Toughest top prospect 40-man decisions

Detroit Tigers

Clubs must add eligible players to their 40-man rosters before Friday, Nov. 19 or else leave them exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, scheduled to be held Dec. 8 at the Winter Meetings in Orlando.

Players are deemed eligible for the Rule 5 Draft if they were signed at age 18 or younger and have been in pro ball for five seasons or more, or if they were signed at 19 or older and have been in pro ball for four seasons or more. A full list of Top 30 prospects who are eligible for the 2021 Draft can be found here.

Some calls will be easier than others. For example, expect all 14 Top 100 prospects to be added to their organization’s 40-man rosters before Friday without issue. However, even some Top 30 prospects will make for tough decisions due to variables like proximity to the Majors, individual skill sets, overall ceilings and (perhaps most importantly) likelihood to be taken in the Rule 5 Draft.

The following are some of the toughest Top 30 prospect 40-man decisions, one for every organization:

Blue Jays: Eric Pardinho, RHP (No. 24)
There was a time when the $1.4 million signing out of Brazil looked like one of the best pitching prospects in the entire system and an eventual 40-man lock. However, he underwent Tommy John surgery in February 2020, and setbacks this past summer limited him to only two Florida Complex League appearances. When he’s on, Pardinho has four solid pitches and good control, and considering he only turns 21 in January, he has time on his side. But it’s still on the Jays to decide to use up a 40-man spot on a pitcher with no experience above Low-A at the risk of losing him to a Rule 5 team that could roll the dice and stash him for all of 2022.

Orioles: Kevin Smith, LHP (No. 14)
The O’s are in no place to risk any of their four ranked prospects leaving via the Rule 5 Draft, and it certainly helps that they have eight open spots on the 40-man. We only consider Smith a tough call here because of his rough introduction to Triple-A, in which he posted a 6.23 ERA and walked 49 in 56 1/3 innings. While control had once been a strength for Smith, he certainly took a step back in Norfolk. Even still, the 24-year-old southpaw has a solid three-pitch mix that could keep him in a starting role, and Baltimore can ill-afford to let someone like that leave so easily.

Rays: Ford Proctor, C/INF (No. 30)
The 2018 third-rounder came to the Rays and asked about moving from the dirt to behind the plate in hopes of getting out of a loaded infield depth chart. Tampa Bay was pleased by his defensive progress this season at Double-A Montgomery, and Proctor held his own with a .381 OBP and 127 wRC+ over 97 games at the level. The Rays, however, already protected one catcher in René Pinto and have another 40-man backstop decision to make with Blake Hunt. The depth chart hasn’t gotten all that easier for Proctor, at least in the short term.

Red Sox: Thaddeus Ward, RHP (No. 20)
Ward made only two Double-A starts before he needed Tommy John surgery this summer. The procedure is likely to force him out for much of 2022, and even then, he’ll be on a tight limit as he builds back to a starter’s workload. On paper, that might scare away Rule 5 teams and make Boston feel comfortable leaving Ward off the 40-man for now. But as noted, some clubs are willing to roll the dice on stashing injured pitchers on the IL and even carrying their Rule 5 status into a second season if need be. Ward has an above-average fastball and plus slider that could help him in a Major League bullpen when healthy.

Yankees: Brandon Lockridge, OF (No. 19)
New York has some tough decisions to make before Friday’s deadline. The 40-man roster was already full coming into the weekend, and the organization will have to take players off if they want to protect any of their five Top 30 prospects who are Rule 5-eligible this winter. Lockridge, in particular, could be an interesting call. His 75-grade speed and 60 glove could immediately help out a Major League bench, and he showed a bit more pop than expected with 10 homers and a .557 slugging percentage in 43 games at Double-A this season. But the Yankees already have seven outfielders listed on their 40-man, and Everson Pereira feels like a protection lock as well. Lockridge could be an easier call elsewhere but could end up the victim of a roster crunch in the Bronx.

Cleveland: Aaron Bracho, INF (No. 15)
Cleveland seemed enthused by Bracho — a $1.5 million signing out of Venezuela in 2017 — and his progress at last year’s alternate training site, but he took a serious step back offensively in 2021. The switch-hitting infielder hit just .174/.269/.299 in 70 games with High-A Lake County and was especially bad against right-handers (.523 OPS in 203 plate appearances). Bracho still has a decent ceiling as an infielder with good power, speed and an ability to play multiple spots on the dirt. A 40-man spot would be based much more on projection than recent performance.

