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11/20/08 7:25 PM EST

Tigers set 40-man roster

Detroit protects five Minor Leaguers from Rule 5 Draft

DETROIT -- As the Thursday night deadline for setting the 40-man roster approached, the Tigers had to make some tough decisions between prospects, weighing which ones to protect and which to expose to the Rule 5 Draft.

It wasn't an easy process. In the Tigers' case, though, it was rather encouraging for a system that traded its share of talent last winter.

"When you have tough decisions to make, that's always a good thing," assistant general manager Al Avila said Thursday evening, "because it means you like your players."

In the case of five players, Detroit liked them enough to add them to the 40-man roster. The Tigers purchased the contracts of athletic Wilkin Ramirez and fellow Double-A Erie outfielder Casper Wells on Thursday, along with right-handed pitchers Alfredo Figaro, Guillermo Moscoso and Zach Simons.

The moves leave Detroit's roster at 38 players as the club heads into the heart of the offseason. The remaining open spots maintain the flexibility on the Tigers roster as they try to fill their offseason needs, but they also give them some potential options for some point next year.

"We feel good about the five guys we put on there," Avila said, "because we feel they're Major League prospects."

Ramirez, one of the more gifted talents in the Tigers system, enjoyed a breakout season at the plate this year after struggling to make consistent contact over the first four seasons of his professional career. The 23-year-old batted .303 with 24 doubles, 19 home runs, seven triples, 73 RBIs and 26 stolen bases in 110 games at Erie. He was the Tigers' representative at this past summer's All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium and was an Eastern League All-Star.

Next year, Ramirez is slated to make the jump to Triple-A Toledo, where he went 3-for-36 in 11 games this past season.

Wells' addition caps a season in which the 23-year-old made a big jump from low Class A West Michigan to Erie and thrived with by far the best numbers of his career. After batting .240 in 50 games with West Michigan, the Grand Rapids-born Wells produced a .289 average, 18 doubles, 17 home runs, 53 RBIs and a .965 OPS in 75 games with Erie. Wells took that momentum into the Arizona Fall League, and he entered Thursday batting .316 with seven homers and 22 RBIs.

The breakout propelled Wells into the Tigers' prospect ranks and rewarded player development director Glenn Ezell for the decision to give him the jump.

Moscoso, who turned 25 last weekend, also emerged this year after being largely limited to short-season leagues in his first three pro seasons. After striking out 72 batters over 52 innings while posting a 2-3 record and 2.42 ERA over 15 appearances (six starts) at high Class A Lakeland, Moscoso joined Erie's rotation for six starts down the stretch and recorded 50 more strikeouts in 34 2/3 innings.

The totals between the two levels -- 122 strikeouts over 86 2/3 innings while allowing just 60 hits -- were intimidating. He took that progress home with him to the Venezuelan Winter League, where he's 2-1 with a 3.60 ERA while mostly working out of the bullpen for Caracas.

Hot Stove

The 24-year-old Figaro was a Midwest League All-Star after going 12-2 with two shutouts and a 2.05 ERA for West Michigan. Opponents batted just .218 against him before he earned a promotion to Lakeland, where he went 0-5 with a 4.91 ERA over five starts and one relief appearance.

Simons came over from the Rockies system as the return package in the Jason Grilli trade at the end of April. From there, the 23-year-old posted a 5-2 record, 2.36 ERA and two saves in 39 relief appearances at Lakeland. Simons held opponents to a .166 average while racking up 61 strikeouts and 30 walks over 53 1/3 innings. He has an 0-1 record and 4.85 ERA over 12 appearances in the Arizona Fall League.

By placing these players on the 40-man roster, the Tigers protect them from the Rule 5 Draft, during which teams can select eligible prospects from other organizations and keep them if they spend the next season in the Major Leagues. Among those left unprotected are second baseman Will Rhymes, who batted .306 with 21 doubles, seven triples, three homers, 60 RBIs and 17 stolen bases at Erie. He's currently batting .282 in the AFL.

"Basically, we evaluate our players just like we evaluate players in the [First-Year Player] Draft or we evaluate trades or free agents," Avila said. "Sometimes it's very difficult, because there's other guys you like, too."

Also left exposed was catching prospect James Skelton, a non-roster invitee to Spring Training this past season. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound backstop batted .307 in 63 games for Lakeland before hitting .294 in a late-season stint for Erie. He threw out 10 of 20 would-be basestealers between the two levels.

On the flip side, by leaving two roster spots open, the Tigers allow themselves room to be active in the Rule 5 Draft if they so choose, even if they sign a free agent ahead of time. Given the Tigers' need for relief pitching, it's possible they could take a pitcher and give him a shot to make the team as a bullpen option next spring.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.