Which prospects will Tigers protect from Rule 5?

November 16th, 2018

DETROIT -- One of the tough aspects of the Tigers' rebuilding project is the wait before many of Detroit's top prospects reach the big leagues. That's partly a consequence of the many young prospects general manager Al Avila acquired in trades for veterans, as well as the influx of prospects from the last couple Drafts.
The bright side, for now, is that the Tigers don't have to open many 40-man roster spots for their top prospects for a while. As Tuesday's deadline looms to protect eligible prospects from next month's Rule 5 Draft, however, Avila and his front office still have some interesting decisions to make.
The Rule 5 Draft, scheduled for Dec. 13 to cap next month's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas, allows teams to pluck eligible prospects from other organizations if they're willing to carry the players on their Major League roster for a full season. Players signed or drafted at age 18 or younger are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft after five professional seasons. Players signed or drafted by age 19 or older are eligible are four pro seasons. For Draft purposes, players signed or selected out of high school in 2014 or earlier are eligible, as are players drafted out of college in 2015. Players who are on a club's 40-man roster, however, are not eligible.
The Tigers got a head start on protecting some of their top prospects when they added Christin Stewart, Matt Hall and to their roster as September call-ups. Detroit still has some moves to make to protect some others. And with 38 players currently on their roster, the Tigers could face some tough decisions to make room. Keep in mind, too, that the Tigers will likely keep a spot open to take a player or two in the Rule 5 Draft themselves.
Here's a look at who among MLB Pipeline's top 30 Tigers prospects list will be Rule 5 eligible if they're not added to the 40-man roster:
Franklin Perez, RHP (No. 3 in Tigers' system, No. 67 overall): With Daz Cameron's success this year, it's easy to forget that Perez was the prize return from the Astros' system in the trade. A lat strain in Spring Training and midseason shoulder inflammation limited Perez to just 19 1/3 innings between the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and Class A Advanced Lakeland this year, but he remains a key cog of the Tigers' future rotation as he nears his 21st birthday in December. He'll be protected.
Jose Azocar, OF (No. 19): The Tigers left Azocar unprotected last offseason following a rough season at Lakeland. The 22-year-old rebounded this year with a .297 average and .719 OPS between Lakeland and Class A West Michigan, but with just 28 extra-base hits -- including two home runs -- and 14 walks, the Tigers could take a chance again.
LHP Tyler Alexander (No. 24): The Tigers' second-round pick from 2015 went 6-8 with a 4.44 ERA between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, and he is likely to be part of the Mud Hens' rotation in 2019. But he also yielded 184 hits over 140 innings as he attacked hitters in an effort to induce weak contact. The Tigers have better starting prospects, but not many lefties.
OF Derek Hill (No. 29): The Tigers' top pick in the 2015 Draft has faced a series of struggles, most of them injury-related, in five pro seasons. His 106 games at Lakeland in 2018 marked his first season over 100 games, but he batted .239 (82-for-343) with 16 extra-base hits, a .625 OPS and 109 strikeouts. At 22 years old, he still has potential to go with tons of athleticism (reflected in 35 stolen bases), but probably not enough to tempt a team to use a 25-man roster spot on him.
And here's a look at prospects outside the top 30 who will be eligible if not added to the roster:
OF Cam Gibson: The Tigers love Gibson's baseball instincts, hustle, competitiveness and speed, all of which reflect his baseball roots as the son of Tigers great Kirk Gibson. He batted .244 with a .715 OPS between Lakeland and Erie, posting 14 doubles, eight home runs and 22 stolen bases along the way. His ability to play all three outfield spots gives him potential as a reserve.
RHP Paul Voelker: The funky-throwing reliever was Rule 5 eligible last winter but was coming off a suspension-shortened season in Double-A. His numbers out of Toledo's bullpen this past season -- a 3.18 ERA, a .213 batting average in relief, and 58 strikeouts over 68 innings -- re-opened some eyes. Relievers tend to be easier to carry as Rule 5 picks, since teams can pick and choose situations to bring them out of the bullpen, and the 26-year-old Voelker is an intriguing one.
RHP Spenser Watkins: No team took a chance on Watkins last offseason, despite a 9-3 record and 3.22 ERA at West Michigan in 2017. He followed it up by going 10-7 with a 2.76 ERA and 1.17 WHIP at three different levels, including a couple spot starts at Toledo.
RHP Grayson Long: If the name sounds familiar, Long was part of the return package from the Angels in the trade last year, but missed this year recovering from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He should be healthy for 2019, in which case the Tigers can plug him into their rotation at Erie to follow up on some very good numbers at the same level in 2017.