Today was the deadline for teams to protect their prospects on their 40-man rosters prior to the Rule 5 Draft and the Rays had a series of decisions to make. Some were easy, such as adding fireballing right-hander Jesse Hahn, but others were much more difficult and went right down to the wire. Now the results are in, with four players feeling a sense of gratitude and loyalty to the Rays organization while several more will ponder where their careers will head next.
As reported by the Beverly Hills Sports Council and Roger Mooney of the Tampa Tribune, the Rays have protected four players on their 40-man roster: Hahn, right-hander Kirby Yates, lefty C.J. Riefenhauser, and infielder Vince Belnome. We discussed the cases for all four players as we analyzed all the Rule 5 eligibles on Monday, and some were more clear than others. Hahn has dealt with manifold injuries since being the Rays’ 4th round pick back in 2010, but with a fastball reaching the high-90’s and a slider and changeup that show promise as well, Hahn has significant upside as a starter or reliever. Yates, a former undrafted free agent, has needed to prove himself at every stop in the minor leagues, but after improved fastball command led to a 1.90 ERA and a 93-23 strikeout to walk ratio in 61.2 Triple-A innings in 2013, Yates will finally get the recognition he deserves. Riefenhauser also had a tremendous season between Double-A and Triple-A, managing a 1.22 ERA, and while his fastball velocity stays in the 88-90 MPH range, two strong secondary pitches in his slider and changeup give him the ability to get both righties and lefties out. And finally there was Belnome, who we did not predict would be added but made sense in the end thanks to his versatility, excellent plate discipline, and his ability to hit lefty pitching well as a left-handed batter. Hahn will be a interesting prospect for the Rays for years to come while the other three could make an impact in the big leagues almost immediately Yates and Riefenhauser could surface in the Rays bullpen as soon as a need arises while Belnome will see time in a utility role at some point.
The two players we predicted would be added and were not were right-hander Merill Kelly and lefty Adam Liberatore. Kelly had a surprise breakout year starting between Double-A and Triple-A, but the Rays didn’t see enough in his arsenal to consider him a starting pitching option for the future and he lacked the high-end stuff to be a late-inning reliever. His changeup is impressive and you know the Rays like that, but his fastball command and curveball still have not developed as hoped. Liberatore, meanwhile, was another lefty who had a great season, but while he has a great slider and solid fastball, he looked more like a lefty specialist than a more versatile reliever like Riefenhauser. Tough luck for Kelly and Liberatore being left off the 40-man roster, and the Rays are going to have to hope they go unselected in the Rule 5 Draft or are returned if they are taken. From another viewpoint, though, Kelly and Liberatore will get to see if another team considers them big league quality arms, and if they are taken, that will be exhilarating moments for them.
Other notable players lefty off the Rays’ 40-man roster were Parker Markel, Todd Glaesmann, and Braulio Lara. All three have shown major promise, wtih Markel flashing a mid-90’s fastball and strong changeup, Glaesmann showing a five-tool package, and Lara touching 100 MPH with his fastball, but inconsistency (and injuries in the case of Markel) made it too impratical for the Rays to protect them. Markel and Glaesmann could be selected but both are raw enough that a return to the organization would be probable, but Lara may have the best chance of anyone to stick. Since he was selected in the Rule 5 Draft last year, Lara will have to be exposed to waivers before the Rays can get him back, and he has to hope some organization values enough to put him on their 40-man roster.
Today is a bittersweet day as several players discovered their standing in the Rays organization and only four will be able to go to sleep tonight with a smile. But even for the players not added to the 40-man roster, the Rule 5 Draft presents an opportunity to make a big league organization, and a selection then could change everything. The Rays have five players who are legitimate options to be selected in Kelly, Liberatore, Markel, Glaesmann, and Lara, and at least one of them and likely more will end up another team’s camp come next spring. The Rays’ roster decisions are now in the books, and next month we will find out who will gets selected and who the Rays might pick themselves when the Rule 5 Draft takes place.