Exploring 40-Man Roster Timeline Dynamics

Over the past several years, we’ve typically had about 1,500 players on The Board at any given time once all the org lists are done, spread across the tool’s pro, draft, and international sections. Heuristics play an important role in enabling us get a grip on such a large pool of players, especially when we are considering individuals for the first time, or trying to assess disparate players on the same FV scale.

For example, we felt comfortable absolutely stuffing Rockies right-handed pitcher Jordy Vargas near the top of their organizational prospect list in large part because of a key heuristic. I have not seen Vargas in person. He spent all of 2021 in the DSL, and didn’t come stateside for instructional league. Because the Rockies have struggled at the big league level and are therefore unlikely to be motivated to trade prospects, other teams have had little reason to thoroughly scout their DSL club, which makes sourcing detailed scout opinions about a player like Vargas difficult. Sometimes, a scout will come across a player like this at random and provide an in-person opinion that makes up the lion’s share of what we impart to readers, but in Vargas’ case, all we had was pitch data (which was how he got on our radar in the first place) and video we sought out from the 2021 DSL.

It can be challenging to drop Vargas right into the Rockies list for initial consideration, since he and someone like Ryan Vilade are apples-and-oranges in the extreme. It’s much cleaner to step back and compare Vargas, apples-to-apples, with same-aged pitching prospects across the global baseball landscape to get a sense of where he fits among that sub-group, assign him a FV grade in that context, and then move him onto the Rockies list. In Vargas’ case, his skill set is very similar to that of high school pitchers taken in the mid-to-late first round of a given draft (projectable 6-foot-3, gorgeous delivery, already throwing in the mid-90s, an excellent curveball), so we can use our heuristic FV for that type of player (in this case a 45) to get an initial sense of where he should be on the Rockies list even though I haven’t seen him, and then try to polish his grade from there. The foundations of most players’ evaluations on our site are built on heuristics like this and then augmented by other, more granular details.

Some of those details are just context. We tend to go out of our way to tell you if a prospect played multiple sports in college, or if they come from a small school, or transferred from a program where they weren’t getting reps, etc., because that context affects how we project on the player. If two pitchers are exactly the same in every way, except one of them is a converted third baseman who has only been pitching for a few weeks, that’s going to impact how we project those two otherwise identical prospects.

This whole article is about one of those contextual details, one that has become tough for me to get a grip on when it comes to adjusting where we line up a given prospect after they’re first bucketed based on talent. In this case, it’s the way 40-man/Rule 5 Draft roster timelines can compress development, diminish a player’s roster flexibility, and cause one to make inferences about industry opinion based on a lack of movement in this area.

Let’s use another Rockies prospect as a jumping off point for discussion: Helcris Olivarez, a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher in Colorado’s system. Here is a chunk of his scouting report from the Rockies list:

Olivarez has tremendous stuff for a 21-year-old. He already sits 96 mph, maintains his arm speed while throwing his changeup, and flashes a plus curveball. There’s arguably too much velocity separation between the heater and curveball for the latter to be effective right now (on average, there’s a 20 mph difference), but it has bat-missing depth and shape on occasion. Olivarez began throwing more changeups than breaking balls in 2021, and while he sells it as a fastball out of the hand, he doesn’t have great feel for location right now, which applies to his entire repertoire as he had 68 walks and hit 21 batters in just shy of 100 2021 innings.

If I apply the same heuristic to Olivarez that I did to Vargas, I’d compare him to draft-eligible college pitchers who are also 21 years old. While flawed because of his command issues, Olivarez looks exceptional in this light because, well, he has more arm strength than just about any starting pitching prospect in most drafts. Among recent draft prospects, Olivarez perhaps compares most closely to Tennessee lefty Garrett Crochet, who was drafted by the White Sox in the middle of the first round in 2020 (again, in that 45 FV range).

But I can’t just 45 Olivarez and move on. There is relevant context beyond his talent. In this case, that context is Olivarez’s 40-man situation and the growing lack of roster flexibility that comes with it. A reminder about roster rules: Players signed at age 18 or younger need to be added to their club’s 40-man roster within five seasons or they become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft; players who signed at age 19 or older need to be protected within four seasons. Olivarez signed in 2016 when he was 16 years old, and either had to be added to the 40-man or exposed to the Rule 5 Draft after the 2020 season. He was just 20 when the Rockies put him on the 40-man and hadn’t yet pitched in full-season ball, to say nothing of his obvious strike-throwing issues.

Olivarez wasn’t even close to being big-league ready when Colorado rostered him, but you could make the argument that his talent put him at risk of being taken in the Rule 5 and stashed in someone’s bullpen for a year (there is precedent), before being developed as a starter at a more typical pace in subsequent seasons. The problem with rostering a player like Olivarez knowing that he’s nowhere close to Denver is that you are by default burning at least one of his option years, and probably two, during the intervening seasons. By adding him to the 40-man, you are starting a different sort of clock, one that makes it imperative that Olivarez is ready to be on the big league roster and stay there, without much margin for error, by the time he’s 22 or 23, since by that point he’ll be out of options and have stick on the 26-man roster in perpetuity or be exposed to waivers. That’s a tough needle to thread. If Olivarez hasn’t developed much better control by then, the Rockies would likely be forced to move him to the bullpen as a means of keeping him on their roster in a role in which he has a better chance of performing.

