Every offseason, major league general managers are forced to do a dance with their major and minor league rosters in order to ensure that their club is protecting the top young talent within the organization. That is because every year during the Winter Meetings the Rule 5 Draft is held. The Rule 5 draft is the opportunity for clubs to try and find hidden gems - players that have five or more years of professional experience (four or more if they signed at age 19 or older) and have not yet been added to their parent club's 40-man roster.
All players selected in the Rule 5 draft must be kept on the selecting team's 25-man major league roster for the entire season after the draft. If a club wishes to option or designate a Rule 5 pick to the minors, he must first be offered back to his original club. In the past, players such as Jose Bautista, Josh Hamilton, Joakim Soria and Johan Santana have been picked up in the Rule 5 draft, but probably the most memorable such players in Mariners' history are reliever Kanekoa Texeira from the 2009 season, who the club ultimately lost to the Royals, and infielder Luis Ugeuto, who was Lou Piniella's go-to pinch runner back in 2002. Those two don't exactly fit into the list that precedes them, but the protection phase is still very important.
This season, because of the depth in the system and the number of good players already on the 40-man, the Mariners may indeed lose a player that could become a major league contributor down the road. With 35 players on the 40-man, there are just five open spots. Although it is possible that a trade (Figgins?) or, more likely, a minor leaguer will be non-tendered from the protected list (Halman, Mike Wilson, Saunders, Cesar Jimenez, etc.?) could happen, the M's simply won't be able to protect everyone. Let's take a look now at the players most likely to be added to the 40-man and thus protected from being exposed in the Rule 5 draft.
Double-A, 3B, Francisco Martinez: Martinez - who cracked my Top-10 prospect list for the club - will certainly be added as he's the best third base prospect in the organization. He is following up a strong 2011 regular season campaign (.289/.321/.426 in 124 games) with a strong showing in the Venezuelan Winter League (.313/.352/.373 in 17 games) and he's still just 21-years-old. Although the third base picture is a little crowded in the upper minors for the M's, the right-handed hitter figures to get a shot at Triple-A at some point in 2012 and a 2013 MLB arrival date may be in the cards for him.
Triple-A, SS, Carlos Triunfel: Some of the shine is off of Triunfel as a future star type prospect, but he still holds a lot of value to the Mariners--as well as many other clubs--because of his position and his still not-quite-tapped potential. He's a long-shot to land a big league job this spring, but at just 21-years-old, he's far from washed up. If he can put up solid numbers at the plate, and more importantly in the field, for Tacoma in 2012, he could be in line for a big league job in 2013, in Seattle or somewhere else.
Double-A, OF, Chih-Hsien Chiang: Although Chiang struggled with Jackson in 2011 after his trade to Seattle, he was named the Eastern League Player of the Year for his performance while part of the Boston organization. He has been swinging a hot bat of late in the AFL, too. Not quite a center fielder defensively and not carrying your typical corner outfielder's power, Chiang needs some more seasoning before he is MLB-ready. He will likely be assigned to Triple-A Tacoma this coming season, but the M's do not want to lose him.
High-A, OF, Danny Carroll: Carroll had a breakout year for the Mavericks in 2011 in his first fully healthy season following a few injury-riddled campaigns. 18 homers and 88 walks and the fourth highest stolen base total--62 steals in 76 attempts--in the entire minor leagues this season make it easy to see that he has tools. Pedro Grifol said of Carroll, "I like him a lot. he's a plus outfielder with a plus arm, but we just need to work on the strikeouts." Because the club clearly considers 2011 a breakout and not a California League-induced fluke, I think it is a no-brainer that they will protect him for 2012 as he moves to Double-A.
ON THE CUSP
Low-A, SP, Tony Butler: Butler is unique on this list in that he actually returned to the club as a minor league free agent after being traded away as a part of the Adam Jones/Erik Bedard deal with Baltimore. He still qualifies as a 6-year minor league free agent and has enough service time to be exposed in the Rule 5 draft. Although he was a bit of a reclamation project last year, he did enough in 2011 to reestablish some value. And being 6-foot-7 and left-handed, he certainly has some attraction to teams. As I stated in his prospect profile, he may be a reliever down the road, but the advancements he made in his mechanics and control this season suggest that starting isn't out of the question. He is a player that could be plucked in the draft and stuck in a 12-man bullpen for a team with good depth.
Unassigned, RP, Philippe Valiquette: Speaking of left-handed minor league free agents, this one--whom the M's picked up in late August after the Reds cut him loose--can rush it up to the plate in the high-90s. Problem is he has rarely shown that he has any idea where the ball is going. His career minor league numbers aren't all that impressive (4.50 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 4.4 BB/9 and only 7.2 SO/9) and it sounds like he is a very frustrating pitcher with above average stuff but has been very hittable. He didn't pitch at all in 2011 as he tore his lat muscle off the bone near the end of Spring Training. If he has shown the M's enough in the past few months working in instructs that they think they have an asset here, they may burn a 40-man roster spot on him. But more likely is that they will risk sneaking him through unprotected and hope that no one else wants to take the risk. If that is the case, then hopefully 2012 can be a year where the 2004 draftee out of Quebec can figure some things out.
Low-A, SP, Anthony Fernandez: Fernandez has shown promise for the M's dating back his debut back in 2007, but since being shifted full-time to the rotation the past two seasons, the left-hander has really shined, posting a 3.24 ERA over 41 starts in that time. He has shown the ability to consistently work down in the zone with a decent fastball and change combination. He shows plus command for a pitcher his age (21) and could return to High Desert in 2012 with a possible big league ETA of late 2013. Although that may seem a ways off, has enough value now that someone might consider taking a risk on him because of his long-term potential.
RETURNING FROM INJURY
High-A, 1B/DH, Dennis Raben: Raben could be the quintessential risky pick that makes a name for himself. His left-handed bat looks like it is at least good enough for consistent platoon duty...if he can stay on the field. Even though he only made it into 76 games this season, he still was tied for the fourth most extra base hits in the organization with 44. But that story is becoming all-too-familiar for Raben as he's managed to accumulate just over 700 minor league at bats since the M's drafted him in the second round in 2008. If he can stay healthy, he has plus power, but his health history and growing list of surgeries will likely scare teams away enough to keep him safe while left off the 40. Look for him to finally reach Double-A in 2012.
Double-A, 3B, Nate Tenbrink: Another 2008 draftee bitten by the injury bug, Tenbrink fractured his right elbow in Jackson in late June and never returned. Before he did so he was suffering through a rather uninspired season, hitting just .218 and making 14 errors in 137 chances at third base (.898 Fielding Percentage). He was still doing some things right, however, as he was walking at a good rate (.337 On-Base Percentage) and hitting for some extra base power (.403 Slugging). And in 2010 he put up a .318/.409/.521 mark in two stops, although one of the stops was the California League. Had 2011 been fully healthy and more complete both offensively and defensively then the nearly 25-year-old Tenbrink might be an attractive option as a backup corner guy, but since it was neither he is probably safe left unprotected as he prepares to likely repeat Double-A in 2012.