Royals: Zach Haake, RHP (No. 29)
The 2018 sixth-rounder missed six weeks during the 2021 season and wasn’t as consistent with High-A Quad Cities as the Royals may have liked. He’s making up for some lost time in the Arizona Fall League now, showing a mid-90s fastball along with a decent slider and changeup, so the tools are there for him to provide potential help to a Major League bullpen. But 11 walks in 14 2/3 innings with Surprise hasn’t done a whole lot to dispel the notion that Haake has some ways to go before Major League or even 40-man consideration.

Tigers: Kody Clemens, 2B/OF (No. 18)
Detroit has only two Top 30 prospects in need of 40-man protection. In terms of Clemens, the left-handed slugger was power over hit in his age-25 season at Triple-A Toledo. He finished with 18 homers in 97 games but hit .247 with a .312 OBP that made him close to league-average (102 wRC+). His experience at second base and right field should help his case to be a bench piece for anyone, so expect him to be added, even if it’s not an automatic slam dunk.

Twins: Blayne Enlow, RHP (No. 15)
Another Tommy John arm here. Enlow was off to a fast start to the season at High-A Cedar Rapids (1.84 ERA, 23 strikeouts in three starts) before he required the elbow procedure in June. The Twins seemed pleased with how his stuff was trending, particularly his fastball that was touching 97 at last year’s instructs, before the injury. Minnesota and other organizations won’t know how that four-pitch arsenal returns until possibly the second half of 2022, taking away some of the urgency to make Enlow a 40-man add now. At least if the Twins do add him, an early move to the 60-day IL could clear out an additional 40-man spot in the spring.

White Sox: Lenyn Sosa, SS/2B (No. 17)
Sosa was unprotected and unpicked in last year’s Rule 5 Draft. Did he do enough in his age-21 season to warrant a 40-man spot this time around? Perhaps not. Sosa was a solid performer at High-A Winston-Salem (.290/.321/.443 in 82 games) but saw his numbers come crashing down at Double-A Birmingham (.214/.240/.282 in 33 games). That’s a tough pill to swallow for a bat-first player. Sosa mixed in more second base and third base this season, and that versatility could be his saving grace.

Angels: D’Shawn Knowles, OF (No. 10)
Top 10 prospects are typically must-adds, but Knowles could be a different case. The 20-year-old switch-hitter hasn’t cracked higher than Low-A yet in the Halos system, and his .227/.289/.355 batting line and five homers in 84 games for Inland Empire didn’t scream Major League readiness this season. He could be of service to a Major League club as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement because of his tools in those areas, but it would be a mountain for him to climb when facing Major League pitching. Adding him to the 40-man would be about eliminating even that small risk of a Rule 5 spot with the upside coming likely years down the line.

Astros: Alex McKenna, OF (No. 17)
If you saw McKenna at High-A, you might think he wouldn’t be on this list. The 2018 fourth-round pick was a power machine for Asheville, clubbing 13 homers while slugging .616 in 41 games. (Note: Asheville plays in a hitter-friendly park.) The story was a different one at Double-A Corpus Christi. McKenna finished with just a .206/.314/.305 slash line in 38 games there, calling into question what he could do against upper-level pitching. A lack of a true plus tool hurts his case as well, but the Astros might want to make sure he’s around to find his Tourists form again as a member of the 40-man.

Athletics: Jordan Diaz, 3B (No. 11)
Diaz was eligible for the Rule 5 Draft last year and went unprotected then. It’s tough to blame the A’s there. He hadn’t played above short-season ball, and the lack of a 2020 season kept him from playing in front of more teams. He spent all of 2021 at High-A Lansing, but the jury is still out on whether that was enough. Diaz hit .288/.337/.483 with 13 homers in 90 games, showcasing a good mix of discipline and a little bit of pop. Having only turned 21 in August, he still might be too far away from 40-man status this time as well.

Mariners: Sam Carlson, RHP (No. 24)
The 2021 season couldn’t have been much bigger for the 2017 second-rounder. Carlson underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018, missed all of 2019 to recover and then was out like everyone else last year. He finally spent a full season at Low-A Modesto, reaching 100 innings to prove his health. The results had some promise, namely his 24.2 percent K-rate, and his fastball and changeup still project as above-average pitches. Would a team be willing to bet he can handle jumping four levels while staying healthy after a Rule 5 pick? That’s something the Mariners have to consider now that Carlson pushed the envelope a little this summer.

Rangers: Ricky Vanasco, RHP (No. 12)
A pitcher capable of touching 99 and showing an above-average curveball as a starter is usually going to get added to a 40-man roster. This is no usual situation, however. Vanasco, who had a previous history of elbow issues, underwent Tommy John surgery in September 2020 and hasn’t been on a Minor League mound at all since 2019 (spent mostly in short-season ball). No one knows how Vanasco’s rehab is going better than the Rangers, so how they treat him ahead of Friday deserves close watching.

