There are some key dates on the offseason calendar this week to go along with the BBWAA Awards announcements on MLB Network each night. On Tuesday, teams must add Rule 5-eligible players to the 40-man roster to protect them from next month’s Rule 5 Draft. And Friday is the tender deadline, the day teams must decide whether to offer a 2024 contract to any unsigned players, including those who are arbitration-eligible. Non-tendered players join the free-agent pool.
These roster-maneuvering dates are important -- especially for the Royals, who have several decisions to make leading up to both.
Let’s dive into the Rule 5 Draft ahead of the 5 p.m. CT deadline. Keep in mind that Kansas City’s roster is at a full 40 players right now, so the club will need to clear some space to add prospects who need protecting.
What is the Rule 5 Draft?
Held each December, the Rule 5 Draft allows clubs to select certain non-40-man roster players from other clubs. Clubs draft in reverse order of the standings from the previous season.
Teams don’t have to pick anyone, and several teams will pass. If a team does pick a player, it costs $100,000. The player must stay on the 26-man roster (or the injured list) all year; if he’s removed, he’s subject to waivers and must be offered back to his original club for $50,000. Players must be active for a minimum of 90 days in order to shed Rule 5 restrictions for the following season.
Who is eligible?
Players signed at 18 years or younger need to be added to their club’s 40-man roster within five seasons or they become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Players who signed at age 19 or older need to be protected within four seasons.
Who might the Royals protect?
How many players the Royals protect will come down to how many players they want to take off the roster.
One who seems very likely -- at the top of the list, at least -- is right-hander Will Klein, the Royals’ fifth-round pick in the 2020 MLB Draft out of Eastern Illinois and their current No. 25 prospect. The 23-year-old started this past season strong, with 44 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. But then he struggled a bit at Triple-A Omaha, with a 5.66 ERA across 35 innings. But Klein will likely be competing for a bullpen role in the spring and offers high-powered stuff if he can control it and stay healthy.
Another likely addition is outfielder Tyler Gentry, the Royals’ No. 8 prospect. Gentry slashed .253/.370/.421 across 129 games at Triple-A this year, and with Kansas City looking for a corner-outfield bat this offseason, Gentry would be good depth to have. His power weaned a bit this past season, with 16 homers compared to 21 in ‘22, but he knocked 28 doubles with Omaha and even stole 14 bases.
Right below those two are infielder/outfielder Tyler Tolbert and pitchers Christian Chamberlain and Luinder Avila. Tolbert, the organization’s George Brett Hitter of the Year, is one of the fastest players the Royals have in their system and would be an asset to a team looking for speed off the bench. The 25-year-old also offers depth at shortstop and in center field. Tolbert posted a .755 OPS at Double-A this past season, so he’s not far away from the Majors.
Chamberlain, 24, was lights-out at Double-A at the start of 2023, with a 1.99 ERA in 31 2/3 innings. He struggled much more at Triple-A, allowing 28 runs (23 earned) in 24 1/3 innings while dealing with some injuries. Teams covet lefties, and Chamberlain, despite his small stature at 5-foot-10, offers intriguing stuff for a bullpen. Avila is just 22 and hasn’t pitched above High-A, but he is strong and durable, throwing 115 innings in 2022 and 108 2/3 this year while posting a 4.39 ERA for Quad Cities. He is the Royals’ No. 28 prospect because of that durability as well as his mix of pitches, which continue to improve.
Other worthy choices include right-hander Beck Way, infielders Lizandro Rodriguez, Devin Mann and CJ Alexander and catcher Kale Emshoff.
One big name left is lefty Asa Lacy, the No. 4 overall pick in 2020. Since then, the 24-year-old has thrown just 80 innings -- and he did not throw a pitch for an affiliated level in ‘23. Lacy has dealt with a string of injuries, most recently his lower back, and hurdle after hurdle since joining the Royals’ organization. When he was on the mound, he couldn’t throw strikes; in 28 innings in ‘22, Lacy allowed 33 earned runs, struck out 35 and walked 42 while hitting 13 batters.
Lacy does still possess the stuff that excites teams with an upper-90s fastball and nasty breaking stuff. For that reason, a team could select him, put him on the injured list and find out what’s going on physically. That could also mean the Royals would want to protect him, knowing that they also gave him a $6.667 million signing bonus when he was drafted. But given how little Lacy has been on the mound since becoming a Royal, it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see him go unprotected.