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General manager Al Avila talks about the Tigers’ plans in protecting Rule 5 eligible players. Chris McCosky, Detroit News

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Orlando, Fla. — Among the thorny decisions Tigers general manager Al Avila will have to make this offseason is which Rule 5-eligible players to protect by adding them to the 40-man roster and which players to leave exposed?

“This might be one of the toughest years for this,” Avila said Monday during the general manager’s meetings at Waldorf Astoria Resort outside of Disney World. “Most of the time we have been together as a staff we've spent going over this, and it’s been excruciating, painful.

“You can’t protect everyone. You only have 40 guys. So, it’s been a tough process.”

Seven of the club’s top 30 prospects are Rule 5-eligible: Outfielder Mike Gerber (ranked 10th by MLB.com), pitcher Gregory Soto (12), center fielder Jose Azocar (21), shortstop Sergio Alcantara (24), pitcher Gerson Moreno (25), pitcher Adam Ravenelle (26) and pitcher Spencer Turnbull (28).

Also eligible for the Rule 5 draft, which takes place on the final day of the Winter Meetings next month, are players who are knocking on the big-league door like utility man Dominic Ficociello, second baseman Kody Eaves, catcher Grayson Greiner, third baseman Gabriel Quintana and pitchers Jeff Thompson and Paul Voelker.

“There are going to be guys exposed,” Avila said. “Every team goes through this every year. That’s just part of the situation, and, as we continue to build up our system, it’s going to get tougher and tougher.”

Avila has until next Monday to submit a 40-man roster to the league. He’s already cleared nine open spots on the roster, one by not tendering popular utility man Andrew Romine and losing him off waivers to Seattle.

“It was a tough call in the sense that we all liked him and he did a great job for us,” Avila said. “But at the end of the day, we needed that roster spot and we’re trying to get younger.”

All nine open spots won’t be used to protect Rule 5 guys.

“We are hoping to keep one roster spot open for us to draft a Rule 5 player,” Avila said. “And we have to add some pitching (mid- to low-level free agents), so that’s going to take up one or two spots.”

So, of the nine open spots, as many as six will be used to protect Rule 5 prospects.

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It seems a good bet that Gerber, Soto, Azocar and Alcantara will be protected. The Tigers have only three outfielders on their 40-man roster at present and Gerber could get a shot to win a spot on the 25-man roster this spring.

“That’s a tough one,” Avila said. “I don’t know if it’s his time right now. But he’s done very well and we like him a great deal. A lot will depend on how things turn out in spring training. We just have to take it a step at a time.

“We aren’t going to rush into things.”

Avila did say they were hoping to add a left-handed hitting outfielder for the 2018 season. Gerber, who is 25 and hit .304 with a .496 slugging percentage playing at Lakeland, Erie and Toledo last season, bats left-handed and can play all three outfield positions.

“We don’t have enough roster spots to protect all the guys we want to protect,” Avila said. “We are going to have to leave some guys out there. So we’ve had to make some tough decisions.”

Last year, the Tigers protected just one Rule-5 player — pitcher Sandy Baez. It’s an indication of how much deeper and stronger the club’s farm system has become in one year.

The Tigers also took left-hander Daniel Stumpf in the Rule 5 draft last year and he emerged as one of the team’s most relievers.

Players selected in the Rule 5 draft must remain on that team’s active roster for a full season. They have to clear waivers and be offered back to their former team before they can be sent to the minor leagues.

Twitter @cmccosky

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