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Projecting which prospects Tigers will protect from the Rule 5 draft

With the cutoff to protect players from the Rule 5 draft a week away, the Tigers have a few players they’ll need to add, and a few they’ll need to cut loose.

Detroit Tigers Photo Day Photo by Scott Audette/MLB Photos via Getty Images

On November 14, major league teams will have to add any prospect they want protected from the Rule 5 draft to their 40-man rosters. Currently, the Tigers 40-man roster is set at 40 players, so they’ll have to make cuts in order to protect their top prospects who would otherwise be Rule 5 draft eligible.

The Tigers already added one prospect, RHP Keider Montero, to the 40-man roster on Monday. As an international free agent, Montero would’ve been eligible to sign elsewhere as a minor league free agent had the Tigers not added him to the roster on Monday. That was a no-brainer, as Montero is arguably the club’s second best pitching prospect at this point, and the first of the next wave to reach Triple-A Toledo. Montero has a pretty good fastball that tops out at 98 mph, sits in the mid-90’s, and he backs the heat with a 3000 rpm slider and a changeup that really developed this season into an above average pitch. He’ll be in line to contribute in 2024 if he can continue to refine his command a little more.

Another top pitching prospect who needs to be added is RHP Wilmer Flores. After an outstanding breakout campaign in 2022, the right-hander, younger brother of the San Francisco Giants infielder of the same name, spun his wheels in 2023, but remains a borderline top 100 pitching prospect and should start the 2024 season at the Triple-A level along with Montero and probably RHP Ty Madden as well.

The other obvious prospect to be added is top catching prospect, Dillon Dingler. Now 25 years old, Dingler’s offensive progress hasn’t been as swift as we’d hoped. His defensive abilities, on the other hand, are pretty good at this point. With a few refinements, the Tigers will have a good defensive catcher on their hands in a backup role, and then we’ll see if, like many catchers, he’s something of a late bloomer with the bat.

There’s enough zone discipline and raw power present to hope he can at least get to Jake Rogers’ level as a hitter who contributes some power and handles the pitching staff well, despite being a below average hitter overall. Dingler hit 12 home runs in 328 plate appearances at the Double and Triple-A levels combined in 2023. He continues to walk a decent amount, though that dipped in a 26 game stint at Toledo to end the season, but the whiffs overall remain a problem.

Either way, he’s guaranteed to be added to the 40-man.

Next up, we have a pair of lefties in a system that is sorely lacking for southpaws. Neither is a lock to be protected, but considering the Tigers only left-handers now are Tarik Skubal, Tyler Holton, and maybe Joey Wentz in relief or something, letting a lefty of any talent in the upper minors go seems like a bad idea.

Relief prospect Andrew Magno seems like a decent bet to be protected. He throws a good overhand fourseamer in the mid-90’s with some deception. A solid slider and a decent developing changeup make him a potentially good reliever, and he reached the Triple-A level briefly in 2023. He’s 25 now, and that last bit of control hasn’t arrived, but he’ll probably be claimed if the Tigers don’t protect him. His stuff is pretty reminiscent of former Tigers’ closer Justin Wilson, and lefty relief arms like that are fairly scarce.

Finally we have left-handed starter, Jack O’Loughlin. The 23-year-old Australian product was signed at age 16 way back in 2016 and has been with the Tigers ever since.

O’Loughlin never made much progress and even in his age 23 season this year started out at High-A West Michigan. Finally this season, the velocity projection of his 6’5” frame finally became more of a reality. O’Loughlin went from sitting 90-92 mph with his sinker to a comfortable 93-94 mph for much of the summer, even hitting 95 mph at times with pretty good depth. Improvements in his slider turned that pitch into an average offering, and at his best he was pounding the bottom of the zone with a very workable sinker/slider/changeup mix. The ceiling still doesn’t seem real high, even as a reliever, but it’s worth seeing if O’Loughlin can take another step in 2024.

The Tigers moved him to Triple-A Toledo in June, skipping Double-A entirely, and despite the big jump in competition, O’Loughlin was effective, and put together plenty of good outings, posting a 4.78 ERA with a 4.55 FIP. I don’t necessarily think it’d be a big mistake to leave him unprotected, but as a 23-year-old lefty capable of hitting 95 mph and in the midst of a minor breakout, he’s worth adding to the roster. His command still has to improve a bit more, but O’Loughlin is a better, stronger athlete than he was even a year ago, and the improvements in his fastball and slider seem pretty sticky. It’s worth seeing what another offseason does for him.

Ed. Note: O’Loughlin has since elected minor league free agency and signed with Oakland.

