Do Teams Have Exploitable 40-Man Crunch?Eric Longenhagenon August 28, 2020 at 7:48 pm

In November, teams will need to decide which minor league players to expose to other teams through the Rule 5 Draft, and which to protect from the Draft by adding them to their 40-man roster. Deciding who to expose means evaluating players, sure, but it also means considering factors like internal player redundancy, as well as other variables such as the number of option years a player has left, whether he’s making the league minimum or is deep into his arbitration years, and if there are other freely-available alternatives to a team’s current talent, which happens a lot at certain positions, like toward the bottom of bullpen barrels and with first base-only types.

Teams with both an especially high number of rostered players under contract for 2021 and many prospects who would need to be added to the 40-man in the offseason have what is often called a “40-man crunch,” “spillover,” or “churn,” meaning that the team has incentive to clear the overflow of players away via trade for something they can keep — pool space, comp picks, or typically younger players whose 40-man clocks are further from midnight — rather than do nothing, and later lose players to waivers or in the Rule 5 draft. This exercise can be done by using the RosterResource pages to examine current 40-man occupancy, subtracting pending free agents (on the payroll tab), then weighing the December ’20 Rule 5 eligible prospects to see who has the biggest crunch coming and might behave differently in the trade market because of it.

Teams seem to be getting better at preparing for this ahead of time. In my opinion, this year has fewer situations that can be leveraged by rebuilding clubs in the way, for instance, the Rangers were able to pluck Nick Solak from Tampa Bay last year. Nevertheless, here is a rundown of the (mostly) contending teams with some prospect overage that I think is worth discussing on Ops Zoom calls.

Some quick rules about 40-man rosters. Almost none of them contain exactly 40 players in-season because teams can add a player to the 40 to replace a player who’s on the 60-day injured list. In the offseason, teams don’t get extra spots for injured players and have to get down to 40, so if they want to keep some of the injury fill-ins (like Mike Tauchman of the Yankees), they have to cut someone to make room.

In November, clubs have to add prospects to the 40-man to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. The protection rules are sort of obtuse, so we’re lucky that RosterResource’s Jason Martinez puts players’ Rule 5 eligibility on the player pages for us. Most teams add a handful of players and some add just one, while others may add as many as 10.

All of these rosters have a talent foundation at the major league level that won’t be moving, and which I’ll ignore below. Instead, I’m focused on the number of players on the 40-man right now, how many free agents will come off that number at the end of the season, which prospects might be added (or not), and who currently on the 40-man is in danger of being passed by the prospects. For the two categories where the rubber meets the road and it’s unclear what will happen (fringe current 40-man members vs. possible-add prospects), I’ve underlined the players who I project will be cut from the 40-man or not added to it, respectively.

Teams For Which Free Agency Activity Matters

Minnesota Twins
Current 40-man Count: 42
Pending Free Agents: 9 or 10 (Ehire Adrianza, Trevor May, Jake Odorizzi, Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Homer Bailey, Alex Avila, Rich Hill, Tyler Clippard, maybe Sergio Romo and his $5 mil club option)
Must Add Prospects: 5 (Alex Kirilloff, Edwar Colina, Benjamin Rortvedt, Jose Miranda, Jordan Balazovic)
Current 40-man Fringe: 5 or 6 (Ildemaro Vargas, LaMonte Wade Jr, Caleb Thielbar, Juan Minaya, Dakota Chalmers, maybe optionless Matt Wisler)
Prospects on the Fringe: 4 (Brent Rooker, Yunior Severino, Charlie Barnes, Bailey Ober)

Minnesota will almost certainly need to address their rotation turnover with a piece or two from outside the org. I like Jhoan Duran and Balazovic as long-term rotation stalwarts but they’ll need depth behind them, Lewis Thorpe, José Berríos, and Kenta Maeda. Still, about 25% of the 40-man is set to come off the roster this offseason, leaving the Twins plenty of room to add most of these prospects, including the ones in the Fringe group, who I like as immediate upper-level injury depth.

Cleveland Indians
Current 40-man Count: 41
Pending Free Agents: 3 to 7 (Cesar Hernandez, Oliver Pérez, Sandy León, club options on Brad Hand ($10 mil), Carlos Santana ($17.5 mil), Domingo Santana ($5 mil) and to a lesser extent Roberto Pérez ($5.5 mil)
Must Add Prospects: 2 (Nolan Jones, Eli Morgan)
Current 40-man Fringe: 3 (Delino DeShields, Dominic Leone, Beau Taylor)
Prospects on the Fringe: 6-ish (Ernie Clement, Kyle Nelson, Will Benson, Luis Oviedo, Juan Mota, Carlos Vargas)

