Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

2023 Rule-5 Discussion


DJ Herz is seemingly a lock to get protected. Photo via Wash Post

We do it every year. Its our annual deep dive into our older prospects to see who the team may be thinking about protecting. Here’s links to past years posts on this topic: 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010. And here’s a summary of all these posts and my predictions versus who we actually protected.

November 14th is the Deadline to add players to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft

As a reminder, Rule 5 eligibility is as follows for any player not on a 40-man roster:

  • Signed at 18-years-old or younger, has been in the organization for five seasons
  • Signed at 19-years-old or older, has been in the organization for four seasons

So, generally speaking this translates to:

  • IFAs or High Schoolers drafted/signed in 2019 or before
  • College players drafted/signed in 2020 or before

2020 of course was the Covid draft, so there were only 5 rounds of players picked, making this a thinner analysis than it often is. Also of note; this isn’t a hard and fast rule; a prep player could have turned 19 by the time they got drafted and be Rule-5 eligible on year earlier. Also (as was the case for Bryce Harper way back when) a college player could be 18 or younger and hang onto an extra year. Same with IFAs; sometimes an IFA is actually 19 or older so they’re due a year earlier. If i forgot someone in here, its likely due to one of these factors.

Now, in 2023, heading into this effort, the 40-man roster is full. So full in fact that just to return all our 60-day DL guys to the active roster a few days ago we had to DFA a prospect in Matt Cronin (who, if he clears waivers and is outrighted is a 19D and would be subject to this draft).

Important resources useful to this analysis:

  • Nats Draft Tracker
  • Nats IFA Tracker; this is a newer resource you may not have seen that i’ve created in the spirit of the Draft tracker, but for IFA “classes.” I could only go back to 2015.
  • Nats Big Board; which helps add in the Rule5 candidates we’ve acquired via trade.
  • Roster Resource: Fangraphs-based resource that tracks R5 and options status for “key” Minor leaguers.
  • 2023 MLFA List: which took out some of the older names at the end of this analysis.

Here’s the analysis, group by group.

Group 1: Newly Eligible 2020 draft College Players this year worth consideration for protection:

The draft class was so small, we can go through them one by one:

  • Cade Cavalli: already on the 40-man
  • Cole Henry: man, what a dilemma. If he’s healthy, he’s a #2 starter ceiling in the majors. But after a risky shoulder surgery in 2022, Henry only threw 33 innings in 2023, to a 6.23 ERA. Is he even healthy? I’ve seen him ranked anywhere between 5th and 20th in prospect rankings, but everyone out there can see his performance.
  • Holden Powell, the closer in college who has missed a ton of time, but pitched most of this year in High-A. He walked nearly a batter an inning. Even for a team looking for middle relief, I can’t imagine someone taking Powell. That didn’t stop the Nats from sending him to the AFL, to showcase/test him. In Arizona as of this writing: 0-2,12.00 ERA. He’s pitched 9 innings and given up 12 ER on 12 hits and 8 walks. Not Good. That probably seals it; no Rule5 for Powell.
  • Brady Lindsly: I thought this was a throw-away pick in 2020: $20k senior sign from Oklahoma. But damn if he hasn’t stuck around. He split time between AA and AAA this year, didn’t hit half bad. He’s a minor league backup catcher though; very little chance he gets picked.
  • Mitchell Parker: opening day starter for AA, durable lefty, better than his numbers, made it to AAA by season’s end. I think he’s someone the team has to protect.

Group 1 Protection candidates: Parker, maybe Henry.

Group 1-A: 2020 NDFAs

A new category b/c the 2020 draft was just 5 rounds and we signed a slew of NDFAs that year:

  • Paul Witt: CA/OF who’s at AAA. not great numbers but hanging around.
  • Zach Brzycky: RHP who is routinely on prospect lists for this team and who has been a back of the bullpen guy his whole career. He was an NRI in spring training this year after lighting up the minors in 2022 to the tune of a 1.76 ERA across 61 innings. But … he got hurt. And missed the entire 2023 season. So he’s not a candidate to get drafted this year, but could be in the future. This is just the kind of guy (minor league closer) who gets plucked all the time to be the 6th guy in a MLB bullpen.

