If MLB expanded, who would Nats protect?

The last Major League Baseball expansion took place in 1998, when the league added the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays to even out the league at 30 teams. The Houston Astros moved to the American League in 2013 to even the leagues out at 15, but MLB now is forced to have interleague play all throughout the year.

When Out of the Park Baseball 2016 comes out later this month, I’ll be able to expand the MLB with two new teams to even the balance at 16 teams per side, eliminating the need for interleague play throughout the season and allowing for four divisions in each league. I won’t bore you with the teams or divisions I will create, and instead will jump to my topic: if an expansion draft took place tomorrow with two new teams, who would the Nationals protect, and who wouldn’t they protect?

A 2015 Expansion Draft would see each expansion team make 35 total picks: 15 in the first round, 15 in the second round, and 5 in the third round. Each team can only protect 15 players, but teams cannot lose more than one player per round, and may protect an additional three players after every round on top of their initial list. Automatically protected players include any draft picks from the 2013 and 2014 drafts as well as any players that were 18 or younger when they signed with the Nationals in 2012 or later (which, from what I’ve gathered, would protect Lucas Giolito and nobody else from the 2012 draft). Players with 10/5 rights and no-trade clauses have to be protected unless they waive their rights. In this exercise, we will assume that Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth would not waive their rights.

The Nationals would be in a little bit of trouble right away, as most of their top prospects would not be automatically protected. The automatically protected list includes the likes of Giolito, Trea Turner (not Nationals property yet, but would be automatically protected by SD because he was a 2014 pick), Reynaldo Lopez (signed in 2012 at the age of 18), Erick Fedde (2014 pick), Drew Ward (2013 pick), and Jakson Reetz (2014 pick). It would not include, Michael Taylor (2009 pick), A.J. Cole (2010 pick), Joe Ross (2011 pick), Wilmer Difo (signed in 2010), Brian Goodwin (2011 pick), or Pedro Severino (signed in 2011).

Historically, expansion teams have favored cheap, controllable players (duh), but have not been shy to add a few “name” veterans to help install a professional, big-league atmosphere in the organization (please take Kevin Frandsen please take Kevin Frandsen please take Kevin Frandsen). Unlike the Rule 5 Draft, players taken in the expansion draft are not required to spend any amount of time in the major leagues, so not-quite-ready prospects are more likely to be taken.

Required to protect: Jayson Werth (1) and Ryan Zimmerman (2), due to their no-trade clauses.

Easy choices to protect: Doug Fister (3), Gio Gonzalez (4), Stephen Strasburg (5), Jordan Zimmermann (6), Wilson Ramos (7), Ian Desmond (8), Anthony Rendon (9), and Bryce Harper (10)

The top 10 are in no order, as they are all easy choices to keep. Fister, Zimmermann, and Desmond are all free agents after the 2015 season, but the Nats are in win-now mode, and would not let them go for free; if they were willing to let them go, they would trade them for prospects long before leaving them unprotected in an expansion draft. Gonzalez and Strasburg are both under contract beyond 2015 and are both very good starting pitchers, even if they make you angry every once in a while. Rendon and Harper are the two easiest selections you can make, as both have superstar potential at young ages and tons of team control. Ramos is the one from this bunch that isn’t a 100% slam dunk due to his injury history and non-elite status, but league average catchers are extremely difficult to find, and he would be scooped up immediately if left unprotected (the four catchers taken in 1998 were Jorge Fabregas, Mike DiFelice, Damian Miller, and Kelly Stinnett aka nobody left an established, good catcher unprotected).

More difficult choices to protect: From here on out, the players named are in order of who I would protect first. This is the part that gets really difficult, as the Nationals have 6 players for 5 spots here. I’m going with these five: Tanner Roark (11), Michael Taylor (12), Yunel Escobar (13), Denard Span (14) and Drew Storen (15).

I think Roark and Taylor would both be easy to protect. Some people may disagree with me on Taylor, but he’s the CF of the future and is cost controllable for a long time. Many prospects aren’t on my protection list because they’re not close to the majors, but he is. Escobar isn’t the flashiest player, but he is both the Nationals’ second baseman of the present, potential SS of the short-term future, and is signed for two years (plus a third year option) pretty cheap to fill those roles. If he were gone, the Nats would be right back to The Dan Show at 2B between Espinosa and Uggla, and trust me, there’s a reason the network cancelled that one. Span barely made my cut, as he’s the starting CF, but is a free agent after the season and has a replacement who is pretty much ML-ready in Taylor. But because I’m not 100% sold on Taylor’s ability to step in full-time in 2015, Span stays. The last spot went to either Storen or AJ Cole; at first, I leaned Cole because of his cost control and potential ability to stick in the rotation, but then I wondered Would I trade Drew Storen for AJ Cole? and decided on no, as Storen is the closer, is still young and relatively cheap, and is already a ML contributor.

First four out, first ones to be protected after first round: AJ Cole (1), Joe Ross (2), Wilmer Difo (3), Blake Treinen (4).

First of all, I list four here even though the Nats can only protect three after the first round – I assume that one of these four might be taken. I’d be crossing my fingers, toes, and eyes that Cole somehow slips through the first round in favor of a veteran reliever or catcher like Lobaton. Ross and Difo are a little further away from the Majors, and might slip through, but most of the teams think about filling their major league teams in round one and look towards lotto tickets in round 2 and I think these two would be prime targets. Treinen was a tough pick over Lobaton, Barrett, Thornton, and Stammen. I ultimately think he has bigger upside than Barrett (as well as the potential to start), and think his big fastball would potentially get swooped up quickly. Lobaton provides OK insurance behind the injury-prone Ramos, but honestly nothing special, and the Nats have guys like Sandy Leon and Dan Butler behind him as well. Thornton and Stammen have enough of a combination of age, salary, and non-eliteness that I wouldn’t worry too much about them being taken (and if they were taken, I wouldn’t care all that much).

Next four out, next ones to be protected after second round: Aaron Barrett (1), Jose Lobaton (2), Matt Thornton (3), Craig Stammen (4) This isn’t the most exciting group. Barrett is an interesting young reliever, Lobaton is the backup catcher, and Thornton and Stammen are both veteran relievers who can fit key roles in the Nats bullpen but are fairly replaceable. Stammen over Casey Janssen was a tricky selection, but I think enough expansion teams would stay away from Janssen due to his poor 2014 season and $5 million guaranteed.

Tough to leave unprotected, but a necessary evil: Brian Goodwin and Danny Espinosa – although Goodwin has potential and Espinosa is a key utility guy, Goodwin’s injury-plagued 2014 season (and general badness before he got hurt) might scare teams off, and honestly losing Espinosa wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Guys that I wouldn’t worry about protecting: Max Scherzer – don’t think any expansion team is going to go after a $200+ million contract

Casey Janssen, Jerry Blevins, Xavier Cedeno, Matt Grace, Taylor Hill – non-elite relievers and reliever prospects (Hill might be able to start, but he’s not that good)

Erik Davis, Taylor Jordan, Felipe Rivero, Sammy Solis – interesting arms that are recovering from injury and would likely be avoided by expansion teams

Dan Butler, Sandy Leon – backup catchers

Tyler Moore, Kevin Frandsen, Jeff Kobernus, Nate McLouth – lol, please somebody take them off of our hands

Pedro Severino and Jefry Rodriguez – far enough from the Majors that I don’t think expansion teams would be that interested

Now that you’ve seen my list – do you agree/disagree? Who would you protect or leave up for grabs?

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