It is that time of year again. The deadline to protect eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft by adding them to a club’s 40-man roster falls this Wednesday, so let’s take a look at the decisions the Cubs will be facing this week.
Last season the Cubs added just one prospect (Justin Steele) from their system prior to the deadline. It’s possible the organization takes a similar approach this year, but with far more roster space (currently just 32 spots filled) and with a stronger group of prospects under consideration, I’d be surprised if the Cubs end up protecting just one this time around. To be clear though, they will not fill up the 40-man at this point, as they need to leave room to make waiver claims, trades and sign free agents, etc., but expect the addition of 3-5 players to the roster this week.
All of those additions may not necessarily come from within the Cubs system. Every club faces the same deadline, but some teams are under greater roster constraints, so this is a time when player movement occurs throughout the league.
For instance, the Padres boasted a robust farm system last offseason, and it meant they had a number of eligible prospects they wanted to protect, without enough space on their 40-man roster to do it. So, they made the decision to trade a reliever from their roster who had difficulty securing a MLB job the previous year in order to free up space for a younger player. The reliever they dealt was Rowan Wick, and the Cubs became the beneficiary.
This move is a no-brainer.
Miguel Amaya is one of the top five prospects in the Cubs system and he will be added to the 40-man roster prior to Wednesday’s deadline. The catcher possesses a strong arm even if the rest of his physcial tools behind the dish are average . His lateral quickness and explosion out of his crouch are a limitation, but his pitch framing is progressing and his leadership skills receive nothing but high praise. Don’t expect gold gloves, but in no way should his defense become a liability.
He’s developing patience as well as coming into his power at the plate. His raw offensive numbers from 2019 do not jump out, but one must take into consideration Amaya was a 20-year old tasked with a lot of defensive responsibilities as a catcher, and he was hitting in a pitcher’s park. He will be moving to a more friendly offensive environment this year and will take his AFL experience with him into 2020.
Amaya could be primed for a breakout, and while he is more than a year away, his upside is high enough they cannot risk losing him.
Dakota Mekkes, Michael Rucker, Tyson Miller
The choice to protect Dakota Mekkes could hinge on how the Cubs view the batch of relievers currently on the fringe of the 25-man roster. Alec Mills and Duane Underwood, Jr. enter 2020 out of Minor League options and without a clear path to a job at the MLB level. The team also has Wick, Adbert Alzolay, James Norwood and Dillon Maples as right-handed depth with only one Minor League option year remaining.
That is a lot of competition for a limited number of jobs (maybe 2 max) on the 25-man roster, but the club also need to plan for the future. With so many of those arms about to, or already out of options, the Cubs would be wise to reshuffle the deck and make sure they protect some guys capable of providing depth beyond this season. Dakota Mekkes is at the top of the list in my opinion.
Choices will need to be made. Adding Mekkes could trigger a trade of one of the current roster players. Mekkes is hardly a sure thing, but he brings a different element beyond the typical power arsenal, and I believe it is worth protecting.
Next on my priority list for relievers would be Michael Rucker. He transitioned to the bullpen full time in 2019 and his stuff continued to tick up throughout the year. Near the end he was regularly sitting 95+ coupled with a starter’s four pitch mix.
As for Tyson Miller, the Cubs already added his Iowa teammate Colin Rea to the 40-man roster this month rather than allowing him to test free agency, which could alter the roster math. It gives the organization Alzolay, Rea, and Steele as starting pitchers already a part of the 40-man roster. But given they declined their 2020 contract option on Kendall Graveman, the organization could accommodate another starter on the roster.
The question becomes, do the Cubs actually view Miller as a starter in the future?
Like Alzolay and Steele, Miller may ultimately be better suited as a reliever. In which case, he will fall into the same roster crunch as Mekkes and Rucker, and there may not be room for all. However, if they still see starter upside in Miller then they will surely protect him.
Teams are always looking to secure shortstop depth.
Zack Short is a little inconsistent on the defensive side, but he possesses all of the necessary skills to play a MLB-quality shortstop. There are contact concerns at the plate, but upside as well. Injuries severely hampered his 2019 season, which makes his current progression difficult to assess from the outside. The Cubs should have a better handle on how Short is viewed throughout the league after he participated in the AFL.
Short’s offensive profile does not align with the goal of adding a more diverse and contact oriented approach heading into 2020, but teams rarely leave young, near-MLB ready shortstop talent unprotected at this time of year, because if lost, they’ll end up having to troll the waiver wire for Mike Freeman types as replacements.
In the end, it may come down to what the Cubs plans are for Addison Russell. If they are going to tender Russell another contact this winter it likely eliminates Short from roster consideration. Fingers crossed that isn’t the case though.
P.J. Higgins, Jhonny Pereda
This is another decision which could hinge on the front office’s offseason plans for current players on the 40-man roster. If they see a potential Willson Contreras or Victor Caratini trade as a strong possibility this winter, the club may choose to add P.J. Higgins on Wednesday in order to ensure enough depth at the catcher position. If the team plans to hold on to both incumbents (or seek a proven commodity as a replacement) they could risk exposing Higgins to the Rule 5 Draft.
While Higgins has put in a ton of work the past two years to get bigger and stronger, he is still a relatively low ceiling prospect. He’s improved his arm and built himself into a solid defender behind the dish, while developing enough gap power to be a minor threat at the plate. His athleticism also allows him to fill in admirably at either infield corner. Still, he probably tops out as a 3rd catcher and AAA shuttle player.
One reason the Cubs could risk losing Higgins, is their catcher depth at the upper levels. Amaya is set to enter 2020 as the full time starter in Tennessee and with his 40-man slot almost assured, can at least act as an emergency call up if one is needed. Jhonny Pereda was also signed to a successor contract earlier this month, and when he shared time with Higgins in AA to begin the year, it was Pereda who earned the majority of the reps. Like Higgins, Pereda is a lower ceiling prospect that figures to spend plenty of time in AAA the next couple of years, but has a strong arm and has developed one of the better approaches at the plate in the system.
Jordan Minch, Ryan Lawlor
Neither Jordan Minch or Ryan Lawlor may receive a promotion to the 40-man this week, but I mention them because I do believe there is a chance the Cubs could lose one or both in the Rule 5 Draft. Minch was up to 97 on the gun in the AFL to go along with his above average slider. After years of struggles to throw quality strikes on a consistent basis, Minch improved his control and command in 2019. It still looks borderline to me, but he has more room for error now that he is throwing 93-95 (T97). Lawlor possesses a MLB caliber curveball that helped him punch out more than 40% of the batters he faced between South Bend and Myrtle Beach.
A move that could make room for one of them is for the Cubs to non-tender Danny Hultzen next month and then re-sign him to a Minor League deal. Hultzen is out of options and given his long running health concerns and lack of a track record, it seems improbable the Cubs (or any team) would bet on him sticking in a full-time capacity in 2020. I continue to believe a Minor League deal is in everyone’s best interest.
Iowa Reserve List
Along with the Major League Rule 5 Draft, there is a Minor League portion as well. This is how the Cubs lost Justin Bour several years ago. Last year, lefty Luis Lugo was one of three players the Cubs chose, and he proved to be valuable rotation depth and even put himself back on the prospect map after being a former top 20 guy in the Cleveland system.
Each organization submits a AAA Reserve List of up to 38 players who have Rule 5 eligibility. The Cubs currently have 79 players eligible, and assuming no more than a handful are added to the MLB 40-man roster, that means the team will be able to protect a little less than half of the remaining from the AAA portion of the draft.
While I believe the Cubs could have a player snagged in the MLB portion of the draft, I don’t see any major concerns in Minor League phase. Their core of the reserve list will likely look something like this…
Pitchers: [Mekkes/Rucker/Miller/Minch/Lawlor], Jose Albertos, Javier Assad, Craig Brooks, Faustino Carrera, Baily Clark, Scott Effross, Bryan Hudson, Conor Lillis-White, Duncan Robinson, Manuel Rodriguez, Wyatt Short, Matt Swarmer, Jerry Vasto
Infielders: [Short], Trent Giambrone, Vimael Machin, Delvin Zinn
Outfielders: Zach Davis, Donnie Dewees, Mark Zagunis
That still leaves about 10 spots open to protect additional players, with a couple left over for the Cubs to make selections from other clubs, should they wish. For a full explanation on the process and all eligible players, AZ Phil has you covered, of course.