Group 1A protection candidates: none.

Group 2: Newly Eligible 2019 High School-age drafted players under consideration for protection

Thanks to the rarity in which we draft HS players, there’s exactly one player from 2019 who remains in the organization who was a HS draftee.

  • Michael Cuevas. RH starter. Pitched the entire year in AA, 5.53 ERA in his age 22 season. Now, that’s impressive to me as a 22yr old in AA, but is this someone we think would get plucked? He’s never appeared on a single prospect ranking list, ever. So he has almost no prospect fame. I don’t think he’s a likely candidate to get picked, but I do like the possibility of him turning into a decent starter as a 23yr old next year.

Group 2 Protection Candidates: Cuevas, Maybe.

Group 3: Newly Eligible 2019 signed IFAs under consideration for protection:

I count 12 IFAs signed in 2019 who remain active in the system as per the IFA tracker. Some have yet to make it off the Island, let alone get out of rookie ball. So, here’s those who have made it any further:

  • Roismar Quintana: he’s now morphed into a corner OF/1B guy with no power and no speed. He’s generally ranked in the 20s on these prospect rankings. Certainly he’s not a notable prospect. Not a candidate to get drafted.
  • Kevin Made: Might be the highest ranked prospect to be evaluated (depending on where Henry is ranked on your list du jour). Made was part of the bounty for Candelario from Chicago (along with DJ Herz, who’s mentioned in the next section), and you’d have to think one of the reasons Chicago suggested him was because of his Rule-5 eligibility this off-season. He’s a 21-yr old high-A SS who didn’t exactly light the world on fire upon getting here (.137/.232/.192). He’s not getting drafted.
  • Andry Lara: The Nats aggressively pushed Lara to High-A this year, where he pitched an entire year in the rotation as a 20yr old. Numbers were decent: 4.58 ERA, 23 starts, 1.26 whip. Easy arm action, lots of velocity. He’s definitely a valuable prospect, but is he someone you have to protect? Its the same argument the team used last year to protect Jeremy De La Rosa coming out of A ball, and I’ll bet the Nats protect Lara under similar thought process.
  • Juan Abreu: reliever in Low-A. 23yr old with a 5+ ERA in Low-A; more likely to get cut than drafted.
  • Franklin Marquez, long reliever in Low-A. 37 walks in 35 innings. Not a rule-5 draft candidate.
  • Pablo Aldonis: hurt in May, went on season-ending 60-day DL. I like his future prospects but for now he doesn’t seem like he’ll get picked.

Group 3 Protection Candidates: Lara

Group 4: Rule-5 Eligible Drafted/Domestic hold-overs of note

So, anyone drafted in 2019 or before falls into this category. Everyone on this list has already passed through Rule-5 at least once, and is mentioned here b/c they’re now improved enough to be notable. If someone’s not above High-A, they’re not mentioned.

