As Brett mentioned earlier in the week, today is the MLB deadline for protecting players (by adding them to the 40-man roster) from the Major League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. I went through the complicated Christopher Morel decision yesterday, let’s go through the rest today.
This season, the Cubs are a bit lucky in that only one player should be a lock for a 40-man addition: 2019 Bleacher Nation Prospect of the Year Cory Abbott. The right-hander dominated the Southern League in 2019 in a way a Cubs pitching prospect hadn’t in more than a decade, and his presence on the 40-man will boost the Cubs 2021 starting depth. Expect him to be in Triple-A Iowa on Opening Day, waiting for injuries and doubleheaders to open the door.
Baseball America profiled Abbott recently, adding a bit of info about what was happening behind the scenes in 2020. Abbott began the season with a minor injury during Spring Training, followed by a “procedural issue” delaying some of his work in South Bend. Due to this, Abbott was sent to get innings in the mostly-younger Instructional League so the arm will be ready for a full season in 2021. Abbott didn’t dominate in Instructs, but results were not the focus, merely implementing some of the alterations and adjustments made in South Bend.
As Abbott moves forward, he’ll have to work to limit the home run ball, figure out the best way to differentiate his spike-curve and plus-slider, and perhaps more fully integrate a change-up. But this is an arm with a long history of missing bats and eating innings, and the Cubs can’t afford to risk exposing him to other teams in the Rule 5 Draft. If he ended up starting six or so games next year in the Majors, I wouldn’t be shocked.
My thoughts on other Cubs prospects eligible for the Rule 5 this year:
- The toughest call to me is catcher P.J. Higgins. The Cubs face a decision here: add a veteran MLB catcher on a minor league contract (like they did in 2020 with Josh Phegley), or add Higgins to the 40-man roster and trust him as the third catcher. I’ve made the case for Higgins before, as his versatility and contact-first approach both seem perfect traits for a 40-man depth role. But the Cubs decided against adding Higgins a year ago, and he was not selected. I tend to think they’ll hope for the same this time around. (Also, this week the Cubs added minor league catcher Taylor Gushue for additional depth.)
- Two players who were selected in the Rule 5 last year and are eligible again: Trevor Megill (by the Cubs, and kept) and Michael Rucker (by the Orioles, and returned). You’re not going to find me criticize the Cubs for whatever decision they make with these two. The Cubs know other teams like these arms, but they also spent plenty of time with both of them this summer at the Alternate Training Site. This is a real case of the Cubs knowing a lot more than the fans possibly could, and I will assume whatever decision here is utilizing the information gleaned from their mound work this summer. One thing I have heard: Rucker is throwing a cutter now.
- I still think Dakota Mekkes is a good big league reliever in waiting, but like the two before, I wasn’t privy to South Bend data this year. The Cubs already have plenty of depth competing for spots in the Triple-A bullpen, so I tend to think they’ll be hesitant to add anyone in that spot, as losing any one guy is manageable. So while Mekkes or Juan Gamez or even Jerrick Suiter are very intriguing, the fungibility of their position makes 40-man spots that much harder to come by.
- While I don’t think Keegan Thompson is particularly likely to get protected, he also might be the one left off with the best odds of getting drafted. Thompson didn’t take the mound much in 2019, but when he did it was occasionally brilliant, including in the well-scouted Arizona Fall League. I can definitely see a team having had their interest in Thompson piqued in 2019, and I do think there’s still a path to making a big league starter out of him. The problem is that he’ll be 26 before Opening Day with very little experience above A-ball. He’s considered very polished and big-league-pitchable, but injuries have delayed his progress a bit.
- Three top prospects of yesteryear who will not be added to the 40-man, but are first-time eligible: Aramis Ademan, Jose Albertos, and Brendon Little. Gosh I’d love for those three to rediscover what made the Cubs excited about them two or three years ago. If I was going to bet on any of them doing it, I’d pick Little as a lefty reliever.
- Last year the decision to add Manny Rodriguez to the 40-man caught most everyone by surprise. If I had to guess at a surprise pick this year (and I’ll say up front that I don’t expect any unforeseen additions) it would be Bryan Hudson. The big lefty was touching 95 mph in the Instructional League, and that velocity with his size and natural sink is going to draw interest from other teams. Depending on how the breaking ball is looking (after two years of very little work), I can squint and see a scenario where the Cubs don’t risk losing Hudson.
- A final thing to look for: as other teams are working through 40-man logjams today, don’t be shocked if the Cubs are active with waiver claims (and potentially even a minor trade). This is common practice for them, and any waiver claim made today will likely eventually be waived by the Cubs themselves later in the winter (in an attempt to move them off the 40-man and back into minor league control).