Other notables who will be Rule 5 eligible include outfielder Roberto Campos, who hasn’t had any success and is still in A-ball, infielder Gage Workman, who continues to pack strong tools in terms of defense and power, but shows no sign of figuring out upper level pitching, and center fielder Trei Cruz, who turned from an infielder into a good center fielder this season. Cruz still isn’t projected to hit anywhere near enough for the majors. None of that group is likely to be protected.

Two more outside chances to be claimed are outfielder Jose De La Cruz, who has made little progress but retains borderline elite raw power and is still shy of his 22nd birthday, and first baseman Jake Holton, who has the plate discipline and contact ability to survive in the majors, but hasn’t really figured out how to hit for enough power for the position.

So, two spots to be cleared for Rule-5 protection, and maybe as many as four if they add Magno and O’Loughlin. And then one would think they’ll open a spot to claim a player themselves.

Of the players considered, I think UT Ryan Kreidler’s defensive ability and recent injury history make him worth keeping for another year. The Tigers need another option at shortstop. RHP Miguel Diaz closed a lot for Toledo with decent success and then pitched great for the Tigers in a short look in September.

RHP Alex Faedo and LHP Joey Wentz are out of options and both are running out of time to find a role for themselves. Presumably the Tigers will give them one more look.

We’ll start with these six players as the likeliest to lose their 40-man roster spot. As a measure of organizational depth, having 6-8 guys who could be cut without issue still puts the Tigers as a pretty middle of the pack club, by the way. Next year, things should look a lot tighter and the roster decisions much tougher.

OF Austin Meadows

This one is pretty easy. There are no signs that Meadows will return to play in 2024, with Scott Harris reporting that he’s been in touch since the end of the season but that “there was nothing of substance to share” from those conversations. So, he’ll be non-tendered and presumably that leaves the effective 40-man roster at 39 players right now.

RHP Brenan Hanifee

Hanifee was signed to as a minor league free agent back in November of 2022. The right-hander reliever has a solid fastball and changeup combination, but has never developed much of a breaking ball, either with his initial club, the Baltimore Orioles, nor with the Tigers in his first season at Triple-A Toledo. Hanifee doesn’t walk many batters, but he doesn’t strike out many either. Maybe the Tigers want to keep working with him, but he’s an easy cut should they so choose.

RHP Garrett Hill

A year ago, Hill was a good story of perseverance and a minor testament to the improved development staff in the Tigers’ minor league system. Unfortunately, that surprising progress for a 26th round pick way back in 2018 ran out of steam in 2023. Hill struggled with his control all season long, managed just 15 23 innings at the major league level, and couldn’t implement tweaks they tried to make to improve his breaking ball. The big increase in his fastball velocity in 22 also faded a bit back to a steady 93-94 mph. Now 27 years old, Hill is a likely candidate to be released, if not now, then sometime in the spring.

INF Tyler Nevin

Now 26 years old and out of options, the 1B/3B made for a decent pickup in the 2022-2023 offseason, but with no progress with his bat, he’s probably bound to be released as well. Nevin’s lack of defensive ability kept him a bat first prospect all along, but he’s consistently been a good minor league hitter who hasn’t translated it to the major leagues. I don’t think he’s going to get another chance with the Tigers. With Canha available to back up Torkelson at first base, and Justyn-Henry Malloy, Jace Jung, and Justice Bigbie not far behind, there's just no room left for Nevin.

INF Andre Lipcius

Lipcius has been kind of an underdog favorite of ours for a few seasons, so we loved seeing him launch a home run in his first major league AB this season. A smart player and team leader of the sort that tends to end up in coaching, or in Lipcius’ case, putting his degree in nuclear engineering to work perhaps, Lipcius offers a pretty good approach at the plate and solid pure hitting ability.

However, he lacks even average in-game power, and is a sub-par defender really only suited for first base, though he can handle third base and left field acceptably well. He’s about out of time to make a leap that would secure a short career as a major league utilityman. Only 25, and with two options remaining, he may make it to camp with a 40-man spot, but unless something radically changes in terms of power at the plate, he’s not going to last much longer.

C Donny Sands

Catcher Donny Sands was the third player acquired in the deal that sent Gregory Soto to the Philadelphia Phillies. With barely enough arm for the position and solid framing and blocking ability, Sands is a fringy option defensively and has never been able to tap into his power at the plate, despite a solid approach. He’s 27 now, but does have one option remaining. While I could see the Tigers keeping him since they don’t really have another legit catching prospect beyond Dingler, he’s at least expendable if there’s a need. I’d expect he makes it to spring camp unless the Tigers find another veteran minor league catcher they like better.