CLEVELAND -- Each offseason, teams must weigh the risk involved in exposing eligible players to the Rule 5 Draft process. For a club such as Cleveland, protecting players on the cusp of reaching the big leagues is an important part of the team's winter maneuvering.
On Tuesday's deadline day, the Indians chose not to take any chances with four of their Minor League players: Chen-Chang Lee, Trey Haley, T.J. House and Tim Fedroff. The Tribe added that group to the club's 40-man roster, removing them from the pool of players teams can draw from during the upcoming Rule 5 Draft.
Cleveland purchased the contracts of Lee and Fedroff from Triple-A Columbus and did the same for Haley and House from Double-A Akron. To clear room on the roster, the Indians sent first baseman Matt LaPorta and utility man Brent Lillibridge outright to Columbus, and designated right-hander Fabio Martinez for assignment. Cleveland's 40-man roster is currently at capacity.
LaPorta, who is out of Minor League options, can't refuse the assignment since this is the first time in his career he has been outrighted. Lillibridge has the right to decline the assignment in favor of electing to become a free agent.
The Rule 5 Draft is scheduled to take place on Dec. 6 during the final day of this year's Winter Meetings in Nashville, Tenn. Selecting a player in the Major League phase of the Draft costs $50,000, and the player must remain on the acquiring team's 25-man roster for the entire regular season. If the club wants to remove him from their roster, he must be offered back to his original team for $25,000.
There are two types of non-roster players who are eligible for Rule 5 selection: those with at least five years of Minor League experience who were 18 years old or younger when they signed, or those with at least four years of Minor League experience who were 19 years old or older when signed.
The 26-year-old Lee missed most of the 2012 season due to a right elbow injury which required Tommy John surgery. Despite missing time with the injury, he was considered nearly Major League ready. With a low arm angle, a fastball that has been clocked around 92-96 mph and a strong slider, Lee was viewed as a realistic option for the Indians' bullpen prior to his injury.
Lee might not be deemed ready for game action until late May or early June, but he could be stashed away on the 60-day disabled list while rehabbing, if he were selected by another team. Cleveland could take the same approach, while keeping a valuable relief prospect in its system.
Last year, Lee joined the Indians in big league camp for Spring Training and then posted a 2.57 ERA with eight strikeouts and one walk over seven innings with Triple-A Columbus prior to his injury. In 2011, when Lee was Cleveland's Minor League pitcher of the year, the right-hander went 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 71 1/3 innings between Double-A Akron and Triple-A.
Haley, 22, is viewed as one of the most promising young arms within Cleveland's system and he could figure into the big league bullpen picture at some point during the 2013 season. Haley spent time in Class A last season, but Cody Allen's rise from Class A to the Majors last year showed Cleveland's willingness to reward performance with rapid ascension.
In 25 games between Rookie League Arizona, Class A (high) Carolina and Double-A Akron, the right-handed Haley went 4-1 with a 2.33 ERA. Haley, who missed roughly two months due to a sports hernia procedure, piled up 49 strikeouts against 19 walks in 38 2/3 innings. His fastball can hit triple digits and he also features a curveball and sinker.
The 23-year-old House went 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA across 27 starts between stints with Class A Carolina and Double-A Akron last season. Over 149 1/3 innings, the lefty struck out 116 batters and issued 50 walks.
Had Fedroff, 25, been on the 40-man roster last season, he might have made his big league debut down the stretch for the Indians. If the young outfielder's performance in 2013 is similar to last year's showing, that step in his career could come at some point this summer.
Last season, Fedroff hit a combined .316 with an .879 OPS in 123 games between Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus. The center fielder churned out 12 home runs, 23 doubles, 10 triples, 14 stolen bases, 54 RBIs and 79 runs in the process.
Fedroff's production was consistent at both levels, too. In 54 games at Double-A, the lefty-swinging Fedroff hit .305 with an .839 OPS. In his 69 games with Columbus, he increased his pace, posting a .325 average to go along with a .910 OPS for the Clippers.
LaPorta, 27, hit .241 with one home run and five RBIs in an abbreviated stay with Cleveland this past summer and is currently working his way back from left hip surgery, which was performed in October. In 101 games with Triple-A Columbus, he hit at a .264 clip with 19 homers, 19 doubles and 62 RBIs for the Clippers.
The Indians acquired Lillibridge in a trade with the Red Sox on July 24, but the versatile fielder hit just .216 in 43 games with the Tribe down the stretch. Lillibridge hit a combined .195 in 102 games with the White Sox, Red Sox and Indians last season.
Lillibridge, 29, is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter and would be a candidate to be non-tendered by the Indians if he chose to accept his Triple-A assignment.
Martinez, 23, went a combined 0-7 with a 10.24 ERA in 16 appearances (eight starts) for Class A Inland Empire (Angels) and Class A Carolina (Indians) this past season. Cleveland claimed Martinez off waivers from Los Angeles in August. The team now has 10 days to either trade or release Martinez, or to assign him to a Minor League affiliate if he clears waivers.