  • Jackson Cluff: .206 as a SS in AA. Not a candidate.
  • Jack Dunn: corner OF who made his way to AAA. he’s now 27, having been an old senior sign in 2019. Org guy.
  • JT Arruda: backup 2B in AA. Not a candidate
  • DJ Herz: trade bounty along with Kevin Made for Candelario. Sent to the AFL just to make sure everyone in baseball knew who he was and that he was rule-5 eligible. He sparkled in 2023 for two teams, 3.43 ERA in 22 starts as a lefty, striking out 133 in 94IP. 100% guarantee he’s protected.
  • Lucas Knowles: rubber armed lefty who ended up in AAA this year as kind of a long-man/multi inning guy. Never been on a prospect list, but just keeps moving up. Not notable enough to get plucked, but someone who may contribute to this team in the future.
  • Orlando Ribalta, who the team sent to the AFL after he pitched well enough in AA for most of the year. He’s got decent career stats, but is now a 25yr old Juco signing who’s still hanging around and has never once been named to a prospect list.
  • Garvin Alston, who we got in trade from the White Sox in April of 2022 for … cash? Nonetheless he’s a 19D who had 44 appearances this year for AA.
  • Seth Shuman: 19D who we got in trade and finished year on 60-day DL.
  • Cody Wilson: an 18D who keeps hanging around, bouncing between AA and AAA this year.
  • Onyx Vega, also an 18D who’s facing his 3rd Rule-5. Backup catcher in AAA.
  • Trey Harris, who we got in trade last year from Atlanta for Ehire Adrianza, is still hanging around but has been layered in AA by all our prospects. Now 27; not a prospect really.
  • Reid Schaller, 3rd rounder in 18D who pitched in the back end of the AA bullpen this year. Decent numbers repeating AA, but very little prospect mention in his career.
  • Tim Cate, still trying to make it, now converting to relief and had decent AA numbers. We would have expected more from a 2nd rounder, but he’s still not in the rule-5 conversation.
  • Mason Denaburg. Our 1st rounder in 2018 is still out there, still throwing the rock in low-A.
  • (Possible): Matt Cronin, who is in DFA limbo as we write this and could be outrighted. If so, he’s technically rule-5 eligible, which would be silly for someone to draft since they could have just claimed the guy a week prior. Not getting drafted.

Group 4 protection Candidates: Herz a lock. Ribalta? Maybe?

Group 5: IFAs: 2018 and older

We’re only listing IFAs from 2018 or previously who have gotten out of Rookie ball, since there’s just so many of them on that roster.

  • Yoander Rivero, 18IFA backup SS in Low-A. Hit. 186 this year. Not a candidate.
  • Rodney Theophile. 18IFA who put up pretty decent numbers in High-A this year. But, he was an older IFA (he’s 24 this year) and didn’t pitch after July 7th. Another one of these “injured but never hit the DL types,” so who knows what actually happened to him. Not a candidate.
  • Aldo Ramirez. 18IFA trade bounty for Kyle Schwarber two summers ago. Still not healthy, despite being a solid SP prospect. Has not pitched now in two full seasons. Obviously not a candidate to get drafted; just hoping he actually pitches for us at some point.
  • Richard Guasch; an 18IFA that we got in trade from Oakland in the 2021 trade deadline. Missed two chunks of time on the DL this season, is now 25, and would never stick on a MLB roster. not a candidate.
  • Leandro Emiliani: 17IFA who hit .212 in low-A. Nope.
  • Gerardi Diaz: 17IFA 3rd catcher in Low-A. Nope.
  • Viandel Pena: 17IFA backup 2B in Wilmington who hit .212. nope.
  • Bryan Caceres, 17IFA starter in Wilmington with an ERA in the 6s. nope.
  • Carlos Romero, 17IFA reliever in Wilimington with an ERA in the 6s. nope.
  • Jordy Barley, 16IFA who still maintains eligibility despite now being in the minors for 8 years. He’s famous for his speed, made it to AAA this year, where he hit .283 despite hitting .228 in Hihg-A for most of the year. The scouting report is seemingly out on the guy, and I don’t think he’s a prospect anymore.
  • A slew of 18IFAs amongst the 30+ arms on the Low-A Roster: Diaz, Rodriguez, Otanez, Atencio, Sanchez, and Hiraldo. None of them are even likely to get a chance at being a rotation member, and are probably closer to a release than a Rule-5 drafting. None are candidates.

Group 5 Candidates: none.

Group 6: Former 40-man guys who have been previously outrighted

  • Evan Lee: went from 104 Ks in 71 High-A innings in 2021 to a 40-man spot, then was outrighted in November 2022 and spent 2023 in AA posting a 6.45 ERA before missing the last three months with injury. Not a candidate.
  • Rico Garcia, who signed as MLFA in July, then was added to the active roster like 8 days later, released on 9/1, re-signed a day later. .. is he Rule5 eligible if he signed a MLFA deal? Unclear.

Group 6 candidates: none.

