The 40-Man Roster Crunch: The Locks
Yesterday, I looked at the current Phillies’ roster in order to ascertain just how many roster spots are available as the Rule 5 protection deadline approaches. By my estimates, the team may have as many as ten roster spots to work with to protect their Rule 5 eligible prospects. As a refresher, Minor League players with four (for college draftees) or five (for high school draftees and international free agents) seasons of professional experience, and aren’t on a 40-Man roster, are generally eligible to be picked in the Rule 5 draft. The acquiring team must keep them on the active roster for the entirety of the next season, or offer them back to their original team.
The Phillies are fortunate enough to have a large number of players worth protecting from the draft. However, finding enough room for all of them is a problem. Today, we look at the six players that are definite locks to be added to the 40-man roster.
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Knapp is already factored into the roster under this scenario. With Jorge Alfaro‘s likely promotion to triple-A in 2017, there isn’t room for two everyday catching prospects on the roster, and Knapp will still need regular playing time. As the Major League team also needs a backup catcher, he may fit in that role. Knapp is a switch-hitting catcher and was drafted by the Phillies in the second round of the 2013 draft. While his ability to catch has reportedly improved, his bat will likely determine his success at the Major League level. He wasn’t able to reproduce his explosive 2015 Reading season at Lehigh Valley, and hit at a roughly league-average rate (107 wRC+).
Now, if he isn’t on the active roster out of Spring Training, it complicates things a bit. First-and-foremost, it requires finding playing time for both he and Alfaro at triple-A. Additionally, that means the team must sign or acquire a backup catcher in some other way. That requires an additional roster spot, carrying four catchers on the 40-Man roster, and preventing the team from protecting an additional prospect that they may want to keep. One alternative, as mentioned by Corey Seidman, could be to dangle Knapp as trade bait. In fact, dangling Knapp and other rule 5 eligible prospects for a single Major League contributor would be an interesting way to clear up the entire roster crunch issue. But, assuming he remains, he will definitely be protected before the Rule 5 draft, and will probably be seen in Philadelphia in 2017.
Williams is probably the most obvious name on this list, as a unanimous top-100 prospect who came over as a headline piece in the Cole Hamels trade. He is super athletic with high-potential tools, but faces serious questions about his approach at the plate and more generally, to the game. Everyone is aware that he was benched a couple times and had a less than productive end to the season. His strikeout rate ticked up to 25.8 percent in 2016, and his walk rate ticked down to 3.6 percent. He will still only be 23 years old for the 2017 season, and is far from any kind of a lost cause. He definitely will begin 2017 back in triple-A, but if he rights the ship, he will still be seen in Philadelphia at some point next year.
OF Dylan Cozens
Cozens had the loudest season of any Phillies prospect in 2016. A former two sport athlete drafted in the second round of the 2012 draft, Cozens set the Reading home run record by hitting 40 bombs this season. With that came an increase in his prospect stock, and likely propelled him into this conversation. His value is basically tied up in his prodigious power, a strong arm, and willingness to take a walk. He struck out at a concerning 31.7 percent rate in 2016, and coming in at 6’6″ with the tendency to have a long swing, that problem probably isn’t going to disappear.
There are varying reports on his defense in right field, and if a conversion to first base is required, he has the offensive potential to still contribute at that position. Some reports aren’t convinced on his ability to hit at the highest level, and his Major League success will probably be determined by whether he can hit enough to reach his raw power. Eric Longenhagen concluded that because of his power, Cozens could still be valuable as a below average hitter. He’ll likely spend much of 2017 at triple-A working on his strikeout rate, and could be seen in September if he has a strong season with Lehigh Valley.
RHP Nick Pivetta
Pivetta is one of the three pitchers whose addition to the roster has been confirmed in a recent interview with Phillies farm director Joe Jordan. He was the return for Jonathan Papelbon, and could feasibly record more Major League saves for the Phillies than Papelbon did during his time with the Nationals. However, that characterization is also a bit reductive – while many reports peg him as a reliever, there is some chance he could contribute in a starting rotation. Physically, he isn’t too dissimilar from Jerad Eickhoff, and also relies on a fastball, curveball, changeup repertoire. However, reports indicate his curveball isn’t quite as good as Eickhoff’s, and falls on the opposite end of the stuff/command spectrum. His fastball is considered plus, and as a starter he reaches 95-96 mph. His curveball is considered league-average or slightly better, and reports I’ve seen consider his changeup a work in progress.
Pivetta struggled mightily in his transition to double-A last season and couldn’t throw strikes (per box scores, he threw only 58 percent strikes in 2015). He acquitted himself far better in 2016, and held his own with what could be considered Coors Field East as his home ballpark. He also dominated after his promotion to triple-A, and showed some marked improvements across the board. He set a new high for innings pitched in a season, featured a 64 percent strike rate, saw an improved 14.2 percent K-BB rate, and generated 44 percent groundballs. He may still be a relief prospect long term, but if the newfound control continues, he’ll probably be given every opportunity to start. Pivetta may be seen in some capacity in Philadelphia in 2017.
RHP Ben Lively
Lively is the second of three pitchers who will be added to the 40-man roster, per the aforementioned Joe Jordan interview. Lively is a workhorse-bodied starting pitcher who was acquired by the Phillies in the Marlon Byrd trade with Cincinnati. He throws four roughly average pitches that play up due to natural deception in his delivery, and does it while throwing strikes. Depending on the report you read, a different pitch stands out as the closest thing he has to an above-average offering. His deception, durability, and good control are probably his greatest assets. Emblematic of all three factors, 2016 was his third straight season with over 140 innings pitched and over 110 strikeouts, despite his lack of elite stuff. He set a new career high with 170.2 innings pitched this year – a notably high figure in the Minor Leagues.
There is still a lot of concern about his ability to succeed at the Major League level without a plus pitch, but as he has seen extended success at every Minor League level, he’s probably close to a finished product (relative to other guys on this list). He’ll spend time in Lehigh Valley in 2017, but it wouldn’t shock me if he were up quickly in the event of an injury, or even if he eeked out a spot in Spring Training. Also, a word of caution – just because the team has five young starters they like, doesn’t make a relatively high floor/low ceiling player like Lively expendable.
I am confident about few things in baseball, but I am certain that there will be an opportunity for Ben Lively to start a Major League game in 2017. Whether he forces the issue, or due to the injury or ineffectiveness of other pitchers, someone on Lively’s rung of the depth chart will pitch in Philadelphia next season. There has never once been such a thing as “too much pitching.”
LHP Elniery Garcia
Garcia is probably the least well-known name on this list. He is one of many short, but high-upside Latin American arms in the Phillies system. For a thorough introduction to Garcia, I encourage everyone to read Matt Winkelman’s exceptional report on his climb through the Minors at Phillies Minor Thoughts. He dominated advanced-A level Clearwater in 2016, and was called up to Reading for the double-A playoffs, where he impressed a lot of evaluators. Reportedly, he shows a mid 90s fastball that hit 97 in that start, as well a potential plus curveball and potential average changeup. That goes along with a advanced control of his pitches, an easy delivery, and a strong presence on the mound.
His final starts to the season were very strong, and probably forced the Phillies to protect him (if they weren’t going to already). He the only of these six players who will probably begin next season at double-A Reading, but most sources agree that he has back-end starter potential in the Majors. If things go according to plan, he could reach Philadelphia in 2018.
We’ve now added six Rule 5 prospects to the 40-Man roster. Because my previous math already included Knapp in the total, that takes us from ten remaining roster spots to five. Tomorrow, we’ll look at a group of players who each have compelling cases to to be added to the roster, but are all a little less certain than the above prospects.