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Which prospects might Red Sox add to 40-man roster this winter?

09.24.12 at 9:44 pm ET
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As the season winds down, the Red Sox face an offseason in which a crowded 40-man roster likely will render the team vulnerable to some plunder via the Rule 5 draft.

Before diving into some of the players likely to be protected, it’s worth looking at the current shape of the 40-man roster. With three players (John Lackey, Franklin Morales, Ryan Sweeney) currently on the 60-day disabled list, the Sox have a total of 43 players on their 40-man roster. At the end of the season, the team will add two “players to be named” (right-hander Rubby De La Rosa and outfielder Jerry Sands) to that list as the last pieces of the August blockbuster with the Dodgers. So that’s 45 players.

However, seven Red Sox players will also be free agents at season’s end: Aaron Cook, James Loney, Daisuke Matsuzaka, David Ortiz, Vicente Padilla, Scott Podsednik and Cody Ross.

Still, given the excellent likelihood that the team re-signs Ortiz and the mutual interest between Ross and the Sox in getting a long-term deal done, there is a very good chance that the Sox will have little room to maneuver with their 40-man roster. In other words, the Sox will need to start clearing players from the 40-man in order to open spots for prospects coming up through the system whom the team wants to protect from other teams via the Rule 5 draft.

(Players can be taken in the Rule 5 draft who are not on the 40-man roster after four years if they signed at age 19 or older and after five years if they signed at age 18 or older.)

Given the crowded 40-man roster, and the fact that the Sox will have a number of offseason needs to address, the team either will have three options from which to mix and match with the interesting ensemble of potential Rule 5 selections listed below:

1) Resign itself to leaving a number of interesting Rule 5-eligible players exposed;
2) Protecting a number of these prospects while removing several players who remain under team control from the 40-man roster;
3) Trade some of the Rule 5 eligible prospects

Here’s a look at a number of players who represent potential additions to the 40-man roster prior to the Rule 5 draft in December:

NEAR LOCKS

C Christian Vazquez — The 2008 ninth-rounder out of Puerto Rico may be the best defensive catcher in the Red Sox’ system — left-hander Rich Hill was extremely impressed when working with him at the start of the year in High-A Salem. Vazquez also has some interesting offensive tools. He slammed 18 homers in 105 games in Greenville in 2011, and after a poor first half (.223/.308/.293/.601) to start this year in Salem, he enjoyed a ridiculous stretch (.343/.448/.581/1.029) in 29 games in the second half to earn a promotion to Portland.

Is Vazquez major league-ready? Probably not. He hit .205/.280/.260/.541 (with eight walks and nine strikeouts) in 20 games at the end of the year in Double-A Portland. But he’s got a pretty interesting ceiling as a catcher, to the point where a team might take a flyer on him in the Rule 5 draft and let him serve an apprenticeship at the big league level. He’s too valuable to give up for $50,000.

RHP Allen Webster — Acquired from the Dodgers in the August blockbuster, a case can be made that Webster is the top pitching prospect in the Red Sox’ system. One talent evaluator suggested his floor is that of a late-innings reliever, and that his ceiling — thanks to a mid-90s power sinker that gets big swing-and-miss and groundball rates — could be that of Kevin Brown.

RHP Alex Wilson — The 25-year-old right-hander looks like a potential late-innings fixture for the Red Sox in years to come. His transition from the rotation to the bullpen in Pawtucket this year proved a bit more deliberate than anticipated, but in the playoffs, he was overpowering, attacking the strike zone with his mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider while retiring virtually everyone he faced.

BORDERLINE (GOOD CHANCE OF BEING SELECTED IF UNPROTECTED, BUT NOT LOCKS TO BE PROTECTED)

C Dan Butler — When Butler stuck in big league camp this past spring training longer than Luis Exposito, it was pretty clear that the once-undrafted catcher out of the University of Arizona (where he was a backup) had made a pretty strong case for himself in the Red Sox system. The 25-year-old profiles as a likely big league backup, but after a year in which he hit .247/.342/.403/.746 while demonstrating his characteristic strong defense, he’d almost surely be snapped up if exposed to the Rule 5 draft, and he profiles as a player who would likely stick on a roster for a full year.

As things currently stand, the Sox very likely will add him to the 40-man roster to serve as the first line of depth for Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway next year, while Vazquez continues his development.

RHP Josh Fields — The 2008 first-rounder seemed like little more than a throw-in at the time that the Mariners included him, along with Erik Bedard, in a trade deadline swap that saw the Sox part with four minor leaguers. But Fields enjoyed a breakthrough with his command this year, dominating in a year-end spell in Pawtucket (19 strikeouts, 2 walks, 0.00 ERA in 13 2/3 innings) to put himself back on the prospect radar.

It is fair to wonder whether his breakthrough in his age 26 season (Fields turned 27 in August) is sustainable, but given what he did this year, someone likely would take a shot with him rather than spending millions on a multi-year deal for a middle reliever.

