The Toronto Blue Jays have found gold in the Rule 5 draft before. Is there a candidate in this year’s class that could be the second strike of lightning?
Toronto Blue Jays fans became very aware of the Rule 5 Draft two years ago when the man above materialized from outer space (or Richmond, Virginia, sources can’t confirm) and became one of the most unlikely bullpen saviours in franchise history. Joe Biagini was not met with trumpets of joy when he was selected in the 2015 Rule 5 Draft from the Giants, but he became crucial in that 2016 repeat run to the ALCS with his heroic innings out of the pen. His transition to starting in 2017 wasn’t as successful, but he’s still a part of the Blue Jays’ future.
Glenn Sparkman, the 2016 Rule 5 pick with the 63.00 career MLB ERA, is not. You can’t win them all.
However, hope springs eternal and the 2017 Rule 5 Draft goes today in Orlando. The Blue Jays have a pair of empty 40-man spots and a lot of options to choose from. So is there a candidate for Biagini-like success?
Before we begin, we should note that this is the first time many new Toronto fans will likely feel the sting from the other side. The club decided not to protect 2014 1st round pick Max Pentecost, and there are already rumblings that he is a very attractive piece to the White Sox. As a team on the rebuild, adding a catcher with power is an enticing prospect. However, thanks to injuries, there are questions if Pentecost is a catcher anymore. Also, Danny Jansen has passed him by on the catcher prospect totem pole. If a team likes his power from the right-hand side, the Kennesaw State product could be the first Blue Jay selected in the Major League phase since the Mets took Brad Emaus in 2010.
Here are the top-five candidates the Blue Jays should consider:
5. Kohl Stewart, RHP, Minnesota Twins
When the players left exposed were tallied, Mark Appel (#1 pick in 2013) being left available by Philadelphia grabbed a lot of attention, but the man picked three spots after him is the better option in the draft. A Texas native and former Texas A&M football recruit, Kohl Stewart got a massive signing bonus to spurn the gridiron for the diamond, but his numbers have been trending in the wrong direction. The #6 Twins prospect according to Puckett’s Pond, writer Martin Schlegel noted that his strikeout and walk ratios had been trending in the wrong direction and he needed to halt that trend in order to earn a shot at the big leagues.
Suffice to say, Stewart went the other direction.
His control was wild in 2017. He posted a 5.3 BB/9 at AA Chattanooga, and saw his WHIP spike to 1.513. He got in one start at AAA Rochester and left with four walks and four runs allowed in five innings. He also had knee issues.
However, the talent is enticing and Stewart is a noted sinker pitcher, something the Blue Jays prefer to have in the organization with the cozy confines of the Rogers SkyDome hampering efforts to keep fly balls in the park. He’s only 23, so there is time for him to mature. However, the Blue Jays may not be comfortable keeping a potential Rick Ankiel on the roster, and Stewart’s pedigree makes him a candidate to be selected by the time Toronto comes up to pick. If he’s still on the board though, he’ll be hard to pass up.
If the Blue Jays feel like going the Sparkman route again, fellow Twins prospect Nick Burdi can be stashed while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. They will have to hope he can still hit 100mph on the gun when he returns, but if he recovers in time to bring the heat in the summer, he is another potential steal. However, interest is high in the potential future closer, as MLB’s Chris Cotillo tweeted that Burdi is “very likely” to go in the draft. Likely before the Blue Jays can take him.
4. Jason Martin, OF, Houston Astros
When news broke that Francisco Liriano had been traded to the Astros, it was assumed that the Blue Jays were looking for outfield prospects and that Jason Martin was the target. However, by taking on the Nori Aoki contract, Toronto moved up the prospect ladder and took Teoscar Hernandez off their hands to the delight of everyone.
Now the Blue Jays can live like one of my spirit animals and say:
Martin, an 8th round pick in 2013 out Orange Lutheran High School, offers tantalizing 20/20 potential. The left-handed batter turned the trick in 2016 at High-A Lancaster in the California League, then last year showed an improved batting eye at AA Corpus Christi, hitting .273 with 11 home runs in 73 games, although he was only successful on 53% of his steal attempts. He also strikes out a lot, as evidenced by his 124 strikeouts in 125 games across AA and High-A last season.
Like Stewart, Martin could also be claimed before the Blue Jays get to him. The Mets pick sixth and they are looking for outfield help, as Metsmerizing summarized here, but they could be looking for someone who is more MLB-ready like Arizona’s Victor Reyes. If there are doubts Dalton Pompey will be ready for spring training, Martin could replace him in the system.
3. Travis Demeritte, 2B/3B, Atlanta
Hey, if Alex Anthopoulos is going to keep poaching Blue Jays front office members, the least they can do is strike back, right?
Travis Demeritte would have been higher on this list before the acquisition of Aledmys Diaz, but Toronto could use all the help it can get in the middle infield in case both Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki go down with injuries.
