DETROIT -- Eight months ago, Tigers general manager Al Avila was talking about cuts and additions near the end of Spring Training. He was talking about Opening Day rosters and Minor League assignments, but he was also thinking down the road.
“Eventually, this will be an organization -- and you hope to get to that point - that we’ll start putting guys on waivers because we just don’t have enough [roster spots],” Avila said in March. “You can only have 40 guys, and that 41st guy, you’re going to go, ‘Damn, I didn’t want to lose that guy, but ...’ So that’s what’s going to happen.”
Months later, decisions are starting to get tougher. And as the Tigers weigh which of their prospects to add to the 40-man roster to protect them from next month’s Rule 5 Draft, they must prepare for the possibility of losing a prospect or two who won't make the cut. That hasn’t happened in a while.
The Rule 5 Draft each December allows teams to add young talent by selecting prospects who aren’t on other organizations’ 40-man rosters. Players first signed at age 18 or younger must be added to 40-man rosters within five seasons or they become eligible to be drafted. Players signed at age 19 or older must 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 25-man roster for the following full season, he is offered back to his former team for $50,000.
The list of Rule 5 eligible players includes eight members of the Tigers’ top 30 prospects, per MLB Pipeline, plus a handful of prospects who were on the list at some point. The list includes four former first-round picks and two former Detroit top prospects. It also includes several players who could conceivably help a Tigers squad that lost 114 games in 2019.
It’s a big reason the Tigers cleared roster space in October by dropping eight players from their 40-man roster. Even so, with just seven open slots, some of which will eventually be filled by free-agent signings, Detroit doesn’t have enough room to protect everybody.
Expect some difficult decisions, and maybe some surprises, before Wednesday’s 8 p.m. ET deadline for rosters to be set. Here’s a look at the top prospects who must be protected, along with their rank on MLB Pipeline’s Tigers prospect list:
Isaac Paredes, 3B/SS (5)
In an organization starved for young impact hitters, Paredes is one such prospect who could realistically arrive in Detroit next year. Though his .784 OPS at Double-A Erie doesn’t open eyes, it was strong in a pitcher-friendly Eastern League in which he was one of the youngest players. His plate discipline belied his age, with nearly as many walks (57) as strikeouts (61) to go with 13 home runs in 127 games. He’ll open next season at Triple-A Toledo, where Tigers officials will decide on a defensive position for him before he knocks on Detroit’s door.
Daz Cameron, CF (8)
The way Cameron hit for the Tigers in Spring Training made his arrival in Detroit this season seem inevitable. Then he batted just .214 in Toledo with a .707 OPS and 152 strikeouts in 448 at-bats, showing the learning curve of someone who jumped from Class A ball to Triple-A the year before. With his 23rd birthday coming in January, Cameron still has time to develop into a Major League center fielder, and the Tigers aren’t anywhere near ready to give up on him.
Beau Burrows, RHP (14)
Burrows, the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 Draft, looked poised to become the first of Detroit’s high-rated starting prospects to make the Majors. Then came a disastrous 2019 season in Toledo that began with a decent April, stalled for two months with right shoulder inflammation, then ended early with an oblique strain. His numbers in Toledo were ugly, from a 2-6 record in 15 starts to a 5.51 ERA to 4.4 walks per nine innings. With four pitches -- including a mid-90s fastball -- and a bulldog mentality, however, he pitches like a top prospect when he’s on.
Kyle Funkhouser, RHP (18)
Like Burrows, Funkhouser was mentioned by Avila as a strong candidate for a late-season call-up from Toledo before his season went south. He had some very good outings in Toledo and Erie, but also had three starts in which he didn’t make it out of the first frame, and another in which he was chased in the second inning with Avila watching in person. His Mud Hens numbers included a 3-7 record, 8.53 ERA and 7.7 walks and 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings across 18 starts. With his 26th birthday coming in March, he’s running out of time before the younger starting prospects pass him. The Tigers should give him one more shot, but it’s not a guarantee.
