It’s that time of year again. On November 14, leading up to the MLB Winter Meetings, teams must decide which of their developing players to prioritize. This is the deadline to set their 40-man rosters and Triple-A reserve lists in advance of the Rule 5 Draft.
Prospects who are four years removed from being college draftees and five years removed from being high school draftees or international amateur signees are eligible to be selected during the Rule 5 unless protected beforehand. Any of those players who aren’t on a 40-man roster will be available in the draft’s major league phase. The catch is, selections must spend the subsequent season on their new team’s major league active roster or injured list, or else be offered back to their original team.
Here is the full list of Marlins players who currently have 2023 Rule 5 eligibility:
Victor Mesa Jr.
The Marlins have considerable roster flexibility in the aftermath of several veterans electing free agency.
How should they proceed? Here are some thoughts.
1B Troy Johnston
Johnston was drafted by the Marlins in the 17th round in 2019. After seeing time with Batavia that year then moving to Jupiter and Beloit in 2021, he moved to Pensacola in 2022 where he broke out in a big way. With the Blue Wahoos, Johnston proved his skill set could translate to the upper levels of MiLB and against competition more equal to his age. A catalyst for Pensacola’s title run through 85 games, he slashed .292/.360/.450. He earned the call to AAA late in the year, but struggled a bit at the highest level of the minors, slashing .155/.293/.330 in 116 plate appearances.
Johnston was also eligible for the Rule 5 last offseason and the Marlins left him exposed. Although there were teams interested, he went unselected.
In 2023, Johnston reported back to AA where he slashed .296/.396/.567 before getting the call back to Jacksonville. In this stint with the Shrimp, not only did Johnston not struggle, he was nearly impossible to keep off the bases. In 51 AAA games, he hit .323/.403/.520. At the summation of the season, Johnston, who collected 20+ home runs and 20+ stolen bases, was named the Marlins’ Minor League Player of the Year.
Despite being limited defensively, the scientific lefty bat of Johnston would be a hot commodity if once again exposed to the Rule 5. He would likely being one of the first names to go off the board in the major league portion of the draft. Asked about the possibility of being Rule 5-eligible again, the 26-year-old told Fish On First he is playing it by ear, but that he would like to stay with Miami.
The Marlins have secured another year of Josh Bell’s services, but their future at the first base/designated hitter spots is hazy beyond that. They simply must protect Johnston.
RHP Anthony Maldonado
Maldonado is a soon-to-be 26-year-old righty with great stuff including a fastball that can reach the high 90s and a hard slider with wipe-out action. So why has Maldonado yet to appear in an MLB game? Injuries and missed time.
After being drafted, Maldonado appeared in 10 FCL games before the missed COVID season. He stayed active outside of affiliated ball by appearing in 12 games in the Puerto Rican Winter League and the Caribbean Series. He returned to MiLB in 2021 with the AA Blue Wahoos, but a month into the season, he suffered an injury that sidelined him for nearly three months. In 2021, Maldonado stayed on the mound the entire year. Despite some minor struggles with the long ball, the former 11th-round pick held down a sub-4.00 ERA before earning the call to Jacksonville. In his first taste of AAA, Maldonado was very impressive. He ended the year with a 3.03 ERA and 86/20 K/BB via a 1.06 WHIP.
This past season, Maldonado was assigned to AAA to start the season. He got off to a solid start before suffering an injury in June. The injury proved to be tricky to diagnose. Ultimately, it wound up that Maldonado was struggling through a hip ailment that came with another extended absence. He returned to Jacksonville in August and closed out the season allowing only one earned run over his final 15 ⅓ innings pitched.
Maldonado is a zone-pounding righty with two plus pitches and a usable third to his credit. He can contribute to a Major League bullpen right now, as long as he is at 100%. With his AAA brilliance and high quality of stuff, he would very likely be selected if left unprotected.
OF Victor Mesa Jr.
Mesa is a Marlins’ international signing from 2018. He came stateside with his older brother, Victor Victor. The pair cost the Marlins nearly their entire bonus pool, some of which they had to trade for. While Victor Victor spent much of the year away from baseball, Mesa Jr. took on AA. Playing against competition nearly three years older than him on average, VMJ posted a 91 wRC+ via a .242/.308/.412 slash line. It came by way of some tough luck in pitcher-friendly Pensacola (.286 BABIP).
The most encouraging development in Jr.’s game was physical development and the realization of more power. From early on in spring, a bigger and stronger version of VMJ was on display. He impressed members of player development by exhibiting some of the best swings in camp including one that allotted him a walk-off home run in Miami’s March 19 Grapefruit League game.
During the regular season, he swatted 18 home runs. He also maintained his 60-grade speed and stole 16 bags, drawing him very close to a 20-20 season.
Mesa Jr. is further away from being a finished product than Johnston or Maldonado are. However, a 22-year-old true center fielder with projection remaining would merit Rule 5 consideration from teams around the league. After an impressive jump to the upper minors all things considered, it would behoove the Marlins to protect VMJ.
IF Nasim Nuñez
Nuñez, the Marlins’ second-round pick in 2019, has MLB-ready defense right now. With plus range, a solid arm, and great athleticism, he’s one of the better defensive shortstops in all of MiLB. He’s also a true problem on the basepaths. In 2023, he followed up a 70 SB season by posting another 52 in 59 opportunities, plus another 14 in 14 attempts during the Arizona Fall League as of this writing.
While Nuñez won’t ever be a slugger, he needs to increase his consistency of medium-hard contact in order for his offensive skill set to translate well to the majors. It may be beneficial for Nuñez to drop switch-hitting and only hit lefty.
That being said, it is possible another team takes a liking to Nuñez’s advanced field and speed tools and the probability for more projection with the bat. He’s another guy who will certainly need another year in MiLB, but if he can quickly come by more bat speed and solid contact, he’d be ready to contribute to a big league team—at least off the bench—fairly quickly. With dwindling depth on the left side of the infield, the Marlins may take the cautious route and protect Nuñez.
C Will Banfield
Banfield is another prospect who’s always been known for his defense. Coming into 2023, the volatility of high school catchers was starting to trend in the wrong direction. Then Banfield rose to the occasion. Via some mechanical changes and some changes to his mindset at the plate, Banfield enjoyed his best offensive season by a large margin.
Coming into the season with a completely different setup and approach at the plate, Banfield attacked early in counts and his swing was much more relaxed and built for line drives. In 115 games with Pensacola—the longest season of his pro career—Banfield hit .258/.302/.472 with an even 100 wRC+. Banfield’s attack-early mindset accosted him a higher K rate of 24.6% and an extremely low walk rate of 5.1%.
Because of his consistent plus receiving skills behind the plate, Banfield carries the floor of at least a third-string catcher at the next level. Even if the Marlins are unsure whether he’s ready for that role in 2024, they’d certainly want him with the organization in spring training to compete for it.
Banfield was left unprotected in 2022. Considering his 2023 gains and the flimsy catching depth the organization currently holds from top to bottom, the Marlins may choose to roster him this time around.
The Rule 5 Draft will be held on December 7 at the site of the Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tennessee.
Photo by Kevin Barral/Fish On First