For many people, the November squeeze involves fitting Thanksgiving leftovers into an already packed stomach. For the rebuilding Tigers, the November squeeze is how to fit their advancing prospects onto their 40-man roster.
It’s that time of year again. Friday is the deadline for teams to protect eligible prospects from next month’s Rule 5 Draft, and again, the Tigers have a potential slew of them.
Each December, the Rule 5 Draft allows teams to add young talent by adding prospects from other organizations who don't shield them by adding them to a 40-man roster. Players first signed at age 18 or younger must be added to a team's 40-man roster within five seasons or they become eligible to be drafted; players signed at age 19 or older have to be protected within four seasons. Clubs pay $100,000 to select a player in the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. If that player doesn't stay on the 26-man roster for the full season, he must be offered back to his former team for $50,000.
This year, that means an international or high school Draft pick signed in 2016 -- assuming he was 18 or younger as of June 5 of that year -- has to be protected, and a college player taken in the '17 Draft is in the same position.
Detroit’s decision to call up top pitching prospects Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal during the 2020 season took care of two big moves early, but they still have a few ahead. Fellow top prospects Matt Manning and Alex Faedo are obvious decisions, but they’re just the start.
The real struggles come from deeper in the Tigers' farm system, not only in how much Detroit values its lower-ranked prospects, but how much it anticipates other clubs valuing them, too.
The Tigers haven’t lost a player in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft since 2011, when the Pirates drafted infielder Gustavo Nunez. He never made it to the Majors, and eventually, he ended up back in the Tigers' system. Reliever Locke St. John made it to the big leagues with the Rangers in '19 after Texas selected him from the Tigers' system in the Minor League portion of the Rule 5 Draft in '17.
The Tigers currently have 36 players on their 40-man roster, following Thursday’s move to release utility player Brandon Dixon. Their list of Rule 5-eligible players includes five members of MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Prospects list for the Tigers, plus others who were on the list at some point. Unless Detroit clears some space, some prospects will be left off.
Here’s a look at some of the decisions that loom for general manager Al Avila and his staff ahead of Friday’s 8 p.m. ET deadline.
Matt Manning, RHP (3rd in Tigers' rankings, 20th on MLB Pipeline Top 100)
Manning might have made it to Detroit in September if not for the forearm strain that ended his season. Unless his injury ends up more serious than expected, the 2016 first-round pick should make his big league debut at some point next year. His powerful arsenal was on display in Spring Training and Summer Camp, and while the 22-year-old still needs some finishing touches, he isn’t far off.
Alex Faedo, RHP (10th in Tigers' rankings)
Faedo’s domination in the 2017 College World Series as the University of Florida’s ace, highlighted by a devastating slider, suggested he could be on the fast track to Detroit after the Tigers drafted him in the first round that summer. It hasn’t gone quite that smoothly, but the club thinks a lot of him, and his work ethic in Spring Training made an impression. Manning essentially lost a summer after that, spending Summer Camp in COVID-19 protocol before a forearm strain ended his season in September at the alternate training site in Toledo, Ohio. Like Manning, he should make his big league debut next year.
Joey Wentz, LHP (9th)
Normally, protecting a prospect like Wentz is a no-brainer, especially coming off a dominant stretch run at Double-A Erie in 2019 after coming over from the Braves' system in the Shane Greene trade. But Wentz underwent Tommy John surgery in March and, assuming a 14-16 month absence, will likely miss a good portion of '21. If the Tigers really wanted to use their last roster spot on someone else, they could theoretically leave Wentz off the roster, figuring no team would want to pick up such a rehab process. A team could select him and place him on the injured list to begin the season, but unless he spends 90 days on the active 26-man roster, he would fall under the same Rule 5 restrictions for 2022. Then again, it could be worth the risk for a rebuilding team to add a good pitching prospect. More likely, the Tigers won’t risk losing him.
Alex Lange, RHP (unranked)
The Tigers have liked what they’ve seen from Lange since acquiring the 2017 first-round Draft pick from the Cubs in the Nick Castellanos trade in 2019. After moving him to the bullpen at Double-A Erie and the Arizona Fall League, he made a cameo appearance in Summer Camp, then he was added to the alternate training site in Toledo late in the season. Lange could find his way to the Majors next summer, given the potential need for multi-inning relievers as baseball goes from a 60-game schedule back to 162 games. Then again, a 4.54 ERA in three Minor League seasons could leave him overlooked by clubs.
Logan Shore, RHP (unranked)
Shore, a former second-round Draft pick whom the A's dealt to the Tigers as part of the 2018 Mike Fiers trade, was eligible for the Rule 5 Draft last year and went unpicked. Like Lange, his ability to cover innings out of the bullpen could place a different value on him.
Brady Policelli, C/IF/OF (unranked)
Typically, a .244 career Minor League hitter isn’t up for debate for a 40-man roster spot, and Policelli probably won’t be, either. But the Tigers love Policelli for his versatility. He played everywhere but first base and second base at Class A Advanced Lakeland in 2019, and Detroit played him regularly at catcher and in the outfield in Spring Training and Summer Camp as a non-roster invite this year. Former manager Ron Gardenhire touted Policelli as a potential Major League superutility player one day. If a team on a tight budget wanted to bring the 25-year-old into Spring Training for a look in that same role, potentially in hopes of MLB using 28-man rosters again or working out a trade at the end of camp, he could get a consideration.
Elvin Rodriguez, RHP (30th)
Rodriguez, a lanky starter who came to Detroit in 2017 from the Angels in the Justin Upton trade, was left unprotected last year after a decent but not dominant season at Class A Advanced Lakeland in '19. The 22-year-old missed valuable development time with the cancellation of the Minor League season.
Wenceel Perez, SS (16th)
The 21-year-old Perez looked like the Tigers’ next big shortstop prospect two years ago after a solid first pro season that included a great stretch run at Class A West Michigan. Then, he hit just .233 with a .613 OPS and 33 errors at West Michigan in 2019, followed by a lost Minor League season this year. He won’t be selected, and the Tigers still like his athleticism, but he needs to make strides next year.
Wladimir Pinto, RHP (unranked)
The Tigers left Pinto unprotected last year, then extended the reliever a non-roster invite to Spring Training, where his command issues and inconsistent velocity were evident. His 12.4 K/9 rate stands out, but he has some refinements to make before a team can trust him.
Nolan Blackwood, RHP (unranked)
Like Pinto, the Tigers left Blackwood unprotected last year despite an outstanding 2019 season at Double-A Erie. However, Blackwood went to Spring Training and Summer Camp as a non-roster invite and made an impression with some effective relief pitching. With different styles and arm angles gaining attention in bullpen construction, the sidearming righty is intriguing.
Jason Foley, RHP (unranked)
The Tigers like Foley and his power fastball enough that they brought him to the alternate training site in Toledo near the 2020 season’s end. He made a similar impression in instructional league. However, the 25-year-old has yet to pitch above Class A Advanced.
Will Vest, RHP (unranked)
Vest, a hard-throwing reliever, pitched at three different levels in 2019, reaching Triple-A Toledo by season’s end before going to the Arizona Fall League. But like many on this end of the list, a lost Minor League season cost him development time.