So, where does that leave us? Summarizing the Groups:

  • Group 1 Protection candidates: Parker, maybe Henry.
  • Group 1A protection candidates: none.
  • Group 2 Protection Candidates: Cuevas maybe.
  • Group 3 Protection Candidates: Lara
  • Group 4 protection Candidates: Herz a lock. Ribalta maybe.
  • Group 5 Candidates: none.
  • Group 6 candidates: none.

I predict the team protects three starters: Parker, Lara, and Herz. They roll the dice on Henry, Cuevas, and Ribalta. In order to make room, they DFA Abbott, Rico Garcia, and Downs.

11/15/23 Rule-5 results (post publishing): Nats protect four: Parker, Herz, Henry, and Brzycky. To make room, they DFA Smith (a non-tender candidate), Abbott, and Machado (who has a Japan opportunity).

So, we were right about Parker and Herz. We hedged on Henry, and the team added him. This is a good sign for me; it means the team is confident enough in his ability to rebound (either that or they know other teams are looking at a former top 10 prospect arm/2nd rounder and want to prevent some other team from getting essentially a “free” arm to try out in spring training). The surprise was Brzycky; not because he isn’t worthy, but because he’s not coming back from TJ until mid-season.

Written by Todd Boss

November 13th, 2023 at 3:17 pm

Posted in Rule-5

19 Responses to '2023 Rule-5 Discussion'

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  1. My understanding is that Cronin cleared waivers and was outrighted and that Barley has re-signed with the Nats as a minor-league free agent.


    13 Nov 23 at 6:01 pm

  2. of Herz, Parker, Henry and Lara my best guess is one is left unprotected. tough call but it would have to be Parker for me


    13 Nov 23 at 6:17 pm

  3. didn’t mean to post that anonymously


    13 Nov 23 at 6:21 pm

  4. Please don’t protect Lara. He wouldn’t be picked. They do this every year, believe their own hype on Antuna, de la Rosa, Adon, and on and on. The first two got DFA’d before ever getting close to the majors, and Adon has burned all of his options before he was ready to make a real contribution. I’m not predicting at all that Lara won’t pan out. It’s actually hard to get a good read on him because they’ve thrown him in the deep end the last two seasons. But it puts unnecessary pressure on kids that age to be on the 40-man.

    I paid more attention last year to who was actually available and picked in Rule 5 because the Nats had the #1 pick. Of those taken in the MLB portion, 13 of 15 were pitchers. Nearly all had spent at least part of a season at AA.

    I agree that Herz is a given. I’m cautiously optimistic that he’s something legit. He has amazingly high K numbers for a starter and seems to have a floor as an MLB-level reliever at worst. He may be the best healthy pitcher the Nats have in the minors right now, including Rutledge.

    Parker I could take or leave protecting. His numbers on just about every score are not as good as Herz’s. But he gets K’s at a level that might allow him to be stashed in an MLB bullpen as a reliever. Knowles seems like a lesser version of Herz and Parker, still with a chance at the majors, but not a big threat to be lost.

    Henry . . . man . . . let’s just say that what the Nats do with him will tell us a lot about what they think of his arm health. If they don’t protect him, it will confirm a fair amount of what we fear.

    FWIW, so far they’ve only cleared on spot on the 40-man. That would go to Herz. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s all they do. But it also wouldn’t surprise me if he’s joined by Henry and/or Parker.


    13 Nov 23 at 6:34 pm

  5. “one” spot on the 40-man. Of course non-tender decisions are due this week too, so that could save them a DFA or two, although all the guys who Todd listed certainly are vulnerable.

    It’s also a great time to DFA guys. All teams are making tough decisions on who to protect from Rule 5 and are not looking to be making waiver claims, all the more from a roster as thin on talent as the Nats.


    13 Nov 23 at 6:40 pm

  6. Fully subscribe to what KW is saying. Protecting young IFAs in A ball has been a hallmark of the Nats’ R5 strategy for a while now, but it’s stupid. As KW points out, it’s actually done more harm than good by burning options. There’s no team on earth bad enough to want to play Jeremy de la Rosa on their major league team. Same for Adon. And the same for Lara. Lara has consistently been more hype than actual production. He’s yet been able to demonstrate an ability to both miss bats AND limit runs. And he’s still only in A+.

