Projecting Sox decisions on 40-man roster

During the slow winter hibernation of the national pastime, they’re typically transactions that fly under the radar of the most avid baseball fans. In late November, when the attention of baseball fans not preoccupied with the NFL, NBA, and NHL typically is focused on the hot stove league and the movement of major league stars, the addition of a few minor leaguers to the 40-man roster garners little attention.

However, those November decisions could play a role in the Red Sox’s decisions in the coming weeks as we approach the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31. As rumors begin to swirl about who could be coming to Boston, keep in mind that the list of players the club uses to entice potential trade partners may be borne out of a potential logjam up the road. To put it simply, it looks like the Sox currently have more minor league players who merit addition to the 40-man roster, and thus protection from selection in December’s Rule 5 Draft, than there will be open spots following this season. What does this mean? Read on. Also, for more, we covered this topic in our most recent podcast which you can download here at Soxprospects.com.

A quick 40-man roster primer

First, a quick note on how this process works. If you want a more detailed description of the whole process, check out our pages on the Major League Rules and Rule 5 Eligible Players on the SoxProspects.com Wiki.

By November 20, every major league team must set its reserve lists for the major and minor leagues. You know the major league reserve list as the 40-man roster, which includes the 25-man active roster, players on the 15-day disabled list, and players in the minor leagues signed to a major league contract (in the Sox’ case, shortstop Jose Iglesias and pitcher Junichi Tazawa). Players on the 60-day disabled list (here, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Rich Hill) do not count towards that 40-man limit during the season, but they must come off the disabled list in the offseason and will count in November.

The 40-man roster is also used to protect a club’s minor leaguers from being selected in the annual Rule 5 Draft. Four or five years after a player signs his first professional contract, depending on his age at the time he signs, he is eligible to be selected if he is not on a club’s 40-man roster. Rule 5 selections must then remain on the selecting team’s active 25-man roster or either be put on waivers or offered back to their original team. The purpose here is to protect against clubs stashing hordes of MLB-ready players in the minor leagues when they could be in the majors playing for other organizations.

Forecasting the Boston 40-man situation

At present, the Red Sox 40-man roster is full. After the season ends, five Sox major leaguers will become free agents -- Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, Jonathan Papelbon, and J.D. Drew. In addition, Marco Scutaro has a mutual option and Dan Wheeler and Andrew Miller have club options.

For discussion’s sake, let’s say four spots will open on the 40-man roster this offseason, not counting potential trades. This supposes that any players removed from the 40-man roster beyond that will be replaced by free agents, rather than internally. Typically, the Red Sox add two or three minor leaguers to the 40-man in November, but this year, they are almost certain to add at least four players, and could even add more. Profiled below are the top candidates for addition, ranked by likelihood of their being protected. Now, consider this: if the Red Sox feel a player listed below simply will not fit on the 40-man roster, but has a good chance at sticking with another team if selected in the Rule 5 Draft, using that player in a trade this year would maximize their return on a potentially inevitable exit from the organization. Under Theo Epstein, the Red Sox have never lost a player in the major league portion of the Rule 5 Draft -- any player selected from the organization during his tenure was later returned -- so it would not be surprising for the Sox to make such a move if they felt they were, in fact, going to lose a player for nearly nothing.

The players

Will Middlebrooks, 3B

Middlebrooks may have taken a bigger step forward this season than anyone else in the system, a big enough step that he was ranked 42nd on Keith Law’s midseason top 50 prospects list (insider access required). Long a favorite of scouts because of his power potential, defensive ability, and arm, he had consistently improved every year but did not break out until this season. And break out he has, hitting .315/.359/.498 with nine home runs for Portland and earning a selection to the Futures Game at age 22. Middlebrooks profiles as an excellent defensive third baseman with good power in the majors, and could probably hold down a bench spot right now. He may not be truly major league ready until 2013, but will be a worthy addition to the 40-man roster.

Likelihood of addition: Certain

Ryan Lavarnway, C/DH

Lavarnway was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 13 after putting up a .284/.375/.503 line in 99 Double-A games over two seasons, and to say he hit the ground running would be an understatement. Entering the All-Star break, the 23-year-old Yale grad hit .343/.414/.646 with seven home runs in just 26 games for the Pawtucket Red Sox, showing that his bat may be ready for the majors, now. However, the scouting consensus is that he may not be good enough behind the plate to catch full-time in the Bigs. Lavarnway could very likely receive a September call-up and already be on the 40-man roster come November, perhaps replacing his Pawtucket teammate, catcher Luis Exposito, who is hitting just .218/.276/.340 with the PawSox and could pass through waivers. Lavarnway should at least compete for a spot on the major league roster next spring, but what role he could fill is a question that needs to be answered.

Likelihood of addition: Certain

Tim Federowicz, C

Another player with a major-league ready tool, Federowicz could come up and be a very good defensive catcher right now. One east coast minor league scout called Federowicz the best defensive catcher he has seen this year. However, the man known as FedEx still has some work to do at the plate, hitting .268/.338/.380 for Double-A Portland with six home runs in 76 games. Still, the 23 year old would be a near certainty to be selected in the Rule 5 Draft, as his defense alone could allow him to hold down a job as a backup catcher if force to next season.

Likelihood of addition: Certain

Che-Hsuan Lin, CF

The Red Sox 2010 Minor League Defensive Player of the Year, Lin is an outstanding athlete, covering an incredible amount of ground in center field, and boasting an excellent arm and good speed. The native of Taiwan also has an advanced approach at the plate for a 22 year old in Triple-A, leading to good walk and on-base percentage numbers. However, he rarely makes hard contact and has below-average power. His career minor league slugging percentage is just .357, and since a promotion to Pawtucket on May 21, he has slugged .315. He profiles best as a fourth outfielder in the majors, but could easily be lost in the Rule 5 Draft to fill that role elsewhere.

