PITTSBURGH -- Friday's deadline to protect prospects from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft is quickly approaching, leaving the Pirates with several decisions to make as they prepare to set their 40-man roster.
That roster has five openings, though the Pirates probably will open up more spots before the end of the day Friday. The most likely players to be removed this week are the arbitration-eligible ones whom the Bucs do not plan to tender a contract to in December. By taking those players off the roster now, the club can, in turn, protect more prospects who are Rule 5 eligible.
Keep in mind, though, that the Pirates likely won't go into next month's Winter Meetings with a full 40-man roster. By leaving some openings, they will have room for free-agent signees, other acquisitions or a player they choose take the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 8.
Players become eligible for the Rule 5 Draft after being in an organization for four years (if they signed at age 19 or older) or five years (if they signed at age 18 or younger). That means that players the Pirates drafted out of college in 2008 must either go on the club's roster this week or risk being taken by another club next month.
The Bucs have 46 Minor League players who, if left unprotected, will qualify for the Rule 5 Draft. Here is a look at 14 of the more intriguing names on that list:
Tim Alderson: Widely known as the prospect the Pirates acquired for Freddy Sanchez in 2009, Alderson has been a disappointment in Pittsburgh's system. He has been stuck in Double-A since '09, even enduring a brief demotion to high Class A in 2010. This season, Pittsburgh used Alderson, 23, in a relief role, and the right-hander fared a little better. Still, he has not been the standout pitcher the Pirates thought they were acquiring and seems an unlikely choice to be protected.
Michael Colla: The Pirates sent Colla to the Arizona Fall League this offseason, a sign, perhaps, that the 24-year-old right-hander is a part of the organization's plans. Colla went 5-11 with a 3.70 ERA in 29 Double-A games (23 starts) and struck out 109 in 133 2/3 innings last season. His path to the Majors would likely be as a reliever.
Michael Crotta: Crotta was put on the team's 40-man roster last November so that he would not be taken in the 2010 Rule 5 Draft. He was taken off in July when the Pirates were in a roster crunch. Crotta earned the last spot in the bullpen out of Spring Training and made a strong early impression. The results dipped, though, and Crotta was eventually sidelined with a right elbow injury. He never made it back to Pittsburgh, instead finishing the year with 11 relief appearances in Triple-A.
Matthew Hague: The first baseman had one of the best 2011 seasons among all position players in the Pirates' system. Hague's numbers this year -- .309 batting average, 37 doubles, 12 homers, 75 RBIs in 141 Triple-A games - would suggest he's ready to be given a chance at the next level. Whether that will happen in 2012 will be determined by what the Bucs do this winter with regards to their opening at first base. If nothing else, Hague would be a nice depth option to have in Triple-A next season in case of injury. He'll likely be protected.
Andrew Lambo: After struggling through 60 games at the Triple-A level, Lambo was demoted to Double-A for the rest of the 2011 season. He fared OK there, but the numbers were an overall disappointment from a player the Pirates received in a 2010 trade with the Dodgers. When the Bucs acquired Lambo, they hoped he might emerge as another outfield option in the organization. But with the club in decent position with its outfield depth, Lambo now seems expendable.
Brian Leach: After three solid years in the Minors, the 25-year-old right-hander could not sustain that success in 2011. He posted a 7.93 ERA in 32 games (10 in Double-A; 22 in Class A Advanced) as he battled through command issues. The down year is probably enough for the Pirates to leave Leach unprotected. The chances of him being picked up by another club and then sticking in the Majors for all of 2012 seems highly unlikely.
Brett Lorin: Acquired in a Trade Deadline deal in 2009, Lorin had an impressive 2011 season with Class A Advanced Bradenton. He finished with a 2.84 ERA and 5.21 strikeout/walk ratio in 25 games (17 starts). At 24, Lorin is a bit old to be considered a prospect given the level he pitched at last year. He might, however, be positioned to move up more quickly in the Minors moving forward if the Pirates use him out of the bullpen.
Starling Marte: Marte, the organization's best outfield prospect coming into 2011, is sure to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft. Though he is sidelined with a groin strain in winter ball, Marte had another solid year. In his first taste of Double-A, the 23-year-old batted .332 with 58 extra-base hits, 50 RBIs and 24 stolen bases. Marte has much room to grow with his plate discipline, but he still should be starting 2012 in Triple-A.
Jordy Mercer: The Pirates lack middle infield depth in the upper levels of their farm system, which is why they are expected to put Mercer on the 40-man roster this week. Mercer spent time in Double-A and Triple-A in 2011, hitting .255 and driving in 69 in 132 combined games. He is solid defensively, which makes him a valuable asset even if the offensive numbers haven't been where the club would ideally like them.
Diego Moreno: Moreno had a terrific 2010 season but did not come close to matching it in '11. Instead, Moreno found himself back in Bradenton for most of the year, where he had a 3.21 ERA in 34 relief appearances. A year earlier, Moreno posted a 1.17 ERA in 28 games at that level. Moreno, who turned 25 in July, has an impressive arm, but his inability to get out of the lower Minor League levels is probably reason enough to leave him unprotected.
Rudy Owens: After being named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009 and '10, Owens had only average results in his first taste of Triple-A competition in '11. He had a 5.05 ERA and his strikeout/walk ratio dropped to 2.22 in 21 starts. Owens' season was cut short due to a late-season shoulder injury. Still, if the left-handed starter can get back on track in Triple-A in 2012, he could be an asset in the big league rotation before the end of the year. He's expected to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft.
Aaron Pribanic: Acquired along with Lorin and three others for Jack Wilson and Ian Snell in 2009, Pribanic had a nice showing in his first stint in Double-A. he went 10-9 with a 3.88 ERA in 28 games (27 starts). That puts the right-hander in position to be considered for a spot in the Triple-A rotation or even ascend to the Majors as a reliever. It's likely that the Pirates will want to keep the right-hander out of the Rule 5 Draft.
Justin Wilson: Wilson, a fifth-round Draft pick in 2008, is expected to be added to the roster. He certainly has a chance to make an impact in Pittsburgh in '12, particularly if the Pirates leave Wilson in a relief role. The left-hander had average numbers as a starter, but his velocity increased substantially when he pitched out of the 'pen. His command still needs refining, as he's walked too many batters at every level he's pitched at in the Minors.
Tim Wood: Wood is actually eligible for the Rule 5 Draft even though the Pirates signed him to a Minor League contract earlier this month. Wood made 13 appearances with the Pirates in 2011, but spent the majority of the year in Triple-A. With the Bucs' Triple-A affiliate, Wood saved 23 games and posted a 2.84 ERA in 40 appearances. Assuming he isn't taken in the Rule 5 Draft, Wood will come into Spring Training competing for a bullpen spot in Pittsburgh.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.