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Cleveland Indians prospects potentially exposed to the Rule 5 draft

The Indians have two spots open on the 40-man roster to use to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft. Who will they add before the November 18 deadline?

Tony Lastoria/Fox Sports

Major League Baseball's Rule 5 draft, which allows teams to pick players from other teams' minor league systems who are not on the 40-man roster, is set to take place next month during the Winter Meetings. Here's how a player is eligible to be drafted:

  • A player must not be on the 40-man roster.
  • A player needs to have been signed by his team when they were 18 or earlier with their fifth Rule 5 draft coming up.
  • A player needs to have been signed when they were 19 or after with their fourth Rule 5 draft coming up.

To draft a player, a team must have an open spot on their 40-man roster.

The Rule 5 draft is broken into three phases. The first is the MLB phase where teams can select a player and place them directly on their 25-man (Major League) roster. If a player is chosen during the MLB phase, the selecting team must pay a $50,000 fee to the team they chose the player from. If at any point the player doesn't work out on the 25-man roster and they are sent back to the minors, they have the option of being returned to their original team. (This happened with RHP Josh Martin last season for the Indians).

In the Triple-A and Double-A phases, as long as a player is eligible for the Rule 5 draft, they can be selected by another team for a lesser fee without having to go on that team’s 25-man roster. However, they must be placed directly on the selecting team’s 40-man roster. Also, teams can protect an extra 38 players in the Triple-A phase and another 37 players from the Double-A phase. Usually, the Triple-A and Double-A phases of the draft are only used for organization filler-type players instead of legitimate prospects.

As for the Cleveland Indians, they have several players heading into their first year of eligibility, although thankfully only one of the current top 10 prospects according to Baseball America is eligible to be drafted. I've posted below when the top 10 could be Rule 5'd:

1. Francisco Mejia - Eligible

2. Bradley Zimmer - 2017

3. Triston McKenzie - 2019

4. Brady Aiken - 2019

5. Bobby Bradley - 2018

6. Yu-Cheng Chang - 2018

7. Will Benson - 2020

8. Nolan Jones - 2020

9. Erik Gonzalez - On 40-man Roster

10. Greg Allen - 2017

The top candidate--and almost a no-brainer to protect--is Francisco Mejia. The 2012 signee out of the Dominican Republic exploded onto the scene as the top prospect in the Indians system thanks in part to a modern era record 50-game hitting streak. Despite playing catcher, Mejia led all Indians full-season minor leaguers in batting average with an incredible .342 mark for the 2016 season. Having just turned 21 years old, Mejia finished the year at High-A Lynchburg so it's a bit of a stretch to think a team would take him and keep him on their 25-man roster for the full 2017 season, but it's a risk they are likely not going to be willing to take.

After Mejia, things get tricky. The Indians currently only have two open spots on their 40-man roster. They'd either need to release a player or remove the option of taking someone in the Rule 5 draft.

The next best candidate after Mejia would be first baseman Nellie Rodriguez,  a serious power hitting prospect who slugged a career-best 26 home runs for Double-A Akron last year after starting the campaign as a 21-year old. Rodriguez compares semi-favorably to top power-hitting prospect Bobby Bradley and has stayed one level ahead of Bradley the last two seasons. He's expected to begin 2017 in Triple-A Akron.

The last position player to consider would be Anthony Santander, a player who actually was up for Rule 5 last year, but exploded back onto the scene with an incredibly productive 2016 season for High-A Lynchburg. Santander batted .290, hit 20 home runs, 42 doubles and drove in 95 baserunners in his first season of being fully healthy in three years. Having just turned 22-years old and expected to begin 2017 in Double-A Akron, he might be worthy of a tag.

On the pitching side of things, the only starter who might need protecting is Thomas Pannone. Pannone had a breakout 2016, actually leading all Indians full season starting pitching prospects in ERA with a 2.57 mark and he did it as a southpaw. He only pitched two months for High-A Lynchburg at the end of the season after being promoted so it would seem highly unlikely a team would try to use a 25-man spot to draft him though.

Michael Peoples could be a fringe starting pitching candidate after a strong 2016 season where he helped lead Akron to the Eastern League championship in his second straight strong campaign. He's currently pitching in the Arizona Fall League, most recently tossing four perfect innings on November 9th.

Relief pitching is actually where things could get interesting. Many teams take chances on bullpen arms in the Rule 5 draft as the last man in the bullpen can be a safe place to tuck away a power arm with potential.

Out of the bullpen arms available, the most major league ready in the Indians system is Jeff Johnson. Johnson returned from Tommy John surgery in 2015 and performed very well as the closer for Double-A Akron. He had more of a middle inning/set-up role in Triple-A Columbus last year, but he still performed well, carrying a 2.87 ERA while striking out 57 batters in 53.1 innings.

Josh Martin was Rule 5 drafted by the San Diego Padres last year but was returned after failing to make an appearance during the regular season with the big league club. He finished the season with a 3.41 ERA for Triple-A Columbus so someone may want to take a shot on him again.

Of the remaining first year eligible players, the only other potential picks I see are Trevor Frank and Matt Whitehouse. Frank was the closer for High-A Lynchburg last year, holding a 2.47 ERA and striking out 43 batters in 43.1 innings. Whitehouse was a middle reliever who split time between Lake County and Lynchburg in his first full season since recovering from Tommy John surgery.

If the Indians absolutely need to make extra moves to keep some of the above players, the most likely candidates to be released from the current 40-man roster would be Austin Adams, Michael Martinez, Chris Gimenez, Jesus Aguilar, Kyle Crockett and potentially Dylan Baker.

The deadline for adding players to the 40-man roster is this Friday, November 18. The Rule 5 draft will take place during the Winter Meetings, which run from December 5 to December 8 in Washington DC.