Likelihood of addition: Likely

Chih-Hsien Chiang, RF

Lin’s countryman, Chiang has been one of the best hitters in the Double-A Eastern League this year. After an April in which he hit.225/.279/.325, he has been scorching hot, hitting .341/.396/.687 since May 1. His .630 slugging percentage is 88 points higher than all but one player in the Eastern League, that one player being a 26-year-old who first reached Double-A in 2008, Bill Rhinehart. Chiang, 23, is still learning to master the outfield after moving from second base in 2009, but he has a strong arm and at least average range. Chiang’s breakout can be attributed in part to better controlling his diabetes, a difficult condition to manage on the typical minor league diet, which can be heavy on late-night fast food. After spending all of last season in Portland, Chiang could be promoted to Triple-A soon and perhaps force his way onto the 40-man.

Likelihood of addition: Possible

Drake Britton, SP

Britton, a top 10 prospect in the system entering the year, seemed like a lock for inclusion on the 40-man roster this coming offseason back in April. However, he has struggled mightily in High-A Salem, mostly with this control. He still hits 95 mph and possesses a devastating curveball, but he has had a tough time controlling his arsenal, allowing 51 hits and 34 walks in just 53.1 innings, going 1-7 with a 7.26 ERA. He profiles as exactly the kind of young pitcher targeted in the Rule 5 Draft -- left-handed with a great fastball -- but with the way his season has gone, the Red Sox might get away with waiting one more year before adding him to the 40-man. At just 22, Britton still has time to regain his command and turn things back around.

Likelihood of addition: Unlikely

Cesar Cabral, RP

Another lefty, Cabral merits mention here after being selected in the Rule 5 Draft last season by the Tampa Bay Rays. It was a strange odyssey for Cabral, who went to camp with the Rays, was claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays, and then was re-claimed by the Rays after Toronto could not agree to a trade with the Red Sox. He finally returned to the Red Sox on March 28, broke camp as Salem’s closer and earned a promotion to Portland on May 17. He has found Double-A a tougher road to hoe, allowing 27 hits in 22.1 innings, but some scouts still like what they see from him stuff-wise. The Red Sox likely do not have room for him on the 40-man this year either, so do not be surprised if he gets picked again.

Likelihood of addition: Unlikely

Reynaldo Rodriguez, 1B

In another year, this former Baseball America top independent league prospect would merit more consideration for a 40-man spot. Rodriguez just keeps hitting. After a strong Sox debut last season in Low-A Greenville (.281/.387/.518, 14 home runs in 278 at-bats), the 25-year-old Colombian continued to rake in Salem to start this year, posting a .317/.397/.579 line before a promotion to Portland to face more age-appropriate competition. After an adjustment period, his line is back up to .288/.336/.559 with 6 home runs in 111 at-bats. Very athletic for a first baseman, Rodriguez has seen time in the outfield as well the past few seasons. It is hard to see how the club could protect Rodriguez, so he may face a similar situation to that of former Sox third baseman Jorge Jimenez, who was selected in the 2009 Rule 5 Draft by Houston, was traded to Florida, and nearly made the Marlins’ opening day roster before being returned to the Red Sox. As with Jimenez, the Sox may take the chance that, even if selected, Rodriguez would be returned.

Likelihood of addition: Unlikely

Stephen Fife, SP

In his second season pitching for Portland, Fife, 24, has gone 10-3 in 16 starts with a 3.59 ERA. He is not a strikeout artist, although he has always shown good control. His stuff is not devastating -- a good two-seam fastball at 88-91 mph, a 76-79 mph curve, and a 79-81 mph changeup -- but the native Idahoan is very likely to pitch in the big leagues at some point, and there’s a solid chance that he is far enough along in his development that he could stick in a major league bullpen for a year. Fife is among the best trade candidates on this list, given his high likelihood of sticking if selected in Rule 5 and low likelihood of being given a spot on the 40-man.

Likelihood of addition: Unlikely

Also eligible

Miguel Celestino has turned heads with a fastball that tops out at 95 mph. His future may be in the bullpen, but the 21-year-old is pitching in Greenville this year and may still be a year away from serious consideration as a Rule 5 pick. … Former supplemental first-round pick Caleb Clay has put up unimpressive overall numbers for Portland, but has come on lately in longer outings of two to four innings out of the bullpen. He is working from a new arm angle and has some good sink on his fastball; some scout could convince his club that with a tweak, Clay could be a solid middle reliever. … Salem’s Ryan Pressly is another player that some scouts think could be a tweak or two away from clicking. He has just 39 strikeouts in 86.0 innings this year, and it still may be early for him to leave via Rule 5, but do not be surprised if a club asks for him as a secondary piece of a trade. … Portland reliever Eammon Portice led the system in strikeouts in 2009 and features a very deceptive but violent delivery. The funk in his mechanics could make him a guy teams take a look at as a throw-in in a minor deal. … Do not be fooled by Greenville left-hander Manny Rivera’s impressive numbers this year. He has given up just 75 hits and 20 walks in 86.1 innings, striking out 85, but he does not have the stuff to pitch in the majors right now, topping out at about 90 mph with a good change and developing curve. It speaks volumes that at age 21 he is repeating Low-A. … Pawtucket relief pitcher Jason Rice is a name you may hear as a possible Rule 5 selection (we made this mistake ourselves in our podcast), but he will be a minor league free agent this offseason if he is not added to the 40-man roster. The hard-throwing righty could return as Triple-A depth, but other teams may present a better chance for him to earn a Major League call-up.