The minor league playoffs are rolling along and the Astros already have seen three of their affiliates eliminated prior to the league finals. That may sound like the Astros are having a rough minor league postseason, but actually it means that Houston has three teams with a chance to win their league titles.
Tri-City is getting ready to play in the short-season New York-Penn League championship series. Lancaster is tied 1-1 in the high Class A California League semifinals and Quad Cities is tied 1-1 in the low Class Midwest League semifinals. A club winning two minor league titles during one season happens occasionally, but winning three titles is truly a rare feat—though the Diamondbacks did it just last year. Speaking of the Astros . . .
How many Rule 5-vulnerable players do the Astros have reason to be legitimately concerned about losing in the major league phase of the upcoming December draft?
I'm going to suppose that Mike's question stems in part from the speculation as to why the Astros have chosen to not call up center fielder George Springer. Triple-A Oklahoma City was eliminated from the Pacific Coast League playoffs over the weekend, but Houston has decided not to call up Springer and his 37 home runs and 45 stolen bases, at least in part because he’s not yet on the 40-man roster and does not have to be protected from the Rule 5 draft until after next season.
Astros fans understandably want to see Springer bring his power and speed to Houston. The Astros’ 46-78 record is seven games worse than the Marlins, so the battle for the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft (otherwise known as the Carlos Rodon sweepstakes) is all but locked up.
In reality, the Astros are not facing a 40-man roster crunch. They have the deepest farm system in the minors, but most of the players worth protecting won't become Rule 5 eligible until 2014 and beyond. The Rule 5 draft hasn’t been a problem for Houston for many years. In fact, the Astros haven’t lost a player in the major league portion of the draft since righthander D.J. Houlton was picked by the Dodgers in 2004.
The Astros’ 40-man roster is currently full, and amazingly, 39 of the players are under team control for 2014. Three prospective free agents on the Opening Day roster—Rick Ankiel, Carlos Pena and Ronny Cedeno—all were released during the season, leaving Erik Bedard as the only current Astro who will hit free agency this offseason. Even after waving goodbye to Bedard, however, Houston still will have 40 players on its roster once it reinstates Alex White from the 60-day disabled list.
Now, that does not mean that the Astros have no room on the 40-man to protect additional players. Right fielder/third baseman Jimmy Paredes, third baseman Brandon Laird, righthanders John Ely, Philip Humber and Josh Zeid and catchers Cody Clark and Matt Pagnozzi are all players who could be dumped from the 40-man roster with few ramifications. Outfielder Trevor Crowe and even first baseman Brett Wallace could also be jettisoned, while righthander Edgar Gonzalez looks like a non-tender candidate. Just making some of these suggested moves would get the Astros five to seven spots to use to protect more valuable long-term players. If the Astros faced a true roster crunch, they could probably open up as many as 10 spots on the roster.
But they don't need to, because they do not have nearly that many players they need to protect. With few exceptions (largely limited to older high school draftees), this year's Rule 5 eligible players will be high school players drafted in 2009 and college players drafted in 2010. International amateurs signed during the 2009 minor league season will also be eligible.
When it comes to their own draftees, the 2009 draft is pretty bare of potential high school picks to protect. The club could protect first-round shortstop Jio Mier, but after he hit .197/.296/.268 at Double-A Corpus Christi this year, his appeal to other clubs would probably be limited. There's not much risk that he'd stick on a major league roster all year, and even if he did, he's behind Carlos Correa, Jonathan Villar and Nolan Fontana on the Astros' shortstop depth chart. Neither second-round pick Tanner Bushue or third-rounders Telvin Nash and Jonathan Meyer are risks to get snapped up in the Rule 5 draft either.
Nondrafted free agent R.J. Alaniz is also eligible, but his lack of strikeouts and mediocre results combined with average stuff make him a worthwhile gamble to leave off the 40-man as well.
College players drafted in 2010 aren't much different. Third-round outfielder Austin Wates and fourth-round righthander Bobby Doran are the kind of role players who generally slide right on through the Rule 5 draft. Eighth-round righthander Jake Buchanan may have a low ceiling, but he does have a track record of success and average secondary stuff to potentially help a club as a cost-controlled reliever. Lefthander Alex Sogard, a 26th-round pick in 2010, could also earn a 40-man spot, as he has plus stuff (92-94 mph fastball and a solid breaking ball at his best), even if it currently comes with well-below-average command.
Really, the only players the Astros have to worry about protecting are a few of those they acquired in trade. Righthander Asher Wojciechowski, right fielder Domingo Santana and first baseman Jonathan Singleton are all sure-fire additions to the 40-man. Catcher Carlos Perez is probably worth adding as well—even though he passed through last year’s Rule 5 unselected—and if you wanted to be extra cautious, then lefthander David Rollins and his average stuff could also be protected.
So Houston has three clear-cut additions to the 40-man roster as well as another five or six players they could protect if they are feeling cautious. Considering the state of the bottom of the Astros' 40-man roster, they could find room to bring Springer up to the big leagues if they wanted to.
But why should they? The reality is that when viewed dispassionately, there's no real upside for the Astros to call up Springer right now. Sure, it would maybe sell a few more tickets, but Houston only has nine home dates left this year. Yes, it might help Springer get acclimated to the big leagues, but the entire 2014 season can serve that same role because the Astros aren't going to be contending for a playoff spot next year.