms wide open/Under the retractable roof/Welcome to this place/Players whose clubs didn’t have room for you
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

By the end of the day today, teams must set their 40-man rosters (and their minor-league rosters) in anticipation of the Rule 5 Draft. If you need a refresher on the Rule 5, you can find that here, but here’s the quick-n-gritty version: Rule 5 ensures that teams can’t bury players in the minors forever by allowing anyone who isn’t on their organization’s 40-man to be drafted by another club. To be eligible, a player must have been 19 or older when he signed and have accrued four years of service time (or 18 and under with five years of service time). The new organization pays a fee to the original team, and the player must be kept on the new organization’s 25-man roster all year or offered back to their original team for a slightly smaller fee. This year the Rule 5 Draft will be held Thursday, December 14, at 6 AM PT.

This is one time where the Mariners having a thinned-out farm system doesn’t hurt them; several other teams are facing a roster crunch, but the Mariners actually have space on their 40-man. Ian Miller and Chris Mariscal are assets who fall under this category, but Mariscal just had a taste of Double-A this year, and Miller has limited time in Triple-A. Probably both of these players would be safe if the Mariners choose not to protect them. The 40-man roster currently sits at 36, so the Mariners have a few open slots for off-season additions.

Because players have to remain on a club’s 25-man-roster all year or get offered back to their original club, usually those who get chosen in Rule 5 are those from the AA/AAA levels. However, with so many rebuilding clubs, teams can take chances on low-level, high-upside prospects they can bury on an MLB roster for a year. The Rockies stole Luis Perdomo—who hadn’t pitched above High-A—away from the Cardinals in 2015 and then traded him to San Diego, who were able to keep Perdomo in the majors all year, and thus his rights permanently transferred to San Diego. This year Perdomo was a 1.6 fWAR player for the Padres, soaking up 160+ innings. While there are success stories from the Rule 5 draft—Josh Hamilton, Joakim Soria, Shane Victorino, Miguel Batista—it’s a significant investment to carry one of these players on a 25-man roster for the whole season.

This year’s Rule 5 presents some especially interesting players close to the major league level thanks to roster crunches across baseball. The Cubs, the Yankees, the Twins, the Rays, and the Blue Jays all have large numbers of prospects who are Rule 5 eligible, and several of the Rule 5 eligible players are some of their organization’s top prospects who are must-adds to the 40-man: Brent Honeywell (TB), Gleyber Torres (NYY), Stephen Gonsalves (MIN), Ariel Jurado (TEX), Austin Meadows (PIT), and Eloy Jimenez (CWS). Old friends Tyler O’Neill (STL), Zack Littell (MIN), and Ryan Yarbrough (TB) are all up, too.

The Mariners aren’t rebuilding and every roster spot is precious, so they can’t just go adding people willy-nilly. However, the Rule 5 Draft has three phases: the MLB phase, where players must be added to the 25-man; and then the Triple-A and Double-A phases, where they need not be. The minor league Rule 5 draft will probably be helpful to the Mariners this year since they need to fill out their depleted minor league roster, but don’t get excited; these are players who rank outside of their organization’s top 100 prospects.

If the Mariners were to select someone in the Rule 5 draft, they will probably look for either a fourth outfielder type (Gamel and Heredia both have an option remaining), meaning the Mariners could be flexible there depending on health/performance) or, more likely, a bullpen arm. They could possibly look for an upgrade for Motter at the utility spot but that type of player is much less likely to be available.

After clubs set their 40-mans, I’ll write a follow-up to this post with some notable names to look at. Here are some glimpses at a few of the more well-stocked clubs:

Yankees - Everyone knows about the Yankees’ impending roster crunch, and the club has done an admirable job of shifting prospects over the past year to extract value from those players. However, they still have some tough decisions to make. The Yankees added OF Jake Cave to their 40-man so he wouldn’t become a minor league free agent, which probably means that—like Nick Rumbelow, also added to the 40 for the same reason before being dealt to Seattle—they’re looking to move him. If no one takes Cave in trade, the Yankees will have a tough decision to make with the lefty slugger who put up a 156 wRC+ at Triple-A this year. Fellow outfielder Billy McKinney had a similarly impressive 140 wRC+ this year and a strong showing at the AFL, where he played first base. If McKinney can play first base, that might put fellow 1B Mike Ford into a bind, as he’s a couple years older. He’s never had a wRC+ of lower than 120 in the minors. This doesn’t even get in to all the pitchers they might need to protect. And I didn’t even mention Thairo Estrada! Stupid Yankees and their stupid stacked farm system.

Cubs - The Cubs have no room at the inn on their major league roster for position players, and their pitching staff needs a closer and a starter or two. They’ll need to add three of their prospects to the 40-man in SP Adbert Alzolay, SP Oscar de la Cruz, and INF David Bote, who sparkled in the AFL. That gives them just two or three open spots, and assuming they’ll be buying a closer in free agency (and maybe a starter, as well), should expose a class of players to Rule 5 that’s especially deep in relief pitching prospects. There are some intriguing outfield names here, too; I’m a big fan of Bijan Rademacher, and it’s only half because I like saying his name out loud to myself (of course, there’s always the possibility the Cubs DFA Jacob Hannemann again and we get him right back).

Twins - The Twins have no room on their major league roster, period. They had 45 at the beginning of the off-season thanks to some long-term DL stints. They’re going to have to make room for top pitching prospect Stephen Gonsalves this year, and will need to find space for ex-Mariner RHP Zack Littell and probably 1B Lewin Diaz. Former first-rounder Kohl Stewart has had some struggles with injuries and effectiveness but he’s an extreme groundball pitcher who can touch mid- to upper-nineties. There are several other interesting pitchers in Minnesota, including Jake Reed, Mason Melotokis, Nick Burdi, and Luke Bard. The Twins can’t protect them all.

Rays - Like the Twins, Tampa Bay has a full 40-man. Unlike the Twins, the Rays’ roster is full of players like Andrew Kittredge. 21 players on the Rays’ 40-man are pitchers, but they need to add at least one pitcher (top prospect Brett Honeywell) to that list, and maybe two, if they want to protect former Mariner Ryan Yarbrough. Additionally, the Rays need to protect top-100 prospect Jake Bauers, and may want to look at protecting RHP Yonny Chirinos and OF Justin Williams.

There are other interesting players out there who might be available, like RHP Evan Mitchell (Reds), who went unprotected in the draft last year; his fastball sits 92-95 with a power slider that can touch 90. A groundball pitcher who can throw multiple innings, Mitchell put up a 3.23 FIP in 39 innings at Triple-A this year. Some team will turn up a useful player this year; thanks to the relative value of 25-man spots, it might not be the Mariners, but they might be able to capitalize on a player who has been DFA’d by his organization in order to make space. Also, some teams might try to deal away prospects they feel they’d lose in the Rule 5 anyway in order to recoup some value from them, which seems like a much more likely way for the Mariners to get involved in the Rule 5 goings-on.

[Programming note: if you’re looking for the final summation of the off-season plan, that’ll be up tomorrow. We are sorry for the delay. Please tell Jerry to cool it with the trading for a second.]