If Olivarez were an actual college prospect in this year’s draft, his 40-man/Rule 5 clock would not start until after he signs, giving him three years to develop in the minors before the Rockies needed to even consider adding him to the 40-man. In that scenario, he wouldn’t have to be added to the 40-man until after the 2025 season; his first option year would be 2026. If there were two identical Helcris Olivarezes, the one that actually exists and another at Oklahoma State or Oregon, I’d rather have the college version since he has a much longer developmental runway and, in my opinion, a better chance of eventually becoming a starter as a result. That difference should be reflected on the prospect lists and in a player’s Future Value grade, but I’m still grappling with what kind of adjustment to make in cases like this.

I submit that this compressed developmental period, resulting in a greater likelihood of suboptimal outcomes for prospects, disproportionately impacts Latin American amateur signees, specifically pitchers. I’d even go so far as to say it negatively impacts the best young Latin American prospects, since they are the ones most likely to merit consideration for a 40-man spot at age 20 or 21. Even though they have the same number of pro seasons before reaching Rule 5 eligibility, domestic high schoolers tend to have at least one more year of overall development before they’re up for 40-man consideration, and often more. Many Latin American amateurs sign at 16, whereas Trevor Rogers was 19.5 when the Marlins drafted him out of a New Mexico high school. That is not the typical age gap, but it does illustrate the range. It is hard for someone who signs at 16 or 17 to become a viable big league starter (even just a spot starter) by the time they’re 21. The earlier timeline for 40-man consideration perhaps helps enable Latin American players to reach the big league roster sooner and thus, to start making a living wage sooner than the college draftees who will be in the minors into their mid-20s, but it might also compromise their earning power in arbitration since their early-career role is more likely to be in the bullpen over their first three seasons. This is an area ripe for deeper study.

Here’s an illustration, comparing Olivarez to Twins prospect Steve Hajjar, who was born one day before Helcris and was selected 61st overall out of Michigan in 2021.

Developmental Timelines For Identically-Aged Pitching Prospects
Player Age 16 Age 17 Age 18 Age 19 (2020) Age 20 Age 21 (2022) Age 22 Age 23
Helcris Olivarez DSL DSL Short-Season 40-man eval yr Hi-A, 1st Option Yr 2nd option yr 3rd option yr TBD
Steve Hajjar HS Junior HS Senior NCAA Frosh RS Frosh RS Soph, Draft yr A-ball Double-A 40-man eval yr

Olivarez’s three option years are up before Hajjar even needs to be added to the Twins 40-man, which has an undeniable affect when determining what kind of player each of them will eventually become. Olivarez throws way, way harder than Hajjar does right now even though they’re the same age, and I could see the argument for preferring Olivarez over Hajjar in a vacuum for that reason, but Hajjar’s extended time to develop has to factor into how we (and teams) look at these guys and pref them out on a prospect list.

Will teams become more reticent to add players like Olivarez to their 40-man when they’re first vulnerable to the Rule 5? It seems to me that teams are beginning to behave this way, though their decision-making during this particular offseason may have been affected by other variables, including the possibility that there might not be a Rule 5 draft at all due to the timing of the lockout and the start of spring training. Some of my scouting contacts (and Kevin Goldstein’s) think that its fate is still up in the air, though there are teams that are behaving as if they expect a draft, or at least think it’s worth trading their ability to scout other clubs to keep their own prospects hidden and protected from the Rule 5.

The more teams choose not to protect raw-but-talented players like Olivarez, the less likely it becomes that any one of them is selected, since the player pool would be flooded with guys like him. There are only so many teams with 40-man space, after all, and there are even fewer that are inclined to use that space on a Rule 5 pick, let alone be willing and in a position to take a flier on a developmental type of prospect in this manner. And then the player has to stick on their new roster, which is uncommon. As teams like Texas, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and others take depth-driven approaches to building a farm system, it will become harder for them to roster all of their relevant Rule 5 eligible prospects in a given year, though if that’s the case for a lot of teams, the chances of a club targeting their player(s) drops due to the sheer number of alternatives.

If this is the case, it means we will have to be cognizant of this trend as we evaluate a player who has been passed over in the Rule 5. In the past, I’ve felt free to make inferences about the industry’s general opinion of a player based on whether or not they were passed over in the Rule 5. For instance, I was once very high on Jose Miranda relative to other outlets. Here is a timeline of Miranda’s tool and FV grades during his time as a prospect (as an aside, if you click on any prospect’s FV grade on The Board, this timeline will pop up):

At one point, the only things that changed my perception of Miranda were that a) I gave up on him being an average infield defender and b) that nobody took him in the Rule 5 draft even though he was eligible. He didn’t fall off the lists entirely, and he was actually ranked very highly compared to other prospects who had been passed over, but rather than have conviction about where I had Miranda evaluated, I slid him into a lesser tier because I thought the industry was telling me “We don’t think this guy is as good as you do.” Instead, they may have simply been saying, “We don’t think this guy is ready.”

Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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2 years ago

Rule 5 timeline on THE BOARD anyone?

2 years ago
Reply to  dozingoffdad

Yes please!