The 23-year-old was acquired by Atlanta in a 2016 mid-season trade from Texas for Lucas Harrell (ex-Blue Jay alert!) and Dario Alvarez. At the time, Demeritte bashed 25 home runs in 88 games with High-A High Desert. Since then, his bat has dropped off a bit. 2017’s promotion to AA Mississippi yielded a .236 average and a .708 OPS What was promising about last season is that his strikeout rate dropped from 33% in 2016 to 26.2% in 2017. He was the #13 prospect according to MLB.com.
As with the other members of the list so far, Demeritte is already attracting attention and it’s coming from the top. The Tigers have the top pick in the Rule 5 draft and The Detroit News’ Chris McCosky mentioned Demeritte, likely as a target to replace the now-traded Ian Kinsler. If they go in another direction, the Blue Jays can swoop in for some infield depth.
2. Jordan Guerrero, LHP, Chicago White Sox
If Chicago is going to grab Pentecost, the Blue Jays may as well make it essentially a trade.
Jordan Guerrero has been a steadily-rising lefty after being taken in the 15th round out of Moorpark High School in California. He attracted curiosity with his 1.04 combined WHIP at A Kannapolis and High-A Winston-Salem, and he’s been plugging away at AA Birmingham the past two seasons. 2016 was rough (4.83 ERA, 1.515 WHIP, 4.8 BB/9) but the 23 year old was better in 2017. He regained control (2.6 BB/9 rate), increased his strikeout rate (8.4 K/9, up 1.2 from 2016) and cut down on his home runs, allowing just eight in 25 starts.
The 25 starts may be the most attractive number for Guerrero. It was his third straight season with 25 starts, and he’s pitched an average of 143.7 innings in those seasons. His arm strength is there and he is capable of brilliant stretches. He outhurled White Sox super-prospect Michael Kopech to be named minor-league pitcher of the month for June with 26 Ks, 4 BBs and a .190 opponent batting average in five starts.
With a fastball-changeup combo similar to Marco Estrada, Guerrero could learn from one of the masters in his apprentice season. The plan for Guerrero is similar to that of Biagini. Keep him in the pen for a year, allow him to learn in limited innings, then see if he can become an inning-eating lefty akin to Mark Buehrle or J.A. Happ. Left-handed pitching is always a target in the Rule 5 draft and another club may snag him, but if the Blue Jays want to bring Guerrero in to battle Tim Mayza and Matt Dermody for a LOOGY slot, Guerrero has the goods to win that battle.
1. Trevor Clifton, RHP, Chicago Cubs
The only reason Guerrero is not the #1 target is because of the potential upside of Trevor Clifton.
The #9 prospect according to MLB.com in a loaded Cubs system, Clifton was a raw pitcher coming out of Heritage High in Maryville, Tennessee. However, it looks like he was arriving ahead of schedule with a 2016 performance that got him named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year and Cubs Minor League Pitcher of the Year. In 23 starts, the righty posted a 2.72 ERA with 129 strikeouts and a 1.16 WHIP. Baseball Prospectus had Clifton as the #87 prospect in all of baseball entering 2017. Life was good.
However, things unraveled for Clifton when he got home to Tennessee for a AA season. His K/9 plummeted (9.8 to 7.7), his WHIP spiked to 1.56 and he looked so lost that the Smokies shut him down with two starts to go.
The stats get interesting when you look at Clifton’s splits this past year. In his first 11 starts, from April to mid-June, Clifton was just as electric as the previous year. In 60.2 innings, he posted a 2.52 ERA with 51 strikeouts. He only allowed more than two runs just once, and that was a three-run outing. The wheels fell off later in the season, particularly the 9.89 ERA in his last nine starts, including two one-inning starts with five runs allowed (the Sparkman Special).
There is reason to believe he will turn it around. BP Wrigleyville’s Todd Johnson has unabashedly praised Clifton’s work ethic, and with a mid-90s fastball and an above-average curveball and change-up to compliment it, Clifton can be a tantalizing option. He is only 22, and he still has time to work on his delivery to become more reliable at delivering that fastball. He also fits into the Biagini model of a converted starter who can learn as a bullpen arm for a year and then be stretched out.
The Cubs left him unprotected likely because his age and his abysmal second half would potentially shield him from selection. However, if the Blue Jays want to swing for the fences with the pick, Clifton’s potential mid-rotation stuff would be a cheap addition behind Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman in the future. As an added bonus, his beard game has high-upside potential too if it fills out.
— Luke Slabaugh (@LukeSlabaugh) April 12, 2017
That being said, either Clifton or Guerrero would make a fine piece to mold in a similar manner to Biagini. The Blue Jays’ front office has shown they prefer this method of building a bullpen as opposed to giving relievers $9M a season. With Burdi likely out of reach, these pieces would potentially help the Blue Jays reach that goal. It’ll only cost them $100,000 to find out.
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Andrews has been immersed in sports from a young age, since they could read Jr. Jays comics that filtered into the backwoods of Northern Nova Scotia. The Canadian has been blogging about sports since high school, writing on FOX Sports.com’s blogs as well on the Tailpipe Sports blog. The 20-something has been with Jays From the Couch since its humble beginnings, and continues to contribute while forging a career in the sports journalism industry. Andrews brings a discerning eye, a smoking keyboard, and a brain that made Jeopardy! briefly rethink letting Canadians onto their program.