Anthony Castro, RHP (20)
The Tigers avoided losing Castro as a Minor League free agent by signing him to a successor contract, but that doesn’t protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, where his flashes of dominance in Erie and the Arizona Fall League could entice a rebuilding team to carry him in the bullpen. The 24-year-old Venezuelan shined as a hard-throwing swingman for the SeaWolves, allowing just 75 hits over 102 1/3 innings with 65 walks and 116 strikeouts. At his best, he had some of the best stuff of any of the gifted pitchers in Erie this season.
Wladimir Pinto, RHP (unranked)
A 21-year-old reliever with an upper-90s fastball, a 12.4 K/9 rate over five Minor League seasons and just nine home runs allowed over 173 career innings is going to raise some eyebrows. The 5-foot-11 Pinto allowed just 41 hits over 61 2/3 innings with 87 strikeouts between Lakeland and Erie this season, then tossed five strong innings in the Arizona Fall League. He still has some way to go before reaching Detroit, but the Tigers can’t afford to lose him.
Elvin Rodriguez, RHP (22)
Look beyond the 11-9 record and 3.77 ERA, and the 21-year-old Rodriguez showed some potential at Class A Advanced Lakeland, allowing a .228 average, 1.175 WHIP and 3.0 walks per nine innings. The question is his ceiling, and whether his pitches will further develop into an overpowering arsenal, especially with his high fly-ball rate. He averaged 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings for the Flying Tigers.
Jake Robson, OF (27)
Like other Toledo outfielders, Robson took a step back in 2019. But while his .267 average was down 28 points from 2018 and he had 132 strikeouts in 112 games, his 53 walks allowed him to salvage a .352 on-base percentage and .750 OPS and set up a career-high 25 stolen bases. He profiles as an extra outfielder, and that’s exactly the role he could fill as a Rule 5 pick.
Derek Hill, OF (28)
Five years have passed since the Tigers used their first-round pick on Hill, who drew comparisons to Torii Hunter out of high school. Yet he’s still inexperienced in baseball time; injuries kept him from reaching 100 games in a season until 2018. He was a human highlight reel in Erie, showing the defensive instincts and athleticism that comprise much of his appeal. His offense remains a work in progress, having batted .243 with a .705 OPS and 147 strikeouts over 120 games for the SeaWolves in 2019. Still, he held his own with three homers, six RBIs, six steals and a .798 OPS over 17 games in the Arizona Fall League. He turns 24 in December and has the potential to be a late bloomer.
Jose Azocar, OF (unranked)
Like Castro, Azocar was on track for Minor League free agency until the Tigers re-signed him. The 23-year-old Venezuelan has a similar defensive profile to Hill but does more with his bat, finishing second in the Eastern League with a .286 average for Erie along with 21 doubles, a career-high 10 homers and 58 RBIs. His 21-to-132 walk-to-strikeout ratio needs a lot of work, but he still has time to figure things out.
Danny Woodrow, OF (unranked)
Woodrow profiles very similar to Robson, including a .274 average, .349 on-base percentage and 23 stolen bases at Toledo this past season. His extra-base power, however, has been more limited despite a better contact rate. He played all three outfield positions for the Mud Hens this year.
Jason Foley, RHP (unranked)
Foley, an undrafted free agent from 2016 who just turned 24, has been an intriguing pitcher in the organization for his power arm, which took a hit when Tommy John surgery cost him a season and a half. He struck out 43 batters over 44 innings at Lakeland this past season in his first year back, but the second season after elbow surgery is usually a better barometer.
Logan Shore, RHP (unranked)
Shore, a former second-round pick who came over from the A’s in the Mike Fiers trade in 2018, looked like an overlooked starter for Erie at times this summer with a 4-7 record and 3.43 ERA. His 2.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his Minor League career, including 1.49 this past season, is difficult to overlook.
Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason.