November 19, 2012

The latest deadline in baseball’s offseason will come at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday night. By that time, teams must set their 40-man rosters in anticipation of the Rule 5 draft, which will take place Dec. 6, the final day of the winter meetings in Nashville. For the Nationals, the seemingly mundane transactions could lead to some significant decisions regarding long-tenured players.

In regard to protecting their minor leaguers from the Rule 5 draft, the Nationals will have some decisions to make. If there are any negative consequences from their recent fruitful drafts under General Manager Mike Rizzo, it’s that the Nationals will be forced to possibly cut ties with decent prospects because they don’t have roster space to keep them all.

Right now, without a clear-cut first baseman or fifth starter, the Nationals have 36 players on their 40-man roster. The crunch means the Nationals may consider making extra room on their 40-man roster, and it could include releasing or trying to trade starting pitcher John Lannan and/or catcher Jesus Flores.

Both Lannan and Flores are eligible for arbitration this winter, and the strong sense around baseball is the Nationals will not tender them contracts. If the Nationals plan on non-tendering them, anyway, they could simply release them now and create space on the 40-man roster to protect minor leaguers from the Rule 5 draft.

Other than Ryan Zimmerman, Lannan has been with the Nationals on the major league level longer than any other player. Next on the list is Flores, whom the Nationals acquired in the 2006 Rule 5 draft.

Last year, the Nationals paid Lannan $5 million as he spent the season in reserve at Class AAA Syracuse. It was an unprecedented situation created by another unprecedented situation: When the Nationals decided to shut down Stephen Strasburg, they knew they would need an extra capable starter. The Nationals decided paying Lannan a major league salary was worth the insurance.

With Strasburg no longer under any restriction and the Nationals actively looking for a fifth starter on the free agent market, the Nationals appear unwilling to spend another $5 million on Lannan this year.

The Nationals have two catchers who are better than Flores in Wilson Ramos and Kurt Suzuki. They also have two who are cheaper than him in Jhonatan Solano and Sandy Leon. Their depth, combined with Flores’s uneven performance this year, makes him expendable in the Nationals’ eyes.

And so with the Rule 5 draft approaching, the Nationals may be compelled to open up 40-man roster spaces by letting Flores and Lannan go.

There are two kinds of players eligible for the Rule 5 draft: those who were 18 or younger when they signed and have at least five years of minor league service, and those who were 19 or older when they signed and have at least four years of minor league service. Essentially, we’re talking about players drafted out of college in 2009 (or earlier) or high school in 2008 (or earlier) who are not currently on 40-man rosters.

In the Rule 5 draft, teams can select any player from that pool. They must then pay $50,000 and keep that player on their 25-man roster for a full season. If not, they have to return him to the original team.

The Nationals have several players they’ll have to at least consider adding to their 40-man roster and protecting. Most of them fit the same mold — they’re talented enough to intrigue, but not developed enough for another club to carry them in the majors all season. The Nationals’ opinion of them will determine how soon they have to make decisions on Lannan and Flores.

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