The Pirates have to set their 40-man roster by November 20th for the Rule 5 draft held at the winter meetings, and that should lead to some interesting moves. Please bear through the legalese at the start of the post; we wanted to give you the background before we talked about rug-cutting time.
There are two different rosters in play for MLB teams: the 25-man, or active roster, and the 40-man roster.
The 40-man roster is all of the players on the 25-man roster, plus anyone who is on the 15-day disabled list, and players on "optional assignment" in the minor leagues. From September 1 until the end of the regular season, teams use expanded rosters, so they are allowed to have anybody from the 40-man roster play in games during that final month - the September call-ups.
If a player is on the 40-man roster but not on the active major league roster, he is said to be on optional assignment and his organization may freely move him between the major league and minor league teams.
But if a player is on the 40-man roster and not the 25 man roster for any part of more than three seasons, he is out of options and may not be assigned to the minors without first clearing waivers.
If a major league player is ineligible for free agency and has options remaining, his team may send him down to a minor league team without consequence.
A player can be removed from the 40-man roster at any time, which results in the player having to pass through waivers to stay with the organization.
Clear as mud, hey? For our purposes, just remember that if a player is good enough to play MLB ball and not on his team’s 40-man roster, here’s what happens:
A player not on a major-league 40-man roster as of November 20 may be eligible for the Rule 5 draft.
Major league teams must protect young players by placing them on their 40-man rosters within four or five years of their original signing. Otherwise, those left off the roster are available to other teams as Rule 5 picks for a $50,000 fee.
Players signed at age 19 or older are exempt from the Rule 5 draft for four years after being drafted (in the amateur draft) or signed by their current organization; players drafted or signed at age 18 or younger are exempt for five years.
But there's the kicker. To prevent teams from drafting players to stock their own minors, each Rule 5 pick must be kept in the major leagues the entire following season or be offered back to his former team for $25,000. Remember Evan Meek’s saga?
Not many players are ready for that jump, so only about a dozen or so get picked each year. Last year was a bumper crop of Rule 5 selectees; 18 were taken, and 9 stuck with their team for the season.
So here’s the decision the Pirates have to make in the next three weeks - who do they protect on the 40-man roster? Do they have anyone floating around in their minors that could last the year out on a major-league roster?
The minor league guys protected on the 40-man are pitchers Jimmy Barthmaier, Ron Belisario, Jesse Chavez, Dave Davidson, Romulo Sanchez, and John Van Benschoten.
Position players are Robinzon Diaz, Ronny Paulino, Pedro Alvarez, Brian Bixler, and Luis Cruz. The other 30 are regulars or semi-regulars for the Pirates and that number will be whittled down during spring camp to the opening day 25 man roster.
These players are Rule 5 eligible if not protected by the deadline:
Jose Tabata - He signed as a 17 year-old in 2005, according to every report we've seen, but he's supposed to have played in the Dominican Summer League as a 16 year-old in 2004, which makes him eligible this year. Confused? So are we. Hey, they have to put him on sooner or later, right? Still, you hate to burn a year.
Neil Walker - Why they didn’t call him up in September to light a fire under Andy LaRoche's butt is still a mystery to us, but he’ll be on the 40-man for sure this year.
Evan Meek - He found the plate at Indy, and has an outside shot at landing a spot on the 25-man roster. He’ll certainly be lost if he’s not protected - the second time through Rule 5 doesn’t carry the MLB burden; he can be drafted and go straight to the minors.
Juan Mateo - A former highly regarded starter in the Cub organization, he seemed to have overcome his arm problems last year at Altoona when the Bucs converted him to the bullpen. He’s only 25, and could earn a spot on the big club. He was also a former Rule 5 pick, so it would be the second time around for him, too.
Jeff Sues - Sues had a solid year and showed off a power arm as he finally had a healthy season. He stands a chance of being lost if he’s not added to the 40-man. AA pitchers are often fair game.
Kyle Bloom - A LH starter that had a strong finish at Altoona and is pitching well in winter ball at Hawaii. He’s probably on the league’s radar now, so he’s got a shot at being protected.
Jamie Romak - He’s another possibility, but while his power is pretty sexy, his glove, batting average and K rate make him an unlikely candidate to take up a spot on anyone’s 25-man roster, so the Pirates may take a chance that he‘ll get through the draft.
Eric Krebs - Pitched pretty well out of the pen at Lynchburg, but was shaky after being smacked in the face by a liner in July. He was in Hawaii to get some work, but came up with elbow problems. He’ll probably get by in the draft, given the combo of pitching in A ball and being hurt, so he‘ll likely be off the roster this year.
Ron Uviedo - He's only 22 and a solid bullpen prospect, but hasn't pitched above the A level yet. The Pirates should have a year or two to reach a decision on Uviedo.
Chris Duffy - He's already passed through waivers, spends way too much time in the tub, and his contract ends this year, to boot. He'll be a free agent and someone might take a shot at using him as a spare part because of his wheels and glove. That someone is not likely to be Pittsburgh, though GW would rather see him in left field than Nyjer Morgan. Oh well, you only get so many chances in life, right?
Dejan Kovacevic of the Post Gazette reported that the Pirates are looking to add Tabata, Walker, and Meek to the 40-man roster. We think there may a couple more players they protect, particularly Sues and Mateo. We'll find out soon.
The key to the decisions will be whether or not the Pirates think someone can carry the unprotected players on their MLB roster for an entire season, and that sometimes ends up a crapshoot. Different strokes for different scouts...
Players not eligible for Rule 5 this year:
Andrew McCutchen was signed as an 18 year-old in 2005, and has one more full minor league season to go, although we expect him to be in Pittsburgh sometime in 2009.
Daniel McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Jim Negrych, Shelby Ford, Jared Hughes, and Miles Durham are all members of the class of 2006, and have another season before the Pirates have to decide their fates.
The Pirates have a handful of guys to add to the 40-man roster as it stands. Except for Tabata and Walker (and long-shot Romak), they’re all pitchers, and the organization can’t afford to let any of them slip away.
But with Belisario, Davidson, Sanchez and JVB taking up spots now, that transfer could be made smoothly enough without any truly painful decisions. The pity is that so many of the players involved are working out of the pen instead of starting.
Hopefully, there will be no repeat of 2003, when Jose Bautista, Chris Shelton, and Jeff Bennett were lost in the Rule 5 draft, while five of the first six picks were Pirate farmhands.
But they better have their scouting eyes sharp this year. There’s another small gang of potentially good players drafted in 2006 that the suits will have to decide on after next season. It’s the kind of decisions competitive baseball teams have to make every year. It's about time that Pittsburgh joined that club.