The Rule 5 draft is a long ways away, but the issues that it raises are relevant to the Pirates now due to the approaching trade deadline. The team's status as deadline buyers has coincided with an influx of solid prospects at the upper levels of their farm system, which has allowed them to use non-primo but still intriguing prospects as trade chips. This, in turn, reduces the roster pressures and enables them to get maximum value out of the talent they have, since they can't use it all at the major league level. So a Rule 5 preview at this stage is something of a primer for the trade deadline.
CANDIDATES TO BE ADDED
Dovydas Neverauskas, RHP -- Neal Huntington recently made it clear that the Pirates really like Neverauskas and that they think he'll get better. That certainly makes sense for a guy from Lithuania who's just adapting to the bullpen. He gets into the upper-90s, is throwing two different sliders, and has made significant progress with his command in the last year. I think there's a good chance he comes up in September. He'll become a free agent if he's not added to the roster, so this technically isn't a Rule 5 decision.
Yeudy Garcia, RHP -- I'm not absolutely certain whether Garcia is eligible for the draft. He signed at age 20 in February 2013, but didn't play that year. If that year counts, as I believe it does, he's eligible; if it doesn't, he's not. Anyway, Garcia hasn't dominated the way he did last year. For one thing, his velocity was down to the low-90s early in the season, as opposed to 96 or so. Now it's back up to 93-95 (sub. req'd) and he's been pitching much better lately. A guy with the ability to throw as hard as Garcia and a history of missing bats would be easy to hide in the back of a bullpen for a year, so this should be an easy decision.
Stephen Tarpley, LHP -- Like Garcia, Tarpley has struggled some this year, mainly with command issues. He's a lefty with above average stuff, though, and also would be easy to hide for a year. At worst, he has the potential to be something like Antonio Bastardo. It's hard to see them letting him go.
Trevor Williams, RHP -- Williams possibly should fall into the no-brainers. He doesn't have great upside and he struggled a little after returning from an early season injury, but his last three starts have been outstanding. At worst, he could be Brandon Cumpton for three years.
Clay Holmes, RHP -- Holmes has always been more potential than performance and he threw only 36 innings combined in 2014-15. He also struggled badly early this season. In his last five starts, though, he's gone 30 innings and allowed just five earned runs, 21 hits, and 14 walks (that's not so great), with 30 strikeouts. I saw him start a game early in the year in which he didn't get a single swing and miss, so the Ks are a good sign. His performance the rest of the year will probably play a big role in the team's decision.
Jared Lakind, LHP -- A converted first baseman who's also missed time with injuries, Lakind has very limited experience on the mound, but he's doing well in AA and has good stuff that misses a fair number of bats. Like Neverauskas, he'll be a free agent if he's not added to the roster. It'll be interesting to see whether the Pirates give him some time in AAA.
Luis Heredia, RHP -- Heredia is definitely a mixed bag. As a reliever now he's throwing about 94 mph and gets great downward action by throwing straight over the top from his 6'7" height. The result is that opponents can't drive his pitches; they're slugging only .271 against him. But his command disappears on nearly every other pitch. He's a long ways from being able to pitch in AAA or maybe even AA, much less the majors. I think it'd be hard to get him through a season in the majors and I'm guessing the Pirates will count on that.
Tito Polo, OF -- Polo's hitting profile is very similar to Starling Marte's. He hits for average and power (although not every year), he seldom walks, and he bolsters his OBP by getting plunked a lot. He doesn't have quite Marte's speed, but at this point he's a legitimate center fielder. As Vlad will point out, outfielders who can run and play center are often a target demographic in the Rule 5 draft, so the Pirates would stand a good chance of losing Polo if they don't protect him.
Cody Dickson, LHP -- Dickson's never quite put it together; this year he's walked more than he's struck out. He's very similar to Zack Dodson, as a lefty with good stuff but inadequate command.
Sandy Santos, OF -- Santos has shown some power and a decent mix of tools, but doesn't really stand out and is still in short season ball.
Jin-De Jhang, C -- Jhang is doing pretty much as expected, making contact and hitting for average, plus he's a left-handed hitting catcher. It's hard to get a read on his defense. His arm is fine, but if his defense was average, you'd think the bat would make him fairly attractive. Instead, he was passed over in the Rule 5 draft last year. Probably scouts are just turned off by the bad body. I doubt he'll be added, but I hope the team doesn't lose him.
Edwin Espinal, 1B/3B -- The Pirates obviously have always believed in Espinal's bat, as they've kept pushing him upward despite mediocre results and less-than-ideal conditioning. He's among the leaders in the Eastern League in batting, but he rarely walks and his power is just middling. Defensively, he's essentially identical to Jason Rogers; he's OK at first and can fake it at third. The bat just isn't enough given his other limitations.
Daniel Arribas, 1B -- With Tito Polo gone, Arribas is probably West Virginia's most productive hitter, but the numbers aren't outstanding and he'll be 24 in September. Also, he's a first baseman now, rather than a catcher like he used to be.
Carlos Munoz, 1B -- He just hasn't hit that much. Munoz wasn't selected after destroying the Appalachian League, so he's not going to be selected after a mediocre season in the SAL.
Erich Weiss, 2B -- After a big month of April, Weiss has tailed off a lot. He doesn't play short, so unless he was still hitting like he was early in the year it's hard to see enough ceiling to get him selected.
