Where Giants stand with Luis Matos, prospects ahead of Rule 5 deadline

Where Giants stand with Matos, prospects ahead of Rule 5 draft originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Alexander Canario was the big piece headed back to Chicago in the Kris Bryant trade, it wasn't a surprise. The Giants liked Canario but he was taking up a 40-man roster spot while playing in A-ball, the result of the rules for protecting players from the annual Rule 5 Draft.

Two years later, the Giants are in a similar spot. They must add prospects to their 40-man roster by Tuesday afternoon in order to protect them ahead of the Rule 5 Draft (held Dec. 7 in San Diego), but most of their potential additions are years from the big leagues. At the GM Meetings last week, Farhan Zaidi said this year's decisions will be tough ones.

Zaidi said the Giants want to be protective of "high-end talent," but added, "it's always a challenge having guys on the 40 who are in A-ball or Double-A."

The Giants have a lot of well-known prospects in that situation this year. The Rule 5 Draft was cancelled last year because of the lockout, but this season teams will have to protect college players from the 2019 draft and international and high school signings from 2018 or earlier. For the Giants, that includes some big names.

Top prospect Marco Luciano headlined that 2018 international class and is an easy call, but the group also includes Luis Matos, Jairo Pomares and others. Matos had a down year in High-A but is the organization's top outfield prospect and he was just named Defensive Player of the Year in the Arizona Fall League.

Teams that take players in the Rule 5 Draft have to put them on the big league roster, which Matos isn't close to ready for, but given his talent, center field ability and speed, he could be an intriguing addition for someone. Since he's their top outfield prospect, it seems likely the Giants will protect Matos, even if the risk of him sticking elsewhere is small. He is, as Zaidi said, a great example of "high-end talent."

Matos is also an example of how the process may be flawed. In answering a question about his Rule 5 decisions, Zaidi pivoted, pointing out that it's unfair to international players. Matos is only 20, Luciano is 21, and Pomares is 22, but the Giants already must make decisions about whether to add them to the 40-man.

"I don't know what the solution is, but it's particularly challenging with international players," Zaidi said. "I'm not sure that we (as an industry) have sort of configured their Rule 5 eligibility and timing in a way that makes sense because a lot of the decisions with guys in A-ball or maybe just Double-A tend to be international signings.

"I think when you're talking about high-ceiling talent, everybody wants to protect that."

Under Zaidi, the Giants have been particularly aggressive in protecting high-ceiling international prospects. Two years ago, they added Camilo Doval, Kervin Castro and Gregory Santos to the 40-man roster, knowing all three hard-throwing right-handers could reach the big leagues quickly. Doval has since become their closer and the other two did end up debuting in 2021.

Last year's class included Randy Rodriguez, a hard-throwing righty who has since reached Triple-A and should be a bullpen option next season. It also included Heliot Ramos and Sean Hjelle, who were eligible for the Rule 5 Draft and ended up making their big league debuts after getting protected.

This year's group of Rule 5-eligible draftees is from the 2019 MLB Draft, which was headlined by outfielder Hunter Bishop. He's a good example of the trickiness of this week. Bishop is still just 24 but injuries and the pandemic have kept him from getting past High-A. The Giants must decide whether to protect him or take the risk that another organization would bet on Bishop's first-round talent and try to sneak him through a big league season.

Bishop's draft class included Cole Waites, who already is on the 40-man roster. Another right-handed reliever will be an interesting call, though. Nick Avila was a 26th-round pick out of Long Beach State in 2019 but he popped up this past season, posting a 1.14 ERA out of the bullpen in High-A and Double-A.

Avila could be a bullpen option next season and, while it's a small sample, the Giants have been aggressive about protecting that type of pitcher under Zaidi. It's also much easier for another team to try and carry a reliever like Avila than it would be for a Matos or Bishop.

The Giants also could choose to protect righty Jose Cruz, a 22-year-old who was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2017 and opened eyes this past season for Low-A San Jose, striking out 86 batters in 52 1/3 innings.

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The list of eligible players includes starters Tristan Beck and Kai-Wei Teng, infielder Will Wilson, relievers Michael Stryffeler and Chris Wright, outfielder Armani Smith and many others drafted in 2019 or earlier. Wilson is the most high-profile of the group and already has played in Triple-A, so he looms as another player the Giants will have to have a lot of discussions about.

These are difficult decisions for organizations, but Tuesday will be a life-changing day for several prospects. As Ramos showed with an early promotion this past season, you're a lot closer to your big league debut when you're officially on the 40-man roster.

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