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With Rule 5 deadline looming, which prospects will Nationals protect?

Jose Marmolejos is one of the Nationals' top 30 prospects yet remains unprotected. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

About this time each year, just as the baseball world seems likely to lull for a few days around turkey and family, decisions must be made. The Rule 5 draft is about a month away, and Tuesday is the deadline for teams to protect eligible players from its unpredictable clutches.

And about this time each year, explanation is required, because rule one of the Rule 5 draft is that its intricacies slip through baseball memories more easily than most:

The Rule 5 draft is Major League Baseball’s protection against stockpiling prospects, a goal it achieves by forcing teams to put preferred prospects on their 40-man rosters within a set period of time after signing them, or risk losing them to another team. Players signed at age 18 or younger (so this year, in 2014 or before) must be on a team’s 40-man roster within five years of their signing. Otherwise, another team can pay a fee of $100,000 to add them to its 25-man roster instead. Players signed at 19 or older (this year, college players taken in the 2015 draft or later) must be protected within four years.

Because of these rules, no team can afford to keep big-league-ready prospects in the minors too long without the risk of losing them. Teams must move prospects who have paid minor league dues to their 40-man roster to protect them from other teams, thereby moving them a logistical step closer to the majors than they might have been otherwise. Players must be on the 40-man roster before they can be added to the active 25-man roster, and often logjams on the 40-man force teams to select players already on that list instead of those who have yet to be added to that 40-man group.

The Nationals rarely experience much impact at this draft, which takes place in front of a room of bleary-eyed executives early on the morning of the final day of the Winter Meetings. They rarely do much shopping, particularly in the major league portion of the draft, though they have taken players in the minor league levels in recent years.

As of Monday morning, the Nationals had five open spots on their 40-man roster. Five players ranked in their top 30 prospects by were eligible for the Rule 5 draft yet remained unprotected: outfielders Telmito Agustin and Jose Marmolejos, corner infielder Drew Ward and pitchers James Borque and Tomas Alastre. Other intriguing players that remain unprotected include pitcher Luis Reyes, whom the Nationals sent to the Arizona Fall League this season, catcher Taylor Gushue and pitchers Dakota Bacus, Tyler Mapes and Joan Baez.

Ultimately, the Nationals decided to protect just one player on that list, Borque, whom they added to the 40-man roster Monday afternoon.

The Nationals took the 25-year-old in the 14th round of the 2014 draft and watched him blossom into a promising relief prospect this season as he pitched to a combined 1.70 ERA across two levels (0.92 at Class AA Harrisburg) and struck out 76 batters in 53 innings.

Selecting Borque leaves the others unprotected. Agustin could be an intriguing piece for other teams. He was 21 during the 2018 season and hit .302 in 63 games with Class A Potomac in a breakout season. He is a .280 career hitter in five minor league seasons.

Reyes, another right-hander, is less clear-cut in his appeal. The Nationals have always loved his stuff but never found a way to help him harness it entirely. He battled through injury this year to pitch to a 5.18 ERA in 12 starts for Class AA Harrisburg, and the Nationals sent him to the highly competitive Arizona Fall League to accumulate more innings. He pitched to an 11.37 ERA in four games.

Alastre is a 20-year-old right-hander who pitched to a 5.32 ERA in 23 starts for Class A Hagerstown. He might intrigue some teams enough to take a chance, but as the Nationals weighed who must have 40-man spots and who will not, they decided the risk of losing Alastre was not greater than the complications potentially caused by awarding him a 40-man spot before what seems likely to be a highly active offseason of acquisitions.

Ward was also on the 40-man bubble. The Nationals have long loved Ward’s potential as a power-hitting corner infielder, and the 23-year-old is far from “too old” to believe he could put everything together at some point soon. He climbed to Class AAA Syracuse this season and hit 13 homers in 115 games there. Ward is a .254 career hitter with a .737 OPS in five major league seasons. His size and power could intrigue teams, but his numbers will not blow them away.

Marmolejos, meanwhile, is exactly the kind of player on whom teams might take a Rule 5 chance. He has been in the Nationals system since 2011 and is now 25. He has proved himself a capable Class AAA hitter and owns a .284 career minor league average. He can play first or barrel around the corner outfield spots. And he is not far from ready for a big league chance but seems unlikely to get one in Washington. The Nationals could protect him, and indeed, they have put him on the 40-man roster before. If they don’t, another team might test the waters on Marmolejos, who could provide AAA depth with a bit of big league promise at little relative cost.

Just because a player remains unprotected does not mean he is certain to depart. In fact, because 40-man spots are so prized — particularly in organizations recently prone to winning — losing a bubble player is never a sure thing. Gushue, for example, was left unprotected last season and remained in the organization.

The Nationals will finalize their decisions by Tuesday, about three weeks before representatives from each team will gather on the morning of Dec. 13 to poach talent from other rosters — or simply to say “pass” each time their turn comes around to keep their 25-man roster flexible. The Nationals have run into 40-man traffic jams before, particularly when maneuvering to refill their oft-shuffled bullpen. They seem unlikely to clog it up at this time, though they incur risk by leaving long-tenured prospects unprotected.

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