Much of Cleveland’s catching situation could be up in the air this offseason, but otherwise they are very equipped to add all the relevant prospects here. Morgan and Nelson project as the kind of strike-throwing backend starters that Cleveland has recently maxed out. Clement could play a multi-positional role. Benson and the other pitchers in the Fringe group are probably too undercooked for a team to roster via the Rule 5.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Current 40-man Count: 40
Pending Free Agents: 6 to 7 (Justin Turner, Alex Wood, Blake Treinen, Enrique Hernandez, Pedro Baez, Joc Pederson, perhaps Jimmy Nelson who has a club option and is coming off back surgery)
Must Add Prospects: 3 (Gerardo Carrillo, Andre Jackson, Brett de Geus)
Current 40-man Fringe: 1 (Luke Raley)
Prospects on the Fringe: 5 to 10 (Jeren Kendall, Edwin Uceta, Zach Reks, Omar Estévez, Marshall Kasowski, Zach Willeman, Juan Morillo, Guillermo Zuniga)

The Dodgers have been fortunate to have had a relatively healthy summer so far, which has helped prevent their 40-man count from getting bloated. This, combined with the large number of free agents they have coming off the books, should enable them to roster the three pitchers in the “Must Add” section and a few vulnerable favorites from the Fringe group. I think other teams would be unlikely to pop Willeman, Zuniga, and Morillo, who were not at the campsite, if left unprotected.

New York Yankees
Current 40-man Count: 42
Pending Free Agents: 4 to 6 (Masahiro Tanaka, DJ LeMahieu, James Paxton, Luis Avilan, probably J.A. Happ ($17 million mutual option), maybe Brett Gardner ($10 million club option)).
Must Add Prospects: 5 (Clarke Schmidt, Alexander Vizcaino, Oswald Peraza, Roansy Contreras, Yoendrys Gomez)
Current 40-man Fringe: 3 to 5 (Ben Heller, Mike Ford, Erik Kratz, maybe even a few pre-arb pitchers toward the bottom of the staff who still have option years left, like Michael King and Brooks Kriske).
Prospects on the Fringe: 5 (Addison Russ, Trevor Stephan, Garrett Whitlock, Glenn Otto, Alfredo Garcia)

This is a manageable situation because the sorts of players mentioned at the end of the Current 40-man Fringe section have trade value because of their remaining years of control and roster flexibility. The Yankees need to decide if they want to have several young and/or potentially wild pitching prospects on their 40-man (Albert Abreu, Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Gil and Luis Medina are already on) or if they want stability (but lesser stuff) in the Michael King types, and either need to trade some of the young mustang arms or try to slip the ones who weren’t under their Scranton alternate site’s eye in the sky thru the Rule 5 Draft since teams may be reticent to use an active roster spot on a player they haven’t seen, electronically or otherwise, in over a year. This even applies to the older guys in the “Prospects on the Fringe” group. Newly-acquired Addison Russ was at the Phillies’ campsite (Philadelphia opted into the league’s data-sharing agreement), while Stephan, Whitlock, Otto and Garcia were not at the Yankees’ campsite all summer. Because so much of this is pitching and catching, which are at a premium right now, I also think this situation gets sorted out after the season but before the roster deadline.

Teams Feeling a Crunch Because of Injuries

Houston Astros
Current 40-man Count: 44
Pending Free Agents: 5 (Michael Brantley, George Springer, Josh Reddick, Yuli Gurriel, Brad Peacock)
Must Add Prospects: 4 (Forrest Whitley, Jairo Solis, Tyler Ivey, Jose Alberto Rivera)
Current 40-man Fringe: 7 (Jack Mayfield, Taylor Jones, Andre Scrubb, Joe Biagini, Chase De Jong, Humberto Castellanos, Brooks Raley)
Prospects on the Fringe: 7 (Chas McCormick, Luis Santana, Freudis Nova, Peter Solomon, Angel Macuare, Juan Pablo Lopez, Kit Scheetz)

We could see a lot of roster turnover here, and lopping off the bottom of the 40-man would help enable Houston to add more homegrown pitching to their 40-man. I know Solis hasn’t pitched in a while due to TJ and the pandemic, but some clubs have huge grades on him and I think he’d be popped in the Rule 5, even if they’re not entirely sure what they’re getting. From the Fringe Prospects group, I think Santana, Nova, and Macuare are excellent prospects without sufficient experience to be plucked in the Rule 5. McCormick is the kind of outfielder who Houston has typically shipped to Toronto or some other rebuilding club, but he might be added if most or all of the pending free agent hitters are not brought back. How Houston decides to address the 1B/DH/OF situation will play a role in how their crunch shakes out.