OF Jeremy Hazelbaker ‘€“ In the last three years, Hazelbaker has averaged 16 homers and 49 steals with an OPS in excess of .800 every year. He strikes out a lot and actually saw his on-base percentage slide backwards in Double-A Portland this year (from .350 in 90 games at that level in 2011 to .338 in 114 games there in 2012), but he’€™s got the power and speed combination to tantalize a team in the Rule 5 draft. Those tools would make him likely to get taken in the Rule 5 draft, even if the holes in his swing suggest that he might not be likely to stick.

RHP Michael Olmsted ‘€“ This huge (6-foot-6, listed at 245 pounds) right-hander with big stuff represents a pretty fascinating out-of-nowhere discovery. Vice President for Player Personnel Allard Baird saw Olmsted at an independent league tryout in 2011 and signed him before he went the indy league route.

Olmsted had a 2.29 ERA and 61 strikeouts (against just eight walks) in 39 1/3 innings in the High-A Carolina League this year, then didn’t give up an earned run while striking out 31 and walking seven in 20 innings after a promotion to Double-A Portland. The 25-year-old led Sox minor leaguers with 14.0 strikeouts per nine innings on the strength of a mid-90s fastball and power slider.

Though he was a bit old for the levels where he pitched (owing to a year missed due to Tommy John and another spent pitching in the minors in Japan), his numbers and his stuff make it extremely likely that someone would take him in the Rule 5 if he’s left unprotected.

RHP Steven Wright ‘€“ Though 28, Wright’s relatively recent commitment to the knuckleball put him back on a prospect path and led the Sox to trade Lars Anderson to the Indians in order to acquire him at the trade deadline. Wright went 10-7 with a 2.54 ERA in 25 starts this year with Double-A Akron and (after the trade) Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. He walked a lot of guys (69 in 141 2/3 innings) but opponents simply didn’t hit against him.

Knuckleballers are among the most difficult class of players to project based on minor league performance. Still, given his success with his new style of pitching this year and the possibility that he could offer starting depth to a big league team and has three options remaining, it’s probably more likely than not that the Sox would protect him from the Rule 5.

INTERESTING TOOLS BUT UNLIKELY TO BE PROTECTED

3B/1B Michael Almanzar ‘€“ Once a highly touted power-hitting prospect, Almanzar’€™s career looked like it would never go anywhere for most of the past three years. But he just had a breakthrough year, hitting .300/.353/.458/.812 with 12 homers and 36 doubles as a corner infielder (mostly at third base) in High-A Salem. But as a 21-year-old who has never played a day above High-A, he’s unlikely to get protected. Even as a player with some power potential to give him interesting upside, the idea that he could jump three levels and hold his own against big league pitching seems a stretch.

RHP Chris Balcom-Miller ‘€“ Before the year, he looked like a near-lock for a 40-man spot. But he struggled through a brutal year in Double-A Portland during which his strikeouts went down to career lows while his walks went up to career highs, and his sinker was inconsistent, as he gave up a career-high nine homers in 85 2/3 innings.

He showed some improvement once moved to the bullpen with Portland, where he had a 3.62 ERA with 30 strikeouts and 11 walks in 32 1/3 innings, but didn’€™t show the dominance to suggest he is ready for the big leagues.

RHP Miguel Celestino ‘€“ Big (6-foot-6), physical right-hander with a powerful high-90s four-seamer that, at times, he can command down in the strike zone to generate a lot of groundballs. But while the velocity is intriguing, Celestino remained inconsistent while going 7-9 with a 4.68 ERA while spending all year in High-A Salem. His inexperience, inconsistency and right-handedness make it a stretch to suggest he’€™d be vulnerable in the Rule 5.

RHP William Cuevas ‘€“ Cuevas (8-2, 1.40 ERA, 72 strikeouts, 15 walks in 77 1/3 innings) had an incredible season for the Lowell Spinners. His velocity bumped up from the high-80s to the low-90s, topping out around 95, and he showed the breaking stuff to dominate college competition.

Still, it’€™s a long, long way from Lowell to the big leagues ‘€“ too far, really, to contemplate adding Cuevas to the 40-man, given that it would be far from a slam dunk that he’€™s three years or less from the big leagues. In the last several years, the Sox haven’€™t protected any players who finished the season below High-A.

OF Alex Hassan ‘€“ Hassan’€™s approach and understanding of the strike zone ranks with that of just about anyone in the Sox system. He had a .377 OBP with 55 walks and 70 strikeouts this year in Pawtucket. But, he’€™s a corner outfielder who has spent most of his time in left, and the 24-year-old slugged .365 in Triple-A this past season before seeing his season end due to injury. He’€™s not ready for an everyday job, and doesn’€™t have the above-average complementary skill set to suggest a prototypical fourth outfielder.

IF Heiker Meneses ‘€“ In 2011, Meneses had a breakthrough season at age 19, holding his own (.295/.363/.400/.763 with 25 steals) and demonstrating defensive versatility while going from Greenville to Salem to Double-A Portland. But he fell back in 2012, hitting just .197/.282/.244/.526 in Portland before a demotion back to Salem, where he hit .272/.313/.392/.705.

Meneses may yet develop into a big league utility player, but for now, his backwards step this year suggests that he’€™s not in position for such a role anytime in 2013. Moreover, the Sox are deep in more advanced utility players.

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