Wyatt Mathisen, 3B -- Mathisen has never put it together at the plate, which he needs to do after switching from catcher to third. He missed most of the first half of this season and is now caught in a crunch of corner position players at Bradenton. He has a .762 OPS as I write this, which is very good for the offense-starved FSL, but it's just 15 games.
Barrett Barnes, OF -- Barnes is finally having a healthy season, but the numbers have been very ordinary, including a high K rate and only one HR.
Altogether, that makes three no-brainers plus, at a guess, three or four others. I think Williams is very likely, and Holmes and Polo are likely if they keep performing well (Polo has also gotten hot lately). Lakind has so little track record that you'd have to know what the Pirates' coaching staff is telling the front office to hazard a guess about whether they'll protect him. I think, if they were likely to add Heredia, they'd have moved him up to AA by now, but I could be wrong. So that's six or seven total. It may not seem like a huge number, but you have to consider that they already added Adam Frazier, Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault. If the major league team hadn't sprung a host of leaks, those guys would have been added in September or in the fall.
CANDIDATES TO COME OFF
Free Agents (Definite or Likely)
Jon Niese, LHP -- Even if, heaven forbid, Niese remains with the Pirates through the end of the season, it's hard to imagine them exercising his option unless he suddenly goes all J.A. Happ on them.*
Mark Melancon, RHP
Neftali Feliz, RHP
Ryan Vogelsong, RHP -- Because he's on the 60-day disabled list, Vogelsong isn't occupying a roster spot, although he likely will be doing so by September.
Sean Rodriguez, UT
David Freese, 1B/3B -- It's conceivable that the Pirates could look to extend one or more of their over-performing bench players. The most likely candidate would be Freese, depending on how the situation with Jung-Ho Kang develops.
Matt Joyce, OF
Kyle Lobstein, LHP -- Lobstein and Boscan should be locks to come off the roster.
Wilfredo Boscan, RHP
Erik Kratz, C -- At least one of Kratz or Fryer may come off the roster soon, but it's not a given. Once Elias Diaz' rehab is over, they'll have to make a move because he's currently on the 60-day disabled list. Of course, the move wouldn't have to involve a catcher and the team may want to retain Kratz or Fryer as a backup until both Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart are ready, seeing as how Diaz lacks veteranosity. With Reese McGuire and Jacob Stallings both likely in AAA next year, though, Kratz and Fryer won't be around past the end of the season.
Eric Fryer, C
Jason Rogers, 1B -- Rogers struck out seven times in 14 ABs with the Pirates and has pedestrian numbers in AAA. They may want to look for better corner depth options.
Gift Ngoepe, SS -- I suppose this could happen, as Ngoepe has struggled severely at the plate this year. Hopefully, he'll at least get a September callup. Having Gift and Neverauskas called up at the same time would be way cool.
Willy Garcia, OF -- Garcia is actually drawing walks at a respectable rate this year, but they've come at the cost of his power and his K rate remains very high. I doubt they'll remove him from the roster, but he could be a candidate in the right circumstances.
The Pirates should have little trouble opening up ten or more spaces. That would leave plenty of room to add prospects while still leaving space for bench and bullpen additions, which they're going to need. They also need to consider adding a starter, given Francisco Liriano's problems, although if Niese or Vogelsong is their idea of adding a starter it'd be better if they didn't bother.
In addition to players who will or may come off the 40-man roster, it's possible that the Pirates will trade players from the roster. Obvious candidates include Garcia, Max Moroff, Alen Hanson and Harold Ramirez. Hanson is a guy I'd expect the Pirates to bring up in trade talks because he's out of options. He's been hitting well lately and suddenly seems to have discovered that drawing walks doesn't hurt, so he may have some trade value.
UPDATE: Vlad mentioned Eric Wood in the comments and Wood, who obviously has a great sense of timing, promptly went deep twice in Altoona's doubleheader. That left him with a huge line so far in July and an overall line of 260/337/492 on the season, while playing in a home park that depresses RH power. (My excuse for missing Wood is that I was offline for most of the month.) So now I'm thinking Wood belongs in the "maybe" category, trending up.
UPDATE II: As per Tim Williams' comment below, P2 checked with Yeudy Garcia and he said he signed after the 2013 season. So he's NOT eligible this year for the Rule 5 draft.
*It's hard not to conclude that the Pirates badly overvalued Niese's options. Apart from the fact that an option on a bad player has no value, their focus should have been on getting a pitcher with more upside and less control. Their plan was to scrape by until reinforcements arrived from AAA. That being the case, control beyond 2016 shouldn't have been a priority. It's also hard to avoid concluding that Huntington's expressed shock at the starting pitcher market -- which was shocking only if you've been on Mars the last decade -- played into the over-emphasis on Niese's options. In the end, the Pirates went with the guy they could afford rather than a guy who might actually help the team, which is exactly how Dave Littlefield did things. In fact, Huntington's comments about starter salaries were reminiscent of the old McClatchy/Littlefield excuse-making, which is an alarming thing to have to say. Unlike the McClatchy/Littlefield front office, the current front office has shown a capacity to learn from its errors. Hopefully they'll learn from the Niese fiasco that acquiring a player just because you can afford him is a formula for failure.