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Prospects the Mariners might consider protecting from the Rule 5 Draft

With 40-man space at a premium this off-season, who will the Mariners add?

Ah, the Rule 5 Draft. What was formerly a weird little quirk designed to make sure teams couldn’t hoard prospects in the minors forever has evolved, in the era of tanking, into a way savvy teams can acquire talent on the cheap. Unsurprisingly, the Mariners have been active in the Rule 5 Draft over the past few years under Jerry Dipoto: for the 2021 season they selected RHP Will Vest, who was later returned to Detroit; for 2020 they took RHP Yohan Ramírez, who had no problem sticking with the team in the pandemic-shortened season; in 2019 it was RHP Brandon Brennan, who stuck with the team for 2020 but struggled with injury and was DFA’d at the end of April in 2021; and in 2018 the Mariners made their lone position-player selection under Dipoto, taking 1B Mike Ford from the Yankees system, who was later returned to New York. The Rule 5 Draft is still a couple of months away—it’s the showstopping finale at the Winter Meetings in December every year—but as the World Series draws to a close, decisions impacting roster space are already being made in anticipation of it, among other off-season moves, as we’ve seen from the flurry of outrighting the Mariners have done over the past couple of weeks.

This year the Mariners find themselves in a different position, likely buyers on the free-agent market and/or active on the trade market to shore up major holes on the roster, with less flexibility to burn a 25-man spot on a Rule 5 pick (for an overview of the Rule 5 draft and how it works, click here for a relatively quick explanation. The tl;dr version: prospects become eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft after they’ve spent five seasons in the minors, or four if the player was 19 or older when they signed; the selecting team pays the original team a fee and has to keep the player on their 25-man roster all season or the player is offered to be returned. Teams can avoid having their players selected by adding them to the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 Draft, called “protecting” players.).

However, there’s nothing Dipoto likes better than getting a good player on the cheap, and this year’s crop of players promises to be an interesting one, as teams will be forced into a unique position: players’ clocks kept ticking even as the minor leagues were on hold in 2020, so teams will have one year less of game data to work with when making their decisions about who to protect.

But before we get into looking at who the Mariners could potentially scoop up from teams fasting a roster crunch more intense than Seattle’s, let’s take a look at what in-house decisions the Mariners have to make regarding their own prospects.

One note before we begin: obviously, the specter of a work stoppage/lockout/strike hangs over this off-season like the Sword of Damocles. While it’s impossible to know at the time of this writing what will happen after the CBA expires and whether or not that will affect the timing of the Rule 5 Draft, one thing that will remain constant is the deadline for protecting players from the Draft: November 19th, 2021. The Rule 5 Draft is currently scheduled for December 9, the last day of the Winter Meetings.

Update: a previous version of this post stated that the Rule 5 counter started when a player was assigned to a specific team, not necessarily when they signed; that’s not the case, or at least not anymore. A previous loophole allowed teams to sign players after the Venezuelan League ended in early August and then assign them to that league after their season was over, effectively getting a freebie year, but with the dissolution of that league after MLB pulled out of their Venezuelan academies, that’s no longer the case.

Okay, so now that we’ve cleared all that up, let’s look at the players who are newly eligible for the Rule 5 draft this year from the Mariners system.

Must adds:

The Mariners are actually in a fairly good spot, roster construction-wise, compared to some other teams headed into the Rule 5 Draft. There is only one clear-cut must-add this year in top prospect OF Julio Rodríguez. We were convinced Julio wasn’t R5 eligible because why not just bring him up during the 2021 playoff push if he had to be added this off-season anyway, but the Mariners probably want to make a big ol’ foofaraw around Julio Day, which honestly will be a great day throughout this land.

Possible adds:

Of the Mariners’ Top 30 prospects on MLB Pipeline, there are only three who are Rule 5-eligible: Along with Julio, OF Alberto Rodríguez, acquired from Toronto in the Taijuan Walker trade in 2019, is another 2017 J2 signee who will be eligible. He’s coming off a fantastic year where he blossomed in the Mariners system playing alongside BFF Noelvi Marte in Low-A Modesto and then High-A Everett, but he’s also just completed his first year playing above Rookie ball and has no high minors experience. It’s not impossible to envision a desperate team with a poor farm system snagging him as a freebie Top-30 prospect, like the Padres’ grab of top young talent in the Rule 5 draft in 2016, but with the cancellation of the minor leagues in 2020, there will be many players in the same situation: Rule 5-eligible but lacking any significant upper-level experience. Those players are a gamble to take, but it’s also a gamble for the team not to protect him. Which is the bigger gamble? Our general feeling here is that A-Rod should be safe even if the team chooses not to protect him, with fewer teams going full tank mode and a flood of players who are Rule 5-eligible but are missing a year of experience due to the shutdown. The Mariners’ conservative tendencies in prospect handling also serve them well here; other teams aggressively promoted players who were on the cusp between two levels, but the Mariners slow-played Rodríguez, keeping him at Modesto with his pal Noelvi for the better part of the season even as his bat heated up in the later months.

The third Top 30 prospect who is eligible is RHP Sam Carlson, who just completed his first year as a pro after undergoing TJ surgery early in his career. More on him in a later section.

Also, as a point of clarification, RHP Juan Then would be eligible, but he’s already been added to the 40-man after he became Rule 5-eligible last season. (Players are eligible for the Rule 5 draft every year they meet the eligibility requirements yet aren’t added to a 40-man roster nor picked in the Draft, until they become minor-league free agents after six years of service.)

So with the Top-30 prospects sorted, are there any non-top-30 prospects who would be possible candidates to add? The most popular target in the Rule 5 draft is hard-throwing relievers. It’s easy to hide a reliever on a roster for a year, especially if they throw triple digits and can be limited in how they’re deployed; see Ramírez, Yohan. The Mariners have their own version of the high-octane poor-control reliever in their system in LHP Ray Kerr, who actually took a significant step forward in commanding the zone this year at Double-A Arkansas, where he struck out a career-high 37% of batters while walking a career-low 8.7%, which doesn’t sound impressive until you hear that at Modesto in 2019, Kerr struck out just 23% of batters while walking 13%. Technically, Kerr was eligible for the Rule 5 last season and went unpicked, but because of the strides he’s taken in his command, I’m sticking him in this section. Kerr has worked hard to improve his command and deserves an add to the 40-man, and if the Mariners don’t choose to add him, it’s very likely he’ll get picked by another team. Also, he’s a lefty, which adds a little bit of intrigue and also is something Seattle’s ‘pen could use.

Possible but unlikely adds:

Alberto Rodríguez is in the section above, but he probably belongs here; I put him up there as “possible” just because he does have close to a thousand minor-league plate appearances. If he had even a couple more months of pitching under his belt, I’d be concerned about RHP Sam Carlson getting snatched up. Or maybe if he’d blown away batters in Modesto with high-octane stuff and posted huge strikeout numbers, I’d be more worried about teams sniffing around the 2017 second-rounder. Instead, Carlson had a successful but relatively quiet season in his professional debut, and you know what, that’s fine. Nothing to see here, other teams, move along.

RHP Devin Sweet also becomes eligible for the Rule 5 this year despite being signed in 2018; Sweet was older than 19 when he signed, so he is eligible after four instead of five seasons. Sweet, who was recently transitioned to the bullpen, is currently pitching in the AFL, which is an absolute nightmare for pitchers this year, although Sweet is holding his own with a 3.38 ERA over five appearances, with seven strikeouts in his 5.1 innings pitched. Like Kerr, Sweet is a free-agent signing who doesn’t have much of a prospect profile other than his results on the field, and his first taste of the high minors this past season had some bumps and bruises. I don’t think the Mariners add him, and I’m not particularly concerned about him getting nabbed by another team, although if he does, good for him.

Unlikely adds:

Position players have a tougher time getting picked up in the Rule 5, and those that do are usually upper-minors players who are blocked at their position in their system, as Mike Ford was. INF Jake Scheiner got off to a hot start this year but cooled off down the stretch; his 18 homers might pique some interest, but his near 30% K-rate at Arkansas might dampen the flame. We have a soft spot for the lefty-hitting OF Jack Larsen around these parts, and he was very impressive at Arkansas this year, having made great strides to cut down a strikeout problem that plagued him early in his career, but like Devin Sweet, he’s a very under-the-radar player who was signed as a free agent and is a little bit on the older side, as he’s a few months shy of his 27th birthday.

As for upper-level pitchers, there are some possible but unlikely candidates in Tacoma. RHP Penn Murfee had success at the AFL in 2019 and then with Team USA and was generating some buzz before the shutdown; his command at Tacoma took a step back, which is tough for a softer-tosser, but a team with lousy pitching sold on his 2019 could roll the dice on him. Ian McKinney is Penn Murfee, but left-handed, and with slightly worse command. Both could be solid depth options for other teams but would be tough to carry on a 25-man for the full season.

Also included in this group are the players who have been eligible for the Rule 5 draft before but not added by the team nor selected by another team. The big name here is 2016 second-rounder INF Joe Rizzo, who the Mariners declined to protect last year; a lack of position and middling results in his first taste of the high minors mean he likely goes unselected again this year. RHP Jack Anderson is in the same boat. OF/1B Eric Filia fits the bill as player with a solid track record at the upper minors (and some Olympics bling!), but the Mariners don’t seem inclined to give him anything resembling a chance. I hope he gets picked by like, Baltimore or something.

The Mariners will definitely add Julio, and could possibly add Ray Kerr lest they see him snatched up by some other team. Alberto Rodríguez and Sam Carlson would be painful losses if either were selected in the Rule 5, but both lack enough significant upper-minors experience to make them true threats to be taken and put on a major-league roster for a full season, especially in a year when many players with more experience and similar prospect pedigrees will find themselves jockeying for space on crowded rosters.