Braves: Justin Dean, OF (No. 25)
Dean provides speed and lots of it. His run tool earns 70 grades, and he has stolen 92 bases in his three Minor League seasons, including 29 for Double-A Mississippi in 2021. The rest of his profile leaves him on the 40-man bubble. Once considered an average hitter, Dean produced a .237/.345/.364 line and 104 wRC+ in 99 games this season. He also fanned in 30.3 percent of his plate appearances. A 40-man spot would likely be protection against a Rule 5 team taking Dean as a speedy bench option.

Marlins: Griffin Conine, OF (No. 21)
The Fish only have one Rule 5-eligible Top 30 prospect. Even then, Conine should be a fascinating follow ahead of Friday. The left-handed masher famously battled Royals prospect MJ Melendez for the Minor League home run lead for much of the summer before finishing with 36 blasts between High-A and Double-A. His power isn’t in question. His hit tool certainly is. Conine batted just .176 and struck out a whopping 47.4 percent of the time in his 42 games at the higher level. Even by Joey Gallo standards, that’s a lot of swing-and-miss to carry for plus-plus raw power. Conine might need to show a better base level of contact at Double-A and above before he seems like a Rule 5 threat.

Mets: Josh Walker, LHP (No. 16)
The 2017 37th-rounder enjoyed a breakout season in which he climbed three levels to finish at Triple-A Syracuse. He ran into some trouble at the Minors’ top level and finished with a 5.19 ERA in nine Triple-A starts while fanning only 33 in 50 1/3 innings. Walker is very much a pitchability lefty, one that thrives on pitching in the zone, and his type don’t typically make for Rule 5 picks. But he’s certainly starting depth for the Mets, and they might not want to risk losing even a little bit of that over a 40-man spot.

Nationals: Tim Cate, LHP (No. 13)
Cate was once of the most promising arms in a then-thin Nationals system. His curve is perhaps the best breaker in the organization’s Minor League ranks, and the former UConn star can showcase promising control. But a 5.31 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 96 2/3 innings kept him at Double-A Harrisburg all season in 2021, and the deadline acquisition of other arms have pushed him down the depth chart. A 40-man spot would be a bet that Cate can develop his non-curve pitches enough to overcome his recent struggles in short order.

Phillies: Jhailyn Ortiz, OF (No. 10)
Ortiz was eligible for the Rule 5 Draft in 2019 and 2020. He went unprotected and unpicked both times. He’s back in the process this time, having reached Double-A for the first time as part of his most successful full season yet. Ortiz showed off his trademark plus power by finishing with 23 homers in 95 games between High-A and Double-A. Typically a right fielder because of his plus arm, he also mixed in a little center field for versatility sake, though he lacks the speed to thrive there. Ortiz is definitely more of a Rule 5 threat than ever, but whether he did enough to merit a 40-man spot remains (like many of his batted balls) up in the air.

Brewers: Carlos Rodriguez, OF (No. 22)
Rodriguez shows good speed and is considered a solid defender from the grass — two traits that could get him some Rule 5 looks. His offense is where the questions lie. Rodriguez makes a good amount of contact, but it’s often light contact. Standing at 5-foot-10, 150 pounds, he finished with one homer and slugged just .348 in 94 games at High-A Wisconsin this summer. He turns 21 in December, so time isn’t ticking on his overall profile just yet. Still, it’s an open question whether good speed and a good glove are enough to garner a 40-man spot on their own.

Cardinals: Delvin Pérez, SS (No. 12)
The Cardinals grabbed Pérez 23rd overall back in 2016, and it’s been a slow road through the St. Louis system since. The Puerto Rico native was Rule 5-eligible for the first time last year but went unprotected and unpicked because he had yet to play above Low-A. The Cards kicked him up two levels this season to Double-A Springfield, and while his .265/.322/.339 line wasn’t stellar, it at least established a baseline for him at an upper level. Pérez’s carrying tools will always be his plus speed and impressive defense at short, and there could be a club willing to bet on those to make him a backup infielder right now, if he was to go unprotected once again.

Cubs: Riley Thompson, RHP (No. 28)
Chicago has only two Top 30 prospects eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, and Nelson Velazquez will almost certainly be protected as he comes off a stellar Arizona Fall League. Thompson, however, is a bigger question. The 2018 11th-rounder didn’t pitch at all in 2021 due to shoulder issues, meaning the last time he appeared in a Minor League game was 2019 at Low-A. Even with the potential to show a plus fastball and plus curve, that’s a tough 40-man mountain to climb.

