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Will Pirates regret their Tahnaj Thomas decision?

Orioles castoff Eric Hanhold has a roster spot that should have gone to young right-hander

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

My cohort Patricia Beninato filled you in the other day on the four Pittsburgh Pirates prospects added to the 40-man roster Friday and identified several other prospects who were not.

The post noted that power-hitting first base prospect Mason Martin was not protected, and neither were young pitchers Eddy Yean, Tahnaj Thomas and Omar Cruz and outfield hopeful Cal Mitchell.

All five of them rank among the Pirates’ Top 30 prospects, at least according to MLB Pipeline, with Martin ranking No. 17, Mitchell No. 18, Thomas No. 13, Cruz No. 26 and Yean No. 30.

All but Yean, in fact, are ranked higher than two of the four prospects who were added to the roster – No. 27 Canaan Smith-Njigba and No. 29 Jack Suwinski.

Jake Crouse of quoted Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington providing a variation on the old “it’s not you, it’s me” line when explaining why some prospects were protected and others were not.

“In terms of anyone who was not added, it’s really less about anything in a player that we don’t see or don’t like,” Cherington said. “It’s just that we can only add so many guys, and we have to make some decisions and bets on what’s the best way to keep as much talent in the organization. It’s not just the Rule 5-eligibles we’re trying to keep in the organization, but other guys that are already on the roster too.”

This year’s Rule 5 draft is set for Dec. 8 – the last day of the annual Winter Meetings — barring any complications that might arise with the expiration of the current CBA on Dec. 1. For those unfamiliar, any team selecting a player in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft must pay $100,000 to the organization that is losing the player, and also must place the player immediately on its 26-man roster. If the selecting team decides at some point to part ways with the drafted player, he must be placed on waivers, and if he clears waivers, he must be offered back to his previous team for $50,000 and can be outrighted to the Minor Leagues only if his previous team does not wish to reacquire him.

A Rule 5 selection can be placed on the injured list, but he must be active for at least 90 days to avoid being subject to the same roster restrictions the following season.

Last year, the Pirates were active, as they took right-hander Jose Soriano from the Angels with the first pick, then acquired fellow right-hander Luis Oviedo, whom the Mets had taken from the Indians. Soriano was coming off Tommy John surgery in 2019 and unfortunately had another injury setback last season that required additional surgery, and he was returned to the Angels recently. Oviedo, now 22, appeared in 22 games with the Pirates and gave up 29 earned runs in 29 2/3 innings while allowing 33 hits and 26 walks. He did strike out 31, and now the Pirates are free to return him to the Minor Leagues to work on his craft.

There’s no doubt Cherington and his staff know the club’s players a whole lot better than I do; after all, I was championing the case of Dustin Fowler last offseason and look how well he worked out. But I’m puzzled by what appears to be dead wood that remains on the 40-man today. This is nothing personal, but I’m referring to guys like Anthony Banda, Eric Hanhold and – perhaps to a slightly lesser extent — Cody Ponce and Jared Oliva. I actually liked Oliva – two offseasons ago – but he did nothing to distinguish himself at the Big League level in 2021, hitting .175 with a .458 OPS in 43 plate appearances spread over 20 games.

The only thing I can think of is that the club kept one or more of those players in order to release them should they find someone they like more, either in a trade or in the actual Rule 5 draft. In other words, they’d have to make room for someone, and it would be easier to release an Anthony Banda than it would to let go a somewhat highly regarded prospect who might then be gobbled up by a team not required to keep him on its Major League roster all season.

Of all the highly regarded prospects the Pirates chose not to keep, the most surprising to me was Thomas. Although it would be challenging to keep a guy who fashioned a 5.19 ERA in 16 appearances in High-A ball on the Major League roster for a season, I could see a team with little hope – perhaps the Orioles or the Diamondbacks, for example – taking him and using him as the last man in the bullpen, sort of like what the Pirates did with Oviedo when he wasn’t, er, injured this past season.

Thomas turns 23 in June and originally was signed as a shortstop out of the Bahamas by Cleveland in December 2016. He was acquired by the Pirates with Eric Gonzalez as part of the Jordan Luplow/Max Moroff trade in November 2018. Thomas ranks as the No. 11 Pirates prospect according to Baseball America, and FanGraphs holds him in even higher esteem, putting him at No. 7.

Baseball America gave Thomas’ fastball a 70 grade on the 20-80 scale, describing it as “overpowering” and said that even if he can’t improve his changeup or add another off-speed pitch, he could still be a dominant reliever. One FanGraphs writeup noted that despite reaching triple digits, Thomas threw a “shocking number of strikes,” although High-A umps must have missed a lot of calls, as he walked 35 batters in 60 2/3 innings. Still, he did strike out 62 hitters in his 16 appearances.

Of all the moves Cherington and Co. did not make, that might be the one they regret. It’s hard to let an arm like that one become available to any bidder willing to take a chance on him for a paltry $100,000. Granted, there aren’t scores of Rule 5 success stories, but why take a chance when all you needed to do was wave goodbye to Eric Hanhold?