On Friday, the Cincinnati Reds claimed single-A reliever Jonathan Coutlangus off of waivers from the San Francisco Giants. Normally, this sort of a transaction wouldn’t raise an eyebrow of the average fan, but for once, it should. Because this is the second prospect the Giants have lost in one offseason for questionable reasons, and probably unnecessarily.
Coutlangus, 25, was on waivers because he was designed for assignment, a move that took him off the Giants 40 man roster to make room for new 5th starter Jamey Wright. Being designated for assignment means that a player is placed on waivers to remove him from their 40 man roster and is available to every other team. If he goes unclaimed, his former team can send him to the minors. In December, the Giants lost left handed starter Brian Burres off of waivers to the Baltimore Orioles, after he was DFA’d to make room for Jose Vizcaino.
The moves that took them off the 40 man roster aren’t as disconcerting as the decisions to put them on the 40 man roster by General Manager Brian Sabean. Coutlangus himself was only added to the 40 man roster in November of 2005, solely to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
This is where the business of baseball kicks in. It’s complicated and confusing, but I’ll try to make it as simple as possible. The 40 Man Roster is the official full roster of a major league team. From this roster, the team picks the 25 guys that actually are in the majors. If one player goes down, he may be replaced by anyone else on the 40 man roster. No player can be on the 25 Man Roster (also known as the active or major league roster) if they are not on the team’s 40 Man Roster.
Well, baseball’s rules were constructed to prevent teams from ‘stockpiling’ prospects. To do this, they created the Rule 5 draft. Any player with more than 3 or 4 years experience (depending on what age they signed at) is eligible to be picked away from their current team, with the caveat that the team picking him keeps them on their active (25 man) roster for the entire season. The one way a team can stop another from taking their prospects is to place them on the 40 man roster. Obviously, there’s very limited space, and the 15 players who aren’t on the major league roster need to include players ready and able to take their spots should injuries occur, and not just prospects with bright futures, but futures that are several seasons away.
That’s where the Giants’ problems occurred.
This past fall, the Giants added several questionable players to their 40 man roster to ‘protect’ them from the Rule 5 draft. Some made sense, like highly touted hitting prospects like Travis Ishikawa and Nate Schierholtz. But then there was High-A relief pitcher Coutlangus, and then 20 year old Kelyn Acosta, a player who split only 13 appearances between Low-A and Rookie ball, sporting a 2.87 ERA. And 21 year old Jesus Reina, who pitched mostly in San Jose with a 5.16 ERA, and one game in AAA where he allowed 3 runs in 4.1 innings.
These pitchers were all considered power arms, but were these pitchers really at risk of being taken by other teams? Remember, a player taken by another team must stay in the majors all season. If he doesn’t, his original team has the option of taking him back. Was there any team, even the cheap, rebuilding Marlins, who would take questionable prospects from Single-A and have them take up space on the major league roster? Unless Rachel Phelps is actually a Major League owner, that’s highly doubtful.
Still, they got added. And while it ensured that they weren’t taken away, it left the Giants with precious little room to add to their roster for major league players. It wasn’t long before the roster was full. So, when the Giants went after a veteran utility man, someone had to go. That was Brian Burres, a promising starter who was added to the 40 man roster after a 12-1, 2.84 ERA campaign in San Jose in 2004. Although he had a less impressive season in AA, he still had a great cut fastball, and even if he was a borderline starter prospect, he certainly had a future as one of those rare left-handed relievers that teams always value. Sabean must have hoped that mediocre AA season would scare teams away. No such luck.
Now Coutlangus, whose future was probably just as a left handed reliever, is also gone. What’s most upsetting in Coutlangus’ case is that he was a long shot to be drafted in the Rule 5 draft. His teammate, San Jose closer Joe Bateman, was left vulnerable and was a lot more appealing with better overall talent, but Bateman was also left undrafted. That threat of having to take up a major league roster spot scares teams off. But on plain old waivers after a DFA? There’s no disincentive for teams NOT to take them away.
Sure, losing these two guys will not make or break the Giants in 2006, or 2007, or beyond. They are not top-flight prospects or even all that exciting to the average fan. But if nothing else, there were left handed pitchers, something that there always seems to be a team looking for, and they had their value.
But this also seems to be a disturbing trend of mismanagement of the 40 man roster. Sure, now it’s a couple of relief prospects. But who will it be next season? The Giants have a lot of prospects. They aren’t all top-level guys, but they are valuable. For instance, after the 2006 season, the Giants will have 7-8 free agents that will be off the roster. However, the list of players who will be at risk for the Rule 5 draft next year is long. They include top prospect Marcus Sanders, embattled 1st round pick Craig Whitaker, hot relief prospect Brian Wilson, and the 2004 draft class of Eddy Martinez-Esteve, John Bowker, Clay Timpner, Garrett Broshuis, Jonathan Sanchez and Kevin Frandsen, all of whom are likely to need protection. And that’s not the full list of first time eligible players. On top of them, there are the players who were left unprotected this year who might need protection after next year, including Bateman, hard throwing Billy Sadler, versatile outfielder Michael Mooney and others.
And remember, those 7-8 open spots will also need to be used for major league additions to fill those holes.
Who amongst those players is expendable? It’s scary to think about losing any of them. But it’s even scarier to consider losing them for nothing.
Unless Brian Sabean shows a savier ability to handle his 40 man roster, solve overcrowding issues or a better ability to take the risks in the Rule 5 draft, it could very well happen.
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