This Friday marks the deadline by which all clubs must add any eligible player whom they want to protect from the Rule 5 Draft to the 40-man roster. Like that agonizing icebreaker game “two truths and a lie,” the way I see it, the Mariners have two easy decisions to make and one harder one.
First up, a Rule 5 Draft refresher (feel free to skip this paragraph if you are a Rule 5 maven): the Rule 5 Draft ensures clubs can’t stash prospects away for years upon years by forcing them to add those players to the 40-man roster after a certain amount of time (within five seasons after signing for players who signed at 18 or younger; within four seasons for players who signed at 19 or older) or risk having those players snatched away from them in the Rule 5 Draft. Clubs draft in reverse order of the standings, meaning the Mariners will again pick kind of towards the middle of the pack if they do opt to take a player, and if they do select a player, the selecting club pays the original club $100K. But the real kicker is this: any player selected in the Rule 5 has to remain on the active roster for the selecting club for the entire season—so the 26-man, not the 40-man. (A Rule 5 selection can go on the IL at some point, but must remain on the active roster for 90 days at minimum). If that condition is not met, first the player goes on outright waivers to see if any other team wants to put in a claim; next, the player must be offered back to the original club for $50K, at which point the club can accept and return the player to their minor-league system, or can allow the player to remain with the selecting club in their minor-league system. Rule 5 picks can be traded, but all the same roster rules apply.
Because it can be tricky to shield a player who likely isn’t MLB-ready on the bench for a whole season, the types of players who get selected in Rule 5 Drafts are often bullpen arms, and the types of clubs that make Rule 5 selections are rebuilding and have ample roster space. The Mariners have made three Rule 5 selections under Jerry Dipoto, one in each of the past three seasons: Yankees 1B Mike Ford in 2017, who was returned to NY; RHP Brandon Brennan in 2018 (which was largely a workaround because they tried to sign him and he politely declined); and RHP Yohan Ramirez from the Astros in 2019. Point of order: even though the 2020 season wasn’t technically a full season in the traditional sense, Rule 5 picks don’t have to make up the missing games in 2021, so Ramírez is now a full-fledged member of the Mariners organization.
There’s also a minor-league stage of the Rule 5 draft where Triple-A and Double-A teams also have rosters that “protect” players from being selected, but an MLB-level selection trumps being placed on a minor-league roster, because duh, otherwise that would defeat the purpose of having the draft in the first place.
This year, the Mariners enter the Rule 5 deadline period with 35 of their 40 allotted spots spoken for, leaving just five open spots for adding via promotion to the 40-man, the Rule 5, free agency signings, and trades. That’s not as much of a roster crunch as the perpetually cronched Yankees or Rays, but it’s not a ton of room to operate with, either. Two of those spots will immediately be consumed by no-brainer add OF Taylor Trammell, the Top-100 prospect acquired from San Diego in the Austin Nola deal, and young RHP Juan Then, who was traded away and then re-acquired by Dipoto. Then is the bigger wild card of the two, as he’s just 20 and hasn’t pitched above A ball, but he’s exactly the kind of player teams target in the Rule 5, especially now that it looks like he might be a back-end bullpen type who’s been lighting up the radar gun lately. The Mariners took a long look at him at the alternate training site and the fall development league and Andy McKay literally said they’re going to protect him, so it feels safe to check off both those boxes.
After those two, things get murky. RHP Sam Delaplane is the next clearest add; in addition to quietly posting eye-popping strikeout numbers throughout his minor-league career, he had a coming-out party at last year’s Arizona Fall League where he gained national prospect attention and finally started landing on some Mariners Top 30 lists. However, he didn’t look sharp in the first version of Spring Training nor the second, and murmurs are his velocity—slightly below-average to begin with—was down, along with his effectiveness. The Mariners kept him at the alternate site all season rather than giving him a shot in what was a truly unwatchable bullpen, which doesn’t feel like a great sign. Delaplane is exactly the kind of player other teams like to target in the Rule 5, though, and the Mariners already lost fellow Arkansas Bullpen Hawg Art Warren on waivers, so unless there’s some kind of secret scary medicals I don’t know about, it seems like adding him would be a preferable to picking over the leftovers on the reliever buffet.
In less likely to very-unlikely adds: RHP Wyatt Mills wasn’t selected in last year’s Rule 5 despite being eligible and coming off a run with Team USA, and didn’t even get an invite to the alternate camp this year. The Mariners sent him to the fall development league to beat up on some teenagers, which he did, emphatically, but it doesn’t feel like they’d need to protect him after him going unselected last year with no minor-league season. INF Joe Rizzo also didn’t get an invite to the alternate camp and was also sent to Arizona this fall to punish some poorly-located fastballs, but a Ty France-shaped impediment makes his path to Seattle murkier. Rizzo is coming off his best season in the Cal League and I almost hope he gets picked so he gets a chance somewhere else, but it’s a difficult profile for a Rule 5 pick. The Mariners could still add him to a minor-league reserve list so he doesn’t get snatched up that way, which they should, as that would be a pretty lousy way to lose your second-rounder from 2016. RHP Jack Anderson also fits in this group of players who were curiously left out of training camp but sent to Arizona, and I feel very badly for whatever fresh-faced teenagers fresh out of the Dominican Republic had to face Anderson’s extreme submarine delivery. Like Mills, Anderson was eligible last year and unclaimed, and little has changed in the pandemic-stunted season to think things will bode differently there.
Last year, despite having an even more wide-open roster, the Mariners opted to stand pat, adding no players in advance of the deadline having made a plethora of September call ups. This year, other than the obvious additions of Trammell and Then, it’s likely to expect that pattern holds. As for whether other teams will target anyone out of Seattle’s system, that too feels less likely, unless Delaplane is left unprotected. Roster spots are valuable, and there’s still a lot of off-season to go. However, there is still more clearing-out that can be done on the Mariners 40-man (the names Walker Lockett and Brady Lail jump to mind—well, my mind, you can be forgiven for them not jumping to your mind), so it’s still very possible the Mariners make a selection in the Rule 5 even if they aren’t overly aggressive in protecting their own players. After Friday’s deadline passes, we’ll take a look at some of the players who were left unprotected by other clubs and see if any have that special Mariner sparkle to them.