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Ka’ai Tom among Indians prospects left exposed to Rule 5 draft

A casualty of the yearly roster crunch

Jay Gehres/Columbus Clippers

The November 20 deadline for teams to get their 40-man rosters in order prior to the Winter Meetings has come and gone, and that means we now have a list of who could be lost to the Rule 5 draft in a couple weeks.

Late Wednesday night, the Indians opted to add outfielder Daniel Johnson, pitcher Triston McKenzie, and pitcher Scott Moss to their 40-man roster and protect them from the bad men coming to take them away in broad daylight. They also traded Mark Mathias to the Milwaukee Brewers, who then added him to their own 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.

For those unaware, the Rule 5 draft is a selection process that takes place on the last day of the Winter Meetings every year. Any player who signed with a major-league club at age 18 or younger and have played at least five professional seasons is eligible to be selected. For any player 19 or over, they must have at least five years of playing in the minors to be eligible. Teams take turns choosing prospects like any other draft, but not every team is going to make selections this time around. Reason being, the player(s) chosen must be immediately placed on their new team’s 25-man roster and $100,000 must be paid to the player’s former club. Either that player continually takes up a spot on the 25-man roster for the full season, or they need to be put on waivers and the team that drafted them will only get half the money to sent to the former team in return.

There are some small loopholes, such as the Orioles selecting Anthony Santander off the Indians prior to the 2017 season when he clearly wasn’t ready to consistently take up a 25-man roster spot. Baltimore stuffed him away on the injured list for the better part of two seasons and he emerged as a power-hitting threat in 2019. I’m not bitter at all.

As for this year, the Indians probably don’t have any Santander-caliber players on the open draft market. The potential exception to this is Ka’ai Tom, a 25-year-old outfielder who was a star in both Double-A and Triple-A in 2019. In 81 games with the Akron RubberDucks, Tom slashed .285/.386/.512 (162 wRC+) and slugged 14 home runs. Upon his promotion to the Columbus Clippers, he kept up the heat with a .298/.370/.564 (132 wRC+) slash and nine more home runs.

Seems like a no-brainer to keep him around and see if the breakout was real.

The hard truth of it might just be that the Indians have too many “might be good, might be not” outfielders on the roster right now to justify Tom taking up a 40-man roster spot. Daniel Johnson, who they protected from the draft, is a better option and they also have Bradley Zimmer, Tyler Naquin, Greg Allen, Jordan Luplow, Oscar Mercado, and technically Jake Bauers. They can only hold so much potential with so little sure-things on one roster.

The other names of note are likely too far away from the majors to be considered for a Rule 5 selection. Jose Fermin has had a couple great seasons in the minors, but he’s only 20 and hasn’t played above Single-A. Same goes for 21-year-old Cristopher Cespedes, who has already been in the Tribe system for five years but hasn’t played above the rookie league. He impressed with a .326/.386/.543, six homer season in 2019, but he still has a ways to go.

The Rule 5 draft will take place on December 12, 2019.