Whom do the Nats need to protect?

Whom do the Nats need to protect?
November 15, 2011, 1:47 pm
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It's that time of year again when major-league clubs must do some roster maintenance. By Friday, all teams must add any players who are eligible for the Rule 5 draft to their 40-man roster or risk losing them during the draft at next month's winter meetings.

Who's eligible for the Rule 5 draft? It's a bit complicated, but as a general rule, it's anyone not on the 40-man roster who was signed at age 18 or older in 2007 or signed at age 19 or older in 2008. The idea is to prevent organizations from stashing away prospects in the minors for four or five years without so much as giving them a shot at reaching the big leagues.

So, by Friday the Nationals must decide if there are any players who fit that description in their farm system that they want to protect. Just because someone is left unprotected, it doesn't mean he's guaranteed to be lost. It only means he's eligible to be swooped up by another organization in the Rule 5 draft (with that new team then obligated to keep said player on its big-league roster the entire season).

The decisions essentially boil down to this: Is there reason to believe another club might be willing to keep any of these players on their big-league roster through all of 2012? If the Nationals believe it's a possibility, they have to add those players to the 40-man roster to ensure they remain their property.

This year's list of potential Rule 5 picks includes a few significant names from the Nats' farm system:
Derek Norris
Tyler Moore
Josh Smoker
Brad Meyers
Jack McGeary
Erik Komatsu
Steven Souza
Patrick McCoy
Jeff Mandel
Sandy Leon
Chris Curran
Stephen King
J.R. Higley
Jose Lozada
Norris, the organization's top catching prospect, is the biggest name on the list. He hit only .210 at Class AA Harrisburg this year, but he clubbed 20 homers and posted a .367 on-base percentage. Perhaps of more significance, Norris has turned some heads in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .304 with a .398 on-base percentage in 19 games. Is he big-league-ready right now? No way. But might another club be willing to take a chance and make him their backup catcher for a season, then send him back to the minors in 2013 for more seasoning? You bet.

What about some of the other names? Moore (31 homers at Harrisburg this season) would certainly provide a potent bat off some team's bench. Smoker has yet to pitch above Class A, but the 2007 first-round pick resurrected his career as a left-handed specialist this season, and there's a chance some GM would find him an intriguing bullpen option. Meyers and McGeary have battled injuries, and it seems less likely one would be snatched up in the Rule 5 draft. Komatsu, an outfielder acquired from the Brewers in the Jerry Hairston trade, could be appealing to some teams after posting a .367 on-base percentage with 21 stolen bases this year.

So at the very least, look for the Nationals to add Norris to their 40-man roster this week. And it wouldn't be surprising if they also added Moore, Smoker andor Komatsu.

Do they have room on their 40-man for those guys? Actually, they've got plenty of space at the moment. There are only 34 players on the Nationals' 40-man roster right now. But keep in mind that any player added via free agency or trade automatically gets a 40-man spot. And the Nats are still searching for a center fielder, a starting pitcher and a bunch of bench players, so they need to keep several spots open.

So Mike Rizzo can't just hand out 40-man spots to everyone in sight. He needs to make some calculated decisions here, protecting those prospects he has reason to believe could be snatched up by another team while taking a chance on others who seem less likely to be lost.