Decisions, decisions: How the Blue Jays could navigate the Rule 5 Draft

 

The upcoming Rule 5 Draft could be a rather interesting one for the Toronto Blue Jays

 

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Over the last few days, I’ve read some very good pieces examining the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster and the decisions that must be made ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. These tough decisions reflect the system’s impressive depth.

 

At Future Blue Jays, Doug Fox discussed the prospects that will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft, with some eligible for the second time and even more eligible for the first time. Reflecting the fact that most Rule 5 picks are pitchers (since they can be easily stowed away in a rebuilding team’s bullpen for a season), Doug highlighted Patrick Murphy, Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen as those likely to be taken if left exposed.

 

Writing for Blue Jays Nation, Ryan Di Francesco echoed the importance of protecting good pitching prospects. While he mused about a number of different prospects, both pitchers and position players, Ryan felt confident that Murphy, Jon Harris, Hector Perez and Yennsy Diaz would be taken if left exposed. As such, he thinks it’s necessary to either add them to the 40-man roster or move them for other useful pieces.

 

Finally, over at The Athletic, Andrew Stoeten discussed the guys currently on the 40-man roster that he feels might be moved, from most likely to least. Yangervis Solarte seems likely to either be traded or see his option declined. Kevin Pillar, similarly, seems like he could be traded or non-tendered, given the need to open up an outfield spot. Dalton Pompey, given that he was the only healthy player on the 40-man not to be called up last month, is a very strong non-tender candidate.

 

With this post, my plan is to start by getting a sense of what the 40-man roster will look like once some obvious transactions are made. Then, I’ll highlight some potential moves that might pare down the roster further. Finally, I’ll examine the prospects and see who seems likely to be left unprotected once all the 40-man spots have been taken.

 

The (relatively) straightforward decisions

At the moment, the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster is a smorgasbord of MLB vets, prospects that will hopefully be a part of the competitive teams of the 2020s and guys that find their way onto MLB rosters when things aren’t going very well. Beyond the 40 players on the roster, there are three on the Jays’ 60-day DL and one on the Cleveland 60-day DL who will join the Jays as part of the Josh Donaldson trade after the World Series (Julian Merryweather).

 

 

Obviously, the prospects that have been added to the 40-man roster this season will remain there for the foreseeable future. Moving or cutting some of the more established players is a distinct possibility that we will discuss in the next section. First, let’s make the obvious cuts and see where that leaves us. [I’ve tried my best to ensure that the roster moves I discuss jibe with MLB rules. Cot’s and Bluebird Banter were helpful resources in this regard.]

 

Mark Leiter Jr. was a September waiver pickup from the Phillies, whose MLB resume—he’s posted worse-than-average FIP and xwOBA—doesn’t inspire much hope that he can contribute at the big league level. He still has years of control, so the Jays could outright him to AAA Buffalo to free up a roster spot, hoping he clears waivers.

 

Rhiner Cruz was a nice comeback story—he bounced around AAA in the US and Mexico since his time with the Astros in 2012-13. While his walk rate was a little high, he was effective at striking batters out and limiting contact quality, at least during the handful of innings he pitched between AAA and the MLB. He could conceivably return as a MiLB signing in 2019.

 

Jake Petricka saw a lot of playing time with the Jays this season. That said, much of it was in low-leverage situations. His performance was fine, but not good enough that he must be retained. He, too, could certainly be offered a minor-league deal with the Jays in 2019.

 

Jon Berti was added to the 40-man very late in the season, effectively as a reward for his strong, all-around contributions with the Eastern League champion Fisher Cats. He will become a free agent after the season is over (as he did in 2017) and will likely rejoin the Jays’ system to continue in his mentor role.

 

Yangervis Solarte produced the fifth-lowest fWAR (-1.3) in the majors this year. Given his $5.5 million club option and utter lack of effort on the base paths, it seems highly unlikely that he will be on the Jays 40-man into 2019. The front office seems intent to try and find a taker for him. I wish them well in this difficult endeavour.

 

Tyler Clippard pitched more innings than any Blue Jay reliever. He’s an interesting case. Given his strong K and BB rates, I’m surprised he wasn’t moved prior to either trade deadline. He had a homer problem in 2018, but otherwise limited his opponent’s contact quality reasonably well. Regardless of who he signs with, it’s highly likely to come after the Rule 5 Draft.

 

Dalton Pompey is a tough name to add to this list, given his connections to the GTA and the long-standing hope among Jays fans that he’d be patrolling Toronto’s centre field for many years. Unfortunately, injury and underperformance meant that this was never to be. His issues with Bisons coach Bobby Meacham and the fact that he wasn’t called up this September fuel my certainty that his Jays career is over.

 

Marco Estrada is the toughest name to add to this list. He’s become an unlikely Blue Jays legend, whose playoff performances will never be forgotten. Unfortunately, there were strong signs this season that his days as an effective major-league starter are over. His ability to limit good contact has weakened with each passing season, while his 2018 K% was his lowest as a big-league starter. Combined with his continuing back issues, he is likely going to have to wait into the new year to sign a contract (probably of the MiLB variety). It’s tough to say it, but retirement is also a distinct possibility.

 

Removing these eight players from the 40-man leaves the Blue Jays with 36 players remaining (four free roster spots). While the front office will likely want to protect more than just four Rule 5 eligible prospects, these initial moves are a good start.

 

The waiver-wire relievers

Beyond the eight guys who are highly likely to be removed from the 40-man in the coming weeks, there are four pitchers who could see similar fates. They weren’t included in the first batch because they have some remaining usefulness and would have to clear waivers.