    What’s always noted in R5 discussions is that the vast majority of R5 picks get returned to their original team. The only reason we managed to keep Ward was the timing of his injury. His 7.12 ERA at the time of injury had DFA written all over it.

    Even in the extremely unlikely scenario Lara gets picked, there’s an even slimmer chance he sticks with his team all season. It’s a risk I’d take every single time.

    Leaving Parker exposed, though, would be silly. Unlike Lara, he’s ready to play in the majors, having spent the end of the season in AAA. He also has the 7th most strikeouts since 2021 of some 7000 minor leaguers. You don’t accrue those kind of numbers with mediocre stuff. He’s got real talent, it’s just a question of whether it’s in the rotation or bullpen. 2024 should be his last chance as a starter. If he can’t rein in his control, then it’s to the bullpen he goes. Our pitching depth, particularly in relief, is extremely thin, so I think he could easily be one of our best relief options.


    14 Nov 23 at 7:01 am

  7. I would also take Knowles and Ribalta a bit more seriously. Our upper level MILB bullpen depth, which is basically Knowles and Ribalta, is awfully thin. I fully expect 2024 to be repeat of 2023, with a lot of unsightly ERAs and churn of AAAA players. Better to not expose your best relief prospects.


    14 Nov 23 at 7:11 am

  8. In last year’s Rule 5 draft, the Braves had left exposed a reliever with experience at AAA who had been quite good. No one took him. His numbers were much better than those of Knowles and Ribalta. There are zillions of guys like that on the Rule 5 list every year.

    As for Parker, I’ve actually been somewhat of a Parker fan, but considering how he got clobbered in his brief AAA stint, combined with being a funky lefty who doesn’t throw that hard, I don’t think they have much risk of losing him. But I could see the logic if they do add him to the 40-man.


    14 Nov 23 at 8:20 am

  9. If I were the GM of a bad team I would take Henry, just to see him in Spring Training. There’s just too much upside there for a typical Rule 5 pick, even if that upside is unlikely to be realized. If he looks anything like his pre-injury self, I can limit his innings as an 8th guy in the bullpen and hope he eventually develops into a 2nd or 3rd starter, albeit one who will always be on a pitch count. If he’s terrible, I can send him back and cycle through waiver claims looking for a Robert Garcia. Huge upside; almost no downside.

    I agree with Will and KW that I don’t think anyone is taking Lara, but I also agree with Todd that I won’t be surprised if the Nats protect him anyway.

    Bland Moniker

    14 Nov 23 at 11:30 am

  10. As noted, if they don’t protect Henry, it will show that they’re very doubtful about his future. If they think he’s improving, they’ll protect him. He was absolutely dominant at AA in 2022 when healthy. He got clobbered at AA in 2023, even in limited action.


    14 Nov 23 at 12:13 pm

  11. There may not be a shortage of decent relievers available in the R5 draft, but there is a shortage of decent relievers in the Nationals farm.

    Also, of the 15 players taken in ’22’s R5 draft 11 were relievers, meaning they’re a valuable commodity, particularly for the R5. I don’t necessarily think we should protect both Ribalta and Knowles (I’d lean towards Ribalta), but just saying the decision should be considered more seriously than suggested.

    Maybe even most interestingly about ’22’s R5, 7 of the 5 picks remained with their drafting org, including all of the first 6 picks!!


    14 Nov 23 at 12:27 pm

  12. Nice write up, Todd. I don’t have a strong conviction on how the Nats should handle the Rule 5 roster juggling, so I’ll leave it to the professionals. That said, this was a fun read. And I’m sure that, whatever the Nats do, we will be able keep ourselves warm for a while telling them that they did it wrong.

    John C.

    14 Nov 23 at 12:46 pm

  13. I should probably note, for the record, that I agree with those who think protecting Lara is stupid. I think this post was less about MY opinion and more a prediction of what the Nats will do, and as you’ve noted, they’re constantly protecting these 20yr old IFAs in low-A who nobody in their right mind would be picking. Antuna was the first of them … he’s finally a 7yr MLFA and someone else’s problem.

