In a little less than 2 months, the MLB Winter Meetings will wrap up and hot stove season will be brought to a full boil. At the end of the meetings, the 2013 Rule 5 Draft will be held and the Yankees could find themselves in a tricky spot for that draft this year. It's no secret that the Yankees have a crowded 40-man roster on their hands right now. It's something that seems to have been a growing problem for the past few years, a byproduct of an aging roster full of big contracts and an organizational desire to both protect its top prospects and keep the below-replacement level players blocking them around (see: Nix, Jayson or Stewart, Chris). With an unknown number of roster spots opening up and a large group of Rule 5 eligible players worth protecting, the Yankees might be at risk of losing a useful prospect or 2.
The top Rule 5 eligible player in the system would have been J.R. Murphy. He was already added to the 40-man during the season when Austin Romine suffered his concussion, so there's one player protected. Slade Heathcott headlines the list of former draft picks who are eligible, along with Bryan Mitchell, Shane Greene, Chase Whitley, Tommy Kahnle, Zach Nuding, and Dan Burawa. That's 6 Double-A or higher arms, 3 of which could conceivably make an impact in the Major League bullpen as early as next season, and a near consensus top 5 organizational prospect. It gets better. The big international signing who was just announced as eligible for the draft this winter is none other than Gary Sanchez.
So the Yankees have 8 players to protect and it's a good bet there aren't going to be 8 available spots, so who gets protected and who gets thrown in the draft pool? Sanchez and Heathcott are no doubters and they'll surely be protected as soon as roster spots are available. Mitchell also seems like a lock to be protected despite a level of MiL production that has never matched his talent. He pitched to a 3.47 FIP in High-A Tampa this year and looked pretty good in 3 late-season Double-A starts. The organization has always been high on him because of his stuff and at age 22 he still has plenty of time to put it together. With his upside, a team could take a chance on him if he were left out there.
The remaining group of 5 pitchers is where things start to get difficult. Greene had an outstanding year split between High-A (2.57 FIP) and Double-A (3.49), and finally showed improved command to match his mid-90s stuff. Coming off the season he had, the Yankees would probably like to see what he does for an encore. Another good year in Double-A/Triple-A and suddenly he finds himself in the picture for the 2015 rotation.
Whitley headlines the 4 relievers as the senior member of that group. He's had 2 solid years in the SWB bullpen and it came as a surprise (at least to me it did) that Preston Claiborne got called up to the show over him. Burawa and Nuding pitched in the AZFL last year and both have struggled with their command, Nuding as a starter and a reliever. And Kahnle, another hard-throwing/shaky command reliever, was rumored to be on the table at the trade deadline when the Yanks were working to acquire Michael Young from Philly. All 4 of these guys have something to offer as future pieces of a Major League bullpen, but their uneven performances at the lower levels of the system make them much easier to leave unprotected.
In a perfect world, the Yankees would love to hold onto all 8 of these players. Their lack of commitment to a full-scale rebuild certainly hasn't stopped them from going into major prospect hugging mode the last few years. The 40-man world they've created for themselves is far from perfect, however, and unless the front office decides to non-tender Joe Girardi favorites like Stewart and Nix, straight up release guys like Ichiro and Vernon Wells, and fill some of their departing free agent holes with internal players already on the 40-man, there just won't be room at the inn for everybody. To protect Sanchez, Heathcott, and Mitchell is smart and should be the priority. They're easily the 3 most important prospects who are Rule 5 eligible. Losing a potentially good starter in Greene or a middle relief option like Whitley might be the price the Yanks have to pay to do it.