Five years ago, after the successful -- and college-player-laden -- draft in 2005, the Red Sox switched gears in the draft, going hard after high-upside players who were a little younger and who might take a little longer to reach the major leagues. Theo Epstein had built a roster that didn't need an immediate influx of talent but instead needed a reservoir of possible replacements for the core players who inevitably would be older and less productive by 2012 or 2013.
That reservoir of prospects will have quite a bit to do with what the Red Sox do at the July 31 trade deadline. If the Red Sox don't move some of their prospects in trades, they might risk losing them in December's Rule 5 draft.
In the 2006 and 2007 drafts, the Red Sox drafted and signed high-upside high-school talents like Ryan Kalish, Josh Reddick, Lars Anderson, Will Middlebrooks and Drake Britton. The 2006 international signing period also saw them bring on board Stolmy Pimentel and Oscar Tejeda.
In 2008, the Red Sox again targeted high-upside high-school talent -- most notably Ryan Westmoreland and since-traded Casey Kelly -- but they also drafted college talent like Stephen Fife, Kyle Weiland, Ryan Lavarnway and Tim Federowicz.
Assembling all of that talent at the lower levels of the minor leagues presented no problems. The Red Sox, blessed with a World Series-caliber core of major-league players, could afford to be patient and let their young players grow.
But the rules of baseball stipulate that a player becomes eligible for the Rule 5 draft after either four or five seasons in the minor leagues, depending on the age of the player when he signed. If the player was 19 or younger when he signed, he can play three full seasons in the minor leagues before becoming Rule 5 eligible. If the player was 18 or younger, he can play four full seasons in the minor leagues before becoming eligible for the Rule 5 draft.
(In other words, the high school players drafted in 2007 and the college players drafted in 2008 become Rule 5-eligible the same year.)
The only way to protect a player from being selected by another team in the Rule 5 draft is by adding him to the 40-man roster.
The 40-man roster, of course, is limited to 40 players -- including the players on the 25-man roster at the major-league level. If a team is going to compete at the major-league level -- and protect itself against injuries with major-league-caliber reserves -- only so many spots can be available for high-ceiling prospects who aren't quite ready.
The Red Sox last winter added Pimentel and Tejeda to their 40-man roster despite their not being close to ready to contribute at the major-league level. They simply did so to prevent other teams from poaching them in the Rule 5 draft. But because the Red Sox had to use two 40-man spots on Pimentel and Tejeda, it limited their flexibility to make other moves.
If they want to add Kevin Millwood to their 40-man roster next week to make a start in place of Josh Beckett, for example, they'd have to think about designating Michael Bowden or lefty specialist Tommy Hottovy for assignment to make room for him -- thus depleting their bullpen depth.
SoxProspects.com has compiled comprehensive lists of the players who will become eligible for upcoming Rule 5 drafts, but only about a half-dozen players who will be eligible in December are the type of players the Red Sox won't want to lose: Britton, Federowicz, Fife, Lavarnway, Middlebrooks, Chih-Hsien Chiang and Che-Hsuan Lin. The Red Sox have to find room on their 40-man roster for at least five or six -- and preferably all seven -- of those players.
A potential contributor like Jason Rice (who was Rule 5 eligible last season but not selected) would be worth stashing away, too, if there was room for him on the 40.
It's going to be a tight fit. The Red Sox right now have 22 pitchers on their 40-man roster, including Rich Hill and Daisuke Matsuzaka, both of whom are on the 60-day disabled list (and thus don't count against the 40-player limit) but will come off the disabled list in the offseason (and thus will count against the 40-player limit).
Even if borderliners like Bowden, Hottovy, Scott Atchison, Matt Albers and Dan Wheeler are not retained and if Jonathan Papelbon departs as a free agent and if Tim Wakefield retires, the Red Sox still will have 15 pitchers on the 40-man roster -- and they won't have close to a complete bullpen. They'll need to replace Papelbon. They'll need to replace Albers and Wheeler -- or bring them back. They'll need to build the type of starting-pitching depth that has kept them afloat this year.
They'll have to figure out how they want to deploy Kyle Weiland -- for example, if he can serve a similar role to that of Atchison in the bullpen or if he'd be more valuable as a depth starter at Triple-A. They'll have to figure out how they want to deploy Felix Doubront, too, who will be out of options and thus stuck on the 25-man roster unless he's traded. They'll have evaluate what they have in Junichi Tazawa, who's still in the process of coming back from Tommy John surgery.
The same evaluations will have to take place at every other position on the roster. Is there room for Luis Exposito with both Federowicz and Lavarnway nipping at his heels? Is there room for both Drew Sutton and Yamaico Navarro, especially if Marco Scutaro is retained to give Jose Iglesias more time? Is there room for Lars Anderson on the 40-man roster with Adrian Gonzalez blocking him?
For that reason, the Red Sox can afford -- and, indeed, might be wise -- to trade three or four high-level prospects for an impact player. Not only could that impact player help them win the World Series, but the trade could clear the 40-man-roster logjam and allow the Red Sox to retain some of the other prospects they've devoted so many resources to developing.
A trade of -- and this is purely hypothetical -- Anderson, Doubront, Lin and Tejeda might net a talented player from a team with a prospect cupboard that's almost bare. In past years, before the Red Sox built the farm system they enjoy now, such a move would have been potentially crippling going forward. This year, however, such a move might be just the move to help the Red Sox both now and in the future.