    If it were me, i’d be protecting Herz and Parker (I like him more than most), and i don’t have enough info on Henry to guess one way or the other. I’m currently guessing htat he’s too hurt to protect. I like Knowles and Ribalta, don’t get me wrong .. bu t who are you dumping to make room? I suppose Vargas is replaceable. Downs seems like a useless roster spot. Smith should be a non-tender. that’s three right there. But our 40-man is littered with bullpen arms who seem like a dime a dozen: Thompson had a 5.50 ERA, Ferrer ERA above 5., La Sorsa 4.76, Machado 5.22, Ward 6.37 (though we’ll make him a starter in AAA next year now that we own him), Abbott 6.64, Willingham 6.66, Rico Garcia SSS era of 12, and Munoz a 5.02 ERA … in AAA. I mean … you could dump 4-5 of these guys and they’d probably still be MLFAs in February.

    And most of these guys were zero-investmen MLFAs/Waiver claims to begin with. All 4 of La Sorsa, Garcia, Abbott, and Munoz were waiver pickups, as was Downs. Dump them all, keep your home grown guys.

    Todd Boss

    14 Nov 23 at 1:36 pm

  14. Herz, Parker, Henry, and Brzkcy. A solid list, IMNSHO.

    Smith and Abbott DFA’d, Machado released.

    I’m stunned that Jeter Downs is still on the roster.

    John C.

    14 Nov 23 at 1:50 pm

  15. Completely sensible decisions from Rizzo. Henry and Brzykcy is particular is actually very good news, as it means they will (hopefully) play meaningful time next season.

    John C., I wouldn’t yet place much emphasis on Downs’ roster spot. It is a bit surprising he outlasted Smith, but we now have a giant gaping hole at 1B, which will almost certainly be solved through free agency, which will require at least one more subtraction from the 40 man. There’s also no shortage of bad relievers to reliever ourselves of (see Todd’s list above), so I fully expect Rizzo to make several more free agency additions. So I doubt Downs is still here by February.


    14 Nov 23 at 2:52 pm

  16. I take the saving of Henry and Brzykcy as good news that they’re on the mend and should be serviceable for at least part of 2024. That still may be a question with Henry, but Brzykcy’s surgery was more straightforward. And he’s certainly much closer to MLB-ready/caliber than Knowles and Ribalta.

    When/if healthy, Henry is an elite prospect. Fingers crossed that he’ll make it all the way back.

    Thank goodness they didn’t protect Lara. Maybe they’re starting to change their ways a bit. Herz was a given. I have no issue with them saving Parker; I just didn’t think he would be that much at risk. Herz, Parker, and Henry figure to be 3/5ths of the Rochester rotation-in-waiting.

    And I celebrate the departure of Dom Smith and his .366 SLG in the middle of the lineup. And that’s with a mini-surge in the last month that doubled his HR total. He couldn’t hit LHP at all. Farewell. He’ll be lucky to get an MLB contract.


    14 Nov 23 at 6:36 pm

  17. Wow, Cal Quantrill DFA’d. Projected arb number $6.6M. He’d certainly be a cheaper and younger bounceback candidate than a lot of the pitchers in the FA pool.


    14 Nov 23 at 6:48 pm

  18. I updated the post to do some recap on who was protected. All reasonable selections, and Henry’s protection gives me hope that he’s actually healthy.

    Todd Boss

    15 Nov 23 at 1:11 pm

  19. A friend on another site pointed out that, other than Abrams, Downs is the only other person on the roster that can really play SS. Vargas can fill in if Abrams is dinged for a day or two, but he’s not ideal. If Abrams were to be seriously injured Downs could fill in while House re-acquaints himself with SS in the minors. It’s not a strong incentive, but enough to save his spot for now.

    Cal Quantrill is interesting and I’m betting that the Nats kick the tires a bit. But I don’t think that he reaches free agency. I think that there will be enough interest out there that the Guardians swing a trade. And the Nats aren’t in the position where they can really move a good prospect for a question mark.

    John C.

    16 Nov 23 at 12:22 pm

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