Tampa Bay Rays
Current 40-man Count: 46
Pending Free Agents: 1 (Aaron Loup)
Must Add Prospects: 3 (Taylor Walls, Josh Lowe, Riley O’Brien)
Current 40-man Fringe: 6 to 8 (Some of the pitchers pitchers they’ve recently scooped up because of injuries, optionless players like Ji-Man Choi, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, Brett Phillips and maybe an older DH/OF like José Martínez or Brian O’Grady)
Prospects on the Fringe: 3 to 5 (Drew Strotman, Tommy Romero, maybe Tristan Gray, Tobias Myers or Austin Franklin)

The Rays have the top farm system in baseball but this year don’t have as prospect-y a crunch as usual. Instead, they’re going to lose a bunch of good, upper-level depth arms who’ll need to peel off the roster when their sizable injured group needs to go back on. But because the Rays need those guys to pitch for them right now, efforts to trade them before losing them for nothing will need to wait until after the season. I also think here, and elsewhere, a delayed shockwave from the financial fallout caused by the pandemic will cause teams like the Rays to non-tender more players than usual.

San Diego Padres
Current 40-man Count: 42
Pending Free Agents: 3 (Garrett Richards, Kirby Yates, Jurickson Profar)
Must Add Prospects: 3 to 5 (Gabriel Arias, Tucupita Marcano, Taylor Trammell, maybe Hudson Potts, maybe Jeisson Rosario)
Current 40-man Fringe: 4-ish (Optionless Greg Garcia, Luis Perdomo, Abraham Almonte, Gerardo Reyes)
Prospects on the Fringe: 5 to 8 (Reggie Lawson, Tirso Ornelas, Eguy Rosario, Jordy Barley, Justin Lopez, Mason Thompson, maybe a deeper sleeper like Franklin Van Gurp or Ignacio Feliz)

Injuries to the San Diego bullpen (and Emilio Pagán’s slight regression) make it more likely that the Padres make moves to bolster the bullpen right now. It will be interesting to see which of the Fringe Prospects group the Padres are comfortable exposing to the Rule 5. Lawson had Tommy John in March but otherwise would be in the must-add section. Ornelas, Thompson, Barley, and to a lesser degree Lopez all have notable physical talent but haven’t performed consistently and are probably too raw for an active roster.

Regardless, the sheer number of shortstops that are part of this crunch almost guarantees some kind of consolidation, especially since Fernando Tatis Jr. exists. Arias, Marcano and Trammell have all been at the alternate site but the Padres did not opt in to the data sharing agreement, so teams will not have had a look at them since spring training. Rosario’s bizarre statline may draw Rule 5 interest from teams with 40-man space, even if they haven’t seen him in a long time, since he could function as a bench outfielder for a year before returning to the minors to better develop.

Quick Hits

The Reds perhaps have a mini crunch (one that might be solved by non-tendering a couple of guys), or at least will have the fairly difficult job of deciding which of Jared Solomon, Packy Naughton, Vlad Gutierrez, Miguel Medrano and Jacob Heatherly other teams might consider in the Rule 5 even though none of them has pitched under the campsite umbrella.

The same is true of the Phillies, who will have some roster pressure relieved by their seven free agents (Didi Gregorius, J.T. Realmuto, Jay Bruce, Brandon Workman, Neil Walker, Tommy Hunter, Jose Alvarez) but also have a lot of potential prospect adds in catchers Rafael Marchan and Rodolfo Duran, former first overall pick Mickey Moniak, fifth-ranked prospect Francisco Morales, infielder Nick Maton, and several pitchers toward the bottom of the club’s prospect list. Those consist of older relief types — Damon Jones (who is in the player pool), Zach Warren and Kyle Dohy — young, strike-throwing Victor Santos, and TJ rehabber Kyle Young. Room for some of the older relief arms could be made by non-tendering some of the optionless relievers currently on the active roster, most of whom are currently struggling.

Also keep an eye on Texas. They currently have 44 players on their 40-man with several slated to come off in free agency after the season (Shin-Soo Choo, Jeff Mathis, Edinson Vólquez, Mike Minor, a couple more have club options), but they also have an unusually high number of relevant prospects who will be exposed to the Rule 5 this offseason if they’re not added to the 40-man. That group doesn’t have big names (aside from Yerry Rodriguez, who ended 2019 injured and was not in Texas’ player pool this year) so much as it has a couple catchers (young David Garcia and Matt Whatley) and relievers (Alex Speas, John King, Nick Snyder, A.J. Alexy, Ricky Tyler Thomas, Kelvin Gonzalez) of note, two positions that, after this year, teams may want to over-stock in the event that roster expansion extends into the future. For this reason I think the return for a hypothetical Lance Lynn or Joey Gallo trade needs to avoid players who have to be added to the 40-man this offseason, and should instead target a combination of Mike Clevinger-type, intermediate contributors, and long-term developmental projects, perhaps even players who were just drafted.
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