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Sometimes, leaving certain prospects unprotected can be a smart idea

The Brewers left several prospects available for selection in the Rule 5 draft, taking a calculated risk in doing so.

MLB: All Star Game-Futures Game Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Brewers made their 40-man roster decisions for prospects to protect from the rule 5 draft. They elected to protect 4 prospects: shortstop Mauricio Dubon, catcher Jacob Nottingham, and RHPs Freddy Peralta and Marcos Diplan. For news like this, it wasn’t the players that were protected that caught everyone’s attention. It’s the players that were not protected. In his article last week, Kyle mentioned five of them:

Among the recognizable names left off the roster were former 1st-round pick Clint Coulter, former org #1 prospect Tyrone Taylor, AAA players Nate Orf and Kyle Wren, and righty Devin Williams, a once-promising young arm currently recovering from Tommy John surgery.

These players are now at risk of being selected in the Rule 5 draft coming up next month during the Winter Meetings. It’s possible none of them will be selected, but it’s also possible that all five will be selected. With some still sore after the Brewers lost Miguel Diaz to the Padres in the Rule 5 draft last year, it’s understandable that extra caution would want to be used this season. However, it’s arguable that leaving these players off the 40-man roster is a better idea than adding them to it right now.

Here are some reasons why it could be a smart decision.

1. A Rule 5 pick is harder to manage than a straight waiver claim.

There are a lot of hoops for a major league team to get through if they want to successfully keep a player picked in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. First, the player has to be kept on the roster all season, with at least 90 days spent on the active roster. If a player doesn’t accumulate 90 days on the active roster, the remaining time is carried over to the next season.

The restrictions on Rule 5 picks means that it’s not ideal for a claiming team to hold on to a player all year, especially if that player can’t contribute right away. Some teams can get away with it, like the Padres did last season with Diaz. However, it’s potentially a lost roster spot for most (if not all) of the season. It’s definitely a balancing act between player talent and roster needs.

On the other hand, if the Brewers have to designate a player for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot later, and it ends up being one of those 40-man protections, that’s a much more advantageous situation for a team to take advantage of. Claiming a player off of waivers is a much more straight forward process. A player is claimed, and they go straight on that team’s roster. They can be optioned right away and stashed for their full set of option years. No roster restrictions to follow there. A waiver claim is much more attractive in this situation.

2. Fringe players are easier to move on from.

This also follows along with the first point. Keeping players that are more likely to be designated for assignment on the roster helps with easier decisions when other roster moves are made. It’s a much nicer feeling to designate a player that would have minimal impact on the roster than one who could be a major part of this team’s future.

Let’s say the Brewers make a trade for another significant major-league player, but only trade away non 40-man prospects. Right now, the Brewers could choose to designate a player like Stephen Vogt, Oliver Drake, or Tyler Webb for assignment, which doesn’t seem like a big loss. However, if the Brewers chose to just get rid of those three players and add three more rule 5 protections, then who do you get rid of? Are you ready to risk a player like Taylor Jungmann, Wei-Chung Wang, or Jacob Barnes to waivers now? That’s the decision the Brewers would have to make if they protected more players. If they’re not ready to move on from some of the major-league players, then that means a prospect has to be risked to waivers. Going back to the first point, a waiver claim is a much more attractive possibility than a Rule 5 pick.

(I’m sure everyone can pick players they like and don’t like for who to keep and who to designate for assignment, but that’s not the argument here.)

3. Picking injured players is a risk.

This point mostly applies to Devin Williams, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery but eligible to be picked in the Rule 5 draft. While Williams is a strong prospect in the Brewers system, Tommy John surgery can be a tough procedure to return from. Success rates have definitely improved in recent years, but it’s far from a guarantee to successfully return.

If a team does claim Williams in the Rule 5 draft, they would have to keep him on the major-league roster for the full year, likely starting the year on the DL as he continues to recover. The claiming team couldn’t just stash him there either, as he has to be active for a minimum of 90 days or the restrictions carry over into the next season. That means the claiming team would have to work on his rehab, then keep him on the major-league roster for 90 days after that, likely pitching in just garbage time situations. Not only is his performance uncertain after returning from an injury, but it will be hard to evaluate completely with most of his pitching coming against major-league opponents. Since he hasn’t pitched above High-A yet, a combination of inexperience and recovery could equal a disaster in the games he does pitch.

There is the possibility that Williams could be selected in the minor-league portion of the draft, though. That holds much fewer restrictions, and Williams could continue to pitch in the minors that way. However, it’s unlikely that Williams will be available in that portion of the draft. Teams can also place players on the Triple-A (38 players) and Double-A (37) reserve rosters to protect them from those rounds of the Rule 5 draft. Plus, there’s no restrictions for who teams can place on these rosters at this point. It’s highly likely that Williams will be on the Triple-A reserve roster, forcing any team trying to claim him to take him in the major league round or not at all.

It’s definitely a risk for the Brewers to leave any prospects unprotected from the Rule 5 draft. The possibility of losing some good talent is always a scary one. However, the decisions the Brewers make are all about balancing risk and reward. Risking players to the Rule 5 draft carries the potential reward of more roster flexibility, and the only question is how much risk is acceptable. The Brewers have made their choices for this year’s draft. Now we just have to see if they will pay off.

For more information on the Rule 5 draft, you can check out Baseball America’s explanation. Some of the information from BA’s article was used in this post.