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November 19, 2021 at 12:35 PM

First Take: Projecting protection day

Today, we'll learn what the organization really thinks about a handful of prospects, as teams have until 6:00 pm EST today to add players to the 40-man roster and protect them from selection in the Rule 5 Draft. This year, the Red Sox have a number of players who could potentially be selected, some of whom are easy decisions to protect—such as Josh Winckowski (pictured, left)—or not. However, a number of players are on the cusp, and the team's decisions on whether or not to protect those players will tell us about the players' standing in the organization's evaluation.

I will get to my projections below, but first, some general thoughts about Rule 5 that are always good to keep in mind. I would also suggest reading Ian Cundall's Scouting Scratch on eligible players, as well as listening to our podcast discussing this issue.

Having a player selected in the Rule 5 Draft is not a crisis
I project that the Red Sox will have a player selected from their farm system this year. The question is simply who that player is. However, while the club has not had any player selected from its farm system in the past 4 years, keep in mind that not every Rule 5 pick turns into Garrett Whitlock. From 2007 to 2016, the Red Sox had 13 players (really 12, with one selected in consecutive years) selected from their system. Nine of those selections were returned, and only one, Ryan Pressly, would qualify as a player the team probably wishes it could get back. As I will get into below, it is certainly possible that, say, Zack Kelly gets selected by a team that saw and really liked him in 2021. However, Kelly would have to stick with the selecting team for that to truly be any kind of loss, and even at that, it would be more likely that he turns into a Josh Fields or Cesar Cabral than a Pressly.

New roster rules have changed the complexion of the Rule 5 Draft
The 2020 season was the first in which MLB intended to expand the Major League active roster from 25 to 26 players. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, teams actually wound up with a 28-man roster all season, but this year, the 26-man roster was instituted and is here to stay. The effect on the Rule 5 Draft of teams having an extra roster spot is obvious: One more roster spot means it's easier to stash a Rule 5 selection. It is no surprise, then, that 10 2020 Rule 5 selections stuck with their teams all year in 2021, compared to 4 players from the 2019 draft and 3 from 2018.

However, the hidden effect on the Rule 5 Draft—and, actually, on MLB roster machination in general—is what MLB didn't do. The 40-man roster, technically referred to as the reserve list, did not correspondingly expand when the active roster did. That means that while teams had up to 15 true "reserve" spots in the past, they now have just 14. That's one fewer spot to protect, say, a low-minors prospect who has already become eligible, or a high-minors depth piece who seems likely to stick if selected. When looking at the list below, it is hard not to wonder whether that one spot makes the difference between protecting a Gilberto Jimenez or Victor Santos or risking that they either will not be selected or will not stick.

I will not spend time discussing below (again, see Ian's great post from yesterday and our podcast for my detailed thoughts), but here is where I stand as of press time. I project that the organization will protect between 4 and 9 players (the 40-man roster currently stands at 33; on the one hand, there are waivable players on the roster for whom some of the below players may qualify as upgrades, while on the other, the MLB club does need to acquire a handful of players still).

Certain to be protected, certain to be selected if unprotected: RHP Brayan Bello, SS/2B Jeter Downs, RHP Josh Winckowski

Near-certain to be protected, certain to be selected if unprotected: RHP Kutter Crawford

Likely to be protected, may be selected if unprotected: RHP Thaddeus Ward

May be protected, may be selected: RHP Durbin Feltman, RHP Frank German, IF/OF Ryan Fitzgerald, RHP Victor Santos

Unlikely to be protected, small chance to be selected, unlikely to stick category: OF Gilberto Jimenez, IF/OF Ceddanne Rafaela, RHP Chase Shugart

Unlikely to be protected, small chance to be selected, depth arms category: RHP Zack Kelly, RHP Kaleb Ort, RHP AJ Politi

Unlikely to be protected or selected, but of note: 1B/OF Pedro Castellanos, 1B/OF Franchy Cordero, C Kole Cottam, LHP Rio Gomez, 1B/OF Devlin Granberg, RHP Joan Martinez

Gun to my head, I project that the Red Sox will protect Bello, Downs, Winckowski, Crawford, Ward, and one or two of the pitchers from the Feltman-German-Santos group, and I'll guess Feltman and Santos. I feel strongest about the first four. Ward may be left unprotected, essentially daring another team to carry him for the entire year, then put him on the roster for 90 days in 2023 following completion of his rehab. 

The players in the middle groups are the ones we will learn the most about today, specifically, how the team values players like German, Santos, Politi, Ort, and so forth relative to one another. If the Red Sox protect a significant number of players, expect Hudson Potts, Jeisson Rosario, Phillips Valdez, and potentially others to be DFA or traded later this offseason. If Fitzgerald is protected, I could see that indicating that Jonathan Ara├║z may be headed out this offseason as well.

I can't remember being this uncertain about a Rule 5 protection deadline. the team could protect anywhere from 4 to 9 players without me batting an eyelash. But in the end, we will get to learn more about a group of players—and, perhaps, Chaim Bloom.

Photo credit: Josh Winckowski by Kelly O'Connor

Chris Hatfield is Executive Editor of SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @SPChrisHatfield.