Pirates: Travis Swaggerty, OF (No. 16)
Like the Orioles and other rebuilding clubs, the Pirates aren’t in a position to leave ranked prospects in a place where they can be taken away so easily. However, they also happen to be in a spot where 10 of their Top 30 prospects are in need of 40-man protection. The most interesting case could be Swaggerty, the 10th overall pick in 2018 who played only 12 Triple-A games before undergoing season-ending right shoulder surgery. Swaggerty hasn’t hit as much as one would hope so far in pro ball — the lost 2020 season didn’t help — and it’s his speed and defense that stand out most these days. The bat could be even a bigger question until he can show off how he’s recovered from the shoulder issue. To be clear, it’s likely the Bucs protect Swaggerty because they need all the talent they can get, but it’s not as clear a case as one would expect for a Top 10 pick.

Reds: Allan Cerda, OF (No. 17)
Cincinnati has two Rule 5-eligible ranked prospects. The other is Hunter Greene, an easy addition if there ever was one. Cerda’s case is more complicated. The outfielder stands out most for his power and showed that off with 17 homers and a .523 slugging percentage in 87 games at Low-A and High-A this season. He can get his share of whiffs, but even then, he was comfortably above-average offensively at both stops, finishing with a 136 wRC+ in both Daytona and Dayton. His above-average arm makes him a decent right-field prospect. The only thing holding Cerda back from 40-man lock position is his lack of upper-level experience. Otherwise, he has enough tools worthy of protection five days before his 22nd birthday.

D-backs: Levi Kelly, RHP (No. 22)
Kelly moved to the bullpen for the first time this summer following an early shoulder injury, and the results weren’t entirely promising. He walked more batters (28) than he struck out (27) over 25 innings with Double-A Amarillo and finished with a 5.40 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP in that span. Those aren’t numbers that cry out for a 40-man spot. However, Kelly has two above-average pitches in his low-to-mid-90s fastball and biting slider, and there could be a few Rule 5 teams willing to build on those and mold Kelly in their own way in a limited Major League bullpen role. Given where Arizona is headed, it can ill-afford to let a potential relief piece walk so easily if they’re still high on that heater-slider combo.

Dodgers: Leonel Valera, SS (No. 15)
Valera is another type that was Rule 5-eligible last year but didn’t see his roster status affected by the process the first time around. The 22-year-old climbed a level in 2021, but it’s unclear if his performance with High-A Great Lakes was enough to get him protection. He hit .224/.305/.436 with 16 homers and 16 steals in 95 games with the Loons, showing off some of the above-average power and speed that make him a solid prospect in the Los Angeles system. Valera also earns solid reviews for his defensive skills on the dirt, and that should earn him extra consideration. Still, the Dodgers sit at 38 players on their 40-man roster and have eyes at making free-agent moves this offseason, further limiting how much space they might be willing to make. Valera might just be too far away from Chavez Ravine to force the issue this time around as well.

Giants: Ricardo Genovés, C (No. 18)
There’s a lot of talk around San Francisco’s catching depth these days, following the retirement of Buster Posey. Joey Bart and Patrick Bailey have gotten the bulk of the attention as more top-tier prospects, but don’t sleep on Genovés in his third year of Rule 5 eligibility. The 22-year-old is a glove-first backstop with a plus throwing arm — the very type of catcher clubs like to target in the Rule 5 Draft — but his upper-level experience is limited to six Triple-A games in a cameo role. (He has yet to play at Double-A.) The Venezuela native spent much of 2021 at High-A Eugene, where he hit .217/.294/.364 with seven homers and a 29.8 percent K rate in 65 games. A Rule 5 team would have to live with some offensive bumps to carry Genovés’ glove, and it’s on the Giants to weigh the risk of losing him, even if he’s still a year away from being truly ready.

Padres: Brandon Valenzuela, C (No. 19)
Valenzuela is known more for his defensive work than his offensive skills, but he’s coming off a solid season in which he posted a 122 wRC+ and .299/.393/.429 line over 97 games at Low-A and High-A. The Padres have to decide if that was enough to get a 40-man spot, taking into consideration that Valenzuela still hasn’t seen the upper Minors. The club has three catchers on the 40-man now, including fellow prospect Luis Campusano, so adding another is no small lift.

Rockies: Willie MacIver, C (No. 25)
MacIver is plying his trade in the Arizona Fall League in hopes of giving the Rockies enough positive looks to add him Friday. He could certainly use them. The 25-year-old got off to a great start at High-A Spokane but sputtered badly at Double-A Hartford, finishing with a .167/.241/.266 line in 54 games at the higher level. He is a solid defensive backstop and his arm plays well behind the plate. If he is protected this week, those would be his tickets to the 40-man.

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