 

Jose Fernandez is a 25 year old lefty relief prospect, whose mid-90s fastball and accompanying slider bears some resemblance to fellow Jays lefty relief prospect, Tim Mayza. Unlike Mayza, Fernandez’s quality isn’t quite so evident in his results, with his MLB debut (13.3% K rate, 8.9% BB rate) not remotely as promising as Mayza’s was in 2017. He’s the sort of guy you probably can get away with exposing to waivers, but would be disappointed to lose. Given the list of prospects that the Jays will want to protect, outrighting him might be a necessary risk.

 

Taylor Guerrieri was picked up on waivers from the Rays in late 2017 as potential rotation depth. Formerly a well-rated SP prospect, recurring elbow injuries stunted his development. Unfortunately, his time spent starting for the Buffalo Bisons did not instill confidence (12.4% K rate, 9.9% BB rate, 1.63 HR/9). His performances in relief for Buffalo and Toronto were a little better, but still unimpressive. If not for his pedigree—he was a 2011 first-round pick—and his extraordinary ability to limit good contact—his hard contact rate with the Jays was half the league average—he would have been a part of the list of cuts above.

 

Justin Shafer gave up two home runs over 64 innings pitched in relief this season (0.28 HR/9), across AA, AAA and the MLB. Unfortunately, in his first 8.1 big-league innings, he struck out only two batters against seven walks (and one HBP). Like Fernandez, he’s someone the Jays wouldn’t be okay with losing for nothing. However, he may be more expendable than some of the Rule 5 eligible prospects.

 

Danny Barnes is a Jay that I instantly liked when he made his MLB debut in late 2016. With limited means, he found a way to get the job done. Unfortunately, since the 2017 all-star break, he has struggled to be an effective MLB reliever. Over his first 52.2 MLB innings, Barnes produced some impressive numbers—his 2.87 FIP was driven by a 28.2% K rate, 8.1% BB rate and 0.68 HR/9.

 

He followed that with a run of 49 innings, during which Barnes worsened in every way—his 6.53 FIP was driven by a 16.7% K rate, 11.6% BB rate and 2.2 HR/9. He moderated his performance over the last few months, producing a solid 3.27 FIP (backed by a 21.1% K rate, 10% BB rate and 0.5 HR/9). As such, I hope he gets another chance to prove himself with the Jays in 2019.

 

Thoughts on the established veterans

Before I shift gears to the prospects I’d like to see protected from the Rule 5 Draft, it’s important to talk a bit about the established vets whose names are often bandied about in trade speculation.

 

First, a word on the vets who had productive (if unspectacular) seasons and who remain under team control in 2019—Justin Smoak, Randal Grichuk, Kevin Pillar and Aledmys Diaz. In his post on this topic, Stoeten thoroughly explained why each of them could remain or be moved. They’re all useful and affordable, but they are unlikely to be part of the next Blue Jays’ playoff team. In the short-term, they have value as transitionary pieces with the Jays, but they could also be moved for pieces that will be valuable to the Jays in the coming years. For this exercise, I’m going to assume that they are all on the 2019 Opening Day roster with the Blue Jays. In reality, I have no clue what will happen with them.

 

Second, a word on the vets who remain under team control in 2019, but whose contracts now dwarf their production—Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales and Russell Martin. In 2019, they will be (barring a sizable arbitration award) the only Jays earning $10 million+. I can’t read the minds of the team’s front office and ownership group, but it makes zero sense for the Jays to move their contracts purely for the sake of financial relief. I could, however, see the team moving them for some (probably minor) asset(s) if considerable salary was eaten, particularly in the case of Martin (given his continued effectiveness and positional versatility). For this exercise, I’m going to assume that they are all on the 2019 Opening Day roster with the Blue Jays. In reality, I have no clue what will happen with them.

 

Finally, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. Like the first group of vets, they are useful guys to have, but whose years of team control don’t line up with the team’s expected years of contention. Unfortunately, both struggled with performance and injury in 2018. Given the limited number of SP prospects pounding on the door right now, I expect both to be on the 2019 Opening Day roster. Moreover, this gives each an opportunity to start 2019 well and rebuild their trade value. While I expect one or both to be moved by the 2019 trade deadline (health permitting), a contract extension (or two) is always possible. Either way, I’m confident that these choices won’t be made until the 2019 season has started.

 

Let’s protect some prospects

Based on my examination of the current 40-man roster, I anticipate there being anywhere from four to eight open spots available by the time we get to the Rule 5 Draft. Obviously, I may be wrong about some of the guys I’ve cut and wrong about some of the guys I’ve kept on the team—grains of salt, as always.

 

When deciding who to protect, the rules of the Rule 5 Draft play an important role. A team that takes a player from the Jays must keep them on their 25-man roster for the entire season. This makes it very unlikely that a team will lose a position player prospect altogether. Last season, only three position players were taken, with only one sticking with their new team all season. On the other hand, a pitcher can be kept in the bullpen all season, a small price for a rebuilding team to pay.

 

Patrick Murphy is at the top of my list. He produced the best FIP among qualified pitchers at High-A, striking out more than most (22.5%) and displaying excellent homer-suppression skills (0.31 HR/9, second-best at High-A), the result of producing tonnes of ground balls (59.4% GB rate, second-highest at High-A).

 

Jordan Romano is another starting pitcher I’d like to see added to the 40-man roster. His 2018 numbers weren’t as eye-popping as Murphy’s, but were solid nevertheless—both his K/BB (3.05) and FIP (3.98) were better-than-average among qualified AA starters. His GTA connection is an obvious plus as well. As a guy who can hit 96mph with his fastball, I definitely agree with Doug that “some teams may be tempted to do a Biagini-like conversion with him”.

 

Travis Bergen’s 2018 breakout as a reliever justifies his inclusion on the 40-man roster. Prior to 2018, he was limited to 16.2 innings for short season-A Vancouver, across three seasons. His 40.5% K rate