Bucs face tough Rule 5 protection choices

November 17th, 2021

Friday is a big date in the Pirates’ offseason calendar -- maybe more so than for almost any other MLB team.

Nov. 19 marks the final date that players may be added to a team’s 40-man roster to be protected from December's Rule 5 Draft. The Pirates, like many clubs, have a longer-than-usual list of players in need of protection this offseason, which includes 10 Top 30 prospects per MLB Pipeline -- tied with the Mets for the most Top 30 prospects eligible to be selected.

Pittsburgh has already added some players to its 40-man group who would have been in need of protection, including Diego Castillo this offseason. Instead of looking at the longer list, let’s look at those 10 top prospects, how likely it is that they’ll be protected and what factors are at play.

This is never an exact science, but let’s give it a shot.


SS Liover Peguero (No. 5)
He’s too good, too close and has too much upside to lose. Peguero hit .270/.332/.444 in 90 games at High-A Greensboro, a level at which he had 19 doubles, two triples and 14 homers with 28 stolen bases in 34 attempts. With No. 3 prospect Oneil Cruz ready for the Majors, Peguero should hold down the shortstop spot at Double-A with a chance to prove himself as worthy of an MLB look late in the season.

OF Canaan Smith-Njigba (No. 27)
I’m going to make a fairly strong take here: He may be a lower rank on the Top 30 than most of these prospects, but he’s arguably the most Major League ready player. Smith-Njigba has developed a strong eye at the plate, posting a .398 on-base percentage in 266 plate appearances at Double-A this season before slashing .313/.459/.438 in 61 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League.


LHP Omar Cruz (No. 26)
Cruz made the jump to Double-A fairly quickly in 2021, and while his strikeout numbers dipped fairly drastically, his run prevention was solid (3.44 ERA in 70 2/3 innings). He’s also valuable as a left-handed starter who is not far from the Majors. Of the good debate group, I think he may have the strongest case, especially since teams generally have more space on the pitching side to keep a player.

1B Mason Martin (No. 17)
A club with the lowest slugging percentage in MLB last season (.364) leaving a player who hit 25 homers across Double-A and Triple-A in 2021 unprotected? It’s debatable. There’s still a lot of swing and miss to Martin’s game, with 171 strikeouts in 120 games last season, leading to a .241 average. Do the Pirates take the risk that another team won’t want a first-base/DH prospect? It may be even more risky if National League teams believe the DH will be in play in ‘22. Another related question: Do the Bucs get rid of Colin Moran this offseason and begin to give Martin his opportunity?

RHP Tahnaj Thomas (No. 13)
Thomas has upside galore, despite a 5.19 ERA in 16 starters at High-A. The starter can reach 100 mph with his fastball, while usually sitting in the high 90s and he has a good feel for his slider off it. It’s possible a team could do for him what the Pirates did for Oviedo -- stash him in the bullpen, give him a few outings and retain his rights -- so it’s worth considering.

OF Cal Mitchell (No. 18)
OF Jack Suwinski (No. 29)
OF Travis Swaggerty (No. 16)
All are Triple-A ready outfield prospects. If you’re as bullish on Smith-Njigba’s chances as me -- there’s definitely an argument to be made on the flip side -- the outfield mix becomes one player more crowded. It’s highly unlikely all four will go protected, but which way do you go? Mitchell had 112 hits, Suwinski had 19 homers and Swaggerty, whose speed and fielding stand out over his bat to this point, missed all of 2021 with a right shoulder injury. Scratch your head for an hour, and you’ll be an hour short of where I am on this question.


RHP Cody Bolton (No. 28)
Bolton missed all of 2021 with a medial meniscus tear in his right knee, meaning he is in dire need of game action compared to others on this list. He gained momentum with a strong ‘19 at then-High-A Bradenton, but he struggled a bit in nine games at Double-A that same year.

RHP Eddy Yean (No. 30)
A down season at Low-A Bradenton -- the lowest year-end level of any prospect on this list -- will probably mean Yean can safely go unprotected despite evaluators seeing upside in his game.