The Red Sox 40-man roster has just 36 spots filled, thanks to the influx of free agents who are no longer with the team. This is convenient for them, as the deadline for setting the 40-man to protect against the Rule 5 draft is November 20, one week from today, leaving Boston four spots to work with in order to keep their eligible prospects to themselves. Which prospects are going to be protected, though, and which will be left available for other teams to draft?
The situation is less convoluted than it was a few months back, as the Red Sox already added Brandon Workman and Xander Bogaerts to not just the 40-man, but the major-league roster. That leaves a more manageable list of prospects to choose from, but there are still quite a few kids who merit inclusion on the 40-man.
Remember, it's not as easy as protecting everyone there is space for right now, as, once the Red Sox sign a free agent -- be it Mike Napoli, Carlos Ruiz, both, or someone else we're unaware of as of now -- they will need a 40-man spot for them. With that in mind, Boston doesn't necessarily want to just add four players to protect them because they have the space, as that means they will need to designate others for assignment once they add someone to the team. Instead, they're going to have to pick-and-choose from a list of 38 Rule-5-eligible players to make things work.
Ranaudo was a first-round draft pick back in 2010, but injuries slowed his ascent through the minors. A strong 2013 had him breeze through Double-A and finish the year with a convincing showing at Triple-A, however, so there is no way he can go unprotected by the Red Sox without losing him. Given his talent, even with the injuries, he would have been plucked from Boston on the Rule 5 even without the impressive campaign to point to. He's not major-league ready just yet, and certainly would not be had he missed any more time, but you can hide a tall right-hander with a plus secondary pitch in a big-league bullpen for a year if you had to.
The 6-foot-7 right-hander has a future as a mid-rotation starter in the majors so long as he can stay healthy -- problems arise for Ranaudo when he is not, as he's lost velocity and his mechanics at times both in college and on the farm. He's one of the small army of mid-rotation prospects the Red Sox have collected, though, and he won't simply be handed off in the Rule 5. If the Red Sox plan to move him to sell high after a healthy and productive season, that's another thing entirely, but it likely won't happen until after the deadline for Rule 5 protection has already passed.
Cecchini is one of Boston's top prospects, with outlets like Sox Prospects already ranking him third in a strong system. He will absolutely be added to the 40-man roster before the protection deadline, as he's no secret anymore after hitting .322/.443/.471 between High- and Double-A, with a .449 on-base percentage in the Arizona Fall League tacked on at the end. Like Ranaudo, Cecchini was in line to be protected even if he hadn't broken out -- his 2013 campaign just made things all the more obvious.
While it's unclear just what Cecchini's ceiling is at this point, as his patience could help him grow into some power but he could be valuable even if that doesn't happen, he's an automatic addition to the 40-man roster, especially since, if he doesn't start 2014 at Triple-A, he'll surely be there before long, making him part of Boston's depth at the hot corner. While it's always a bit annoying to have to add players to the 40-man when they aren't already major-league ready, Cecchini, like Ranaudo, is at least close enough to keep him from burning more than an option down on the farm -- this isn't a Drake Britton situation, by any means.
The question marks
The 24-year-old Brentz is a likely add, but he's not a sure thing like Ranaudo and Cecchini. Brentz hit just .264/.312/.475 for Triple-A Pawtucket, meaning he'll already be 25 in Triple-A in 2014, and not because he's blocked at the big-league level. Brentz's power is absolutely legitimate, and that could cause someone to select him were he to go unprotected -- especially at a time when power is at a premium in the majors -- but there are enough holes in his game that some would question whether it was worth it to make him a lefty-mashing part-timer in the majors when he so desperately needs constant playing time in order to improve.
Brentz struck out 25 percent of the time in 2013 for Pawtucket, and walked just 20 times in 349 plate appearances, or in less than six percent of them. The power is there, but his defense is lacking save his arm, and he hasn't shown anything to indicate he can draw walks or hit for contact against Triple-A arms, never mind against the best pitching in the world. That might give teams pause at the Rule 5, were he to go unprotected, but we're also dealing with an off-season where the Red Sox don't want to give up Mike Carp because his raw power is such a rarity: Boston might use a 40-man spot on Brentz solely to preserve his potential as a less patient, but inexpensive, Jonny Gomes replacement on the roster. Or, at the least, in order to package him in a trade to someone lusting after his pop, rather than simply lose him for nothing.
Couch isn't a significant prospect, but he's shown promise as a starter and a reliever in the minors since he was drafted in 2010. There is little chance the Red Sox will protect him, however, especially not a year after letting a pitcher in a similar position, Ryan Pressly, be selected in the Rule 5. It's also not a sure thing Couch would even be picked: he gave up four runs in his one inning of work at Triple-A, and while he was solid for Double-A Portland, he didn't blow away the opposition in either relief or starting. He also doesn't succeed with pure velocity or a ridiculous out pitch or anything that might have teams giving him a shot, so this might be a case of leaving Couch unprotected simply because you can.
One year ago, Hernandez looked like someone in need of protection. He was a ground-ball left-hander with a future in relief in the majors, who had yet to see any problems moving up the organizational ladder -- in fact, he was the first of the 2010 draft class to make it all the way to Triple-A Pawtucket. Things unraveled in 2013, though, with Hernandez hit hard, removed from the rotation, and demoted back to Double-A: all told, the southpaw produced a 4.72 ERA with his worst strikeout-to-walk ratio as a professional.
Hernandez doesn't require protection at this point. If someone wants to stash him in a bullpen, by all means, have at it: there's likely a better arm here than what was on display in 2013, but not one the Red Sox should trip over themselves to protect.
At mid-season, Almanzar looked like someone the Red Sox were going to have to deal in order to avoid protecting or straight-up losing in the Rule 5. While he's still young with room to grow, when you combine his lack of defensive skills with his middling final line of .268/.328/.432, concern that he will be lost for nothing vanishes. It's a blessing, in a way, that he scuffled so badly after a solid start, as it gives the Red Sox one more chance to see what he can do in the upper minors, and possibly another opportunity to sell on him before the Rule 5 comes up once more. There is little chance he'll be taken from Boston in December this time around, not with the learning he still has left to do.