Every year teams around Major League Baseball have to finalize their 40-man roster about two weeks in advance of the winter meetings with regards to adding eligible minor league players to the 40-man roster so that they can’t be selected in the Rule 5 draft. That date has been pushed up by a week this year and teams will need to have their prospects added to the roster by November 15th this year.
Over the last decade the Cincinnati Reds have added somewhere between one and eight players in November to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. How many players will be added in the next week isn’t yet known, but there are more than a dozen possibilities that we will discuss this week. Today we are going to look at the infielders who are Rule 5 eligible who the organization likely discussed as they prepare to makes their decisions.
The Easy Choices
Nearly every year there is a guy or two that seem to be easy choices to add to the roster that don’t warrant much conversation. This year there are two infielders that fit that bill. Elly De La Cruz and Noelvi Marte, the Reds 1st and 3rd rated prospects – both of whom are Top 50 prospects in all of baseball – are easy calls to add.
Elly De La Cruz is coming off of a season in which he hit .304/.359/.586 with 31 doubles, 9 triples, 28 home runs, and had 47 stolen bases as a 20-year-old while splitting his season between High-A Dayton and Double-A Chattanooga. He’s also playing in the Dominican Winter League and hitting .340/.438/.547 through 15 games.
Noelvi Marte was acquired at the trade deadline from the Seattle Mariners. Marte, also 20-years-old during the season (he turned 21 less than a month ago), split his season between High-A Everett while with the Mariners and then High-A Dayton after he joined the Reds organization. Between his two stops he hit .279/.371/458 with 23 doubles, 19 home runs, and 23 stolen bases. He has also played in 16 games in the Arizona Fall League where he’s walked more times (12) than he’s struck out (10).
The “Let’s talk about ’em” Group
One player that was acquired in a trade deadline deal was Nick Northcut. However, he was not named until the minor league season was over. Northcut was the player to be named later in the trade with the Boston Red Sox after they acquired outfielder Tommy Pham.
Northcut is a Cincinnati native and went to Mason High School before being drafted in the 11th round by the Red Sox in 2018. After struggling in his first two seasons, hitting just three home runs in a combined 101 games while playing in rookie-ball between the Gulf Coast League Red Sox and Lowell Spinners. After missing the 2020 year when the minor league season was cancelled, Northcut returned in 2021 and broke out, hitting .261/.352/.513 with 32 doubles, 2 triples, and 17 homers for Low-A Salem.
In 2022 he took another big step forward with his power as he hit 30 home runs and added in 18 doubles in 103 games between High-A Greenville (77 games) and Double-A Portland (26 games). The power output was the only area he stepped forward. After walking 11.4% of the time and striking out just 22.6% of the time in 2021 with Salem, Northcut saw his walk rate plummet to 5.8% and his strikeout rate skyrocket to 35.2% during the 2022 season. Those two things led to him hitting .219/.276/.491 on the year. You can see all of his stats here.
Defensively he’s played a lot of third base, but he’s also played some first base in his career. He struggled defensively in the first three seasons at third base, posting a fielding percentage just under .900. That improved in 2022 as he posted a .932 fielding percentage at third base in 60 games during the year at third.
Making the call
While it can be easy to dream on the power for Nick Northcut, it’s unlikely that a team will look at his high strikeout rate, low average, and low on-base percentage in 2022 and think that he can make enough improvements basically going from High-A (he only spent one month in Double-A) to the big leagues and stick on the roster. Crazier picks have happened, but it seems that it would likely be a safe bet to leave him exposed and not lose him in the draft.
Cincinnati’s 4th round pick in the 2019 draft out of Chipola Junior College (the same school that 1st round pick Cam Collier was selected from this past July), Ivan Johnson battled injuries in 2022 and only played in 50 games. The first two months of the year were wiped out after he suffered a broken hamate bone in spring training.
When he was ready to get on the field the Reds sent him to Double-A Chattanooga. He began the year with a 7-game hitting streak, but then he slumped in a big way over the next two weeks, hitting just .128 with 20 strikeouts in 45 plate appearances. In the 29 games that followed he hit .310/.339/.487, but did continue to strike out at a high rate – 38 of them in 118 plate appearances. His season came to an end on August 8th when he was placed on the injured list with a shoulder strain and missed the final five weeks of the year. On the season he would hit .261/.325/.428 in just under 200 plate appearances. You can see all of his stats here.
There is bit of power he could still tap into, and he’s a good runner while also having the ability to play shortstop if needed – though he’s a better option at second base. He only made one error in 42 games at second this past season for Chattanooga (.994 fielding percentage).
Making the call
Ivan Johnson has a solid scouting report that could profile as a starting middle infielder if things go right, but the profile is more likely that of a utility player. With 50 games under his belt at Double-A and a little bit of success, it’s possible that a team could envision him as a guy they could bring off of their bench and get a little bit of upside with in the process. The flip side of that is that he did struggle to make contact in Double-A and had a low walk rate, making the chances that he could jump into the big leagues and hold his own at the plate a bit lower than you would like. It’s a bit of a tougher call than on Northcut in my opinion, but historically a guy like Johnson isn’t selected and the Reds would probably be safe if they kept him off of the 40-man roster this year and let the 2023 season play out.
With the Cincinnati Reds having just one catcher on the 40-man roster – Tyler Stephenson – they are in need of some depth at the position that has a chance to help out the big league club in 2023. What they did in 2022 at the position was rely entirely on minor league caliber players and when Stephenson wasn’t behind the plate the team paid for it in a big way as the production was laughably bad.
Daniel Vellojin was not a part of that group, but he’s now one of the top options currently in the organization at the catcher position after the team lost several catchers on waivers following the season and Austin Romine to free agency.
In 2021 Vellojin made a big jump, going from the Dominican Summer League all the way up to Low-A Daytona – skipping over the Arizona Complex League team – a rarity for a non-college player. The catcher hit .247/.401/.403 with one more strikeout than walk. His 2022 season didn’t start on time because of a broken hamate in spring training. When he was ready to take the field he was sent back to Daytona and he struggled for a month as he posted a .457 OPS. Despite the struggles at the plate he was moved up to High-A Dayton. Things went much better there as he hit .271/.393/.514 over the next month with five home runs.
That earned him a promotion to Double-A Chattanooga in late July. He never really got his bat going, hitting .192/.309/.362. Between his three stops he played in 70 games and hit .199/.327/.358 with 42 walks and 79 strikeouts. You can see all of his stats here.
Of course with catchers there’s a lot more to things than just what they do in the batters box. Catchers are generally evaluated far more by what they do behind the plate than at the plate. Vellojin is generally well regarded as a good receiver and has a good arm. He’s thrown out 37% of attempted base stealers in his career and was at 30% during the 2022 season. One area he has struggled, though, is blocking pitches.
Making the call
Cincinnati needs catchers, that is very apparent. With that said would a team take a chance on a guy like Vellojin who struggled to hit during the 2022 season and has very limited experience above A-ball, while also not having a big offensive upside that you can dream on? It doesn’t seem likely. The Reds could protect Vellojin simply because they need to have some depth at the position on the 40-man roster and they should have plenty of room to add him. Coming off of the hamate injury he may not have been able to show all that he can do at the plate, so with more information than other teams have or the public has, the Reds could feel better about his offense than the .686 OPS he put up in 2022. This one feels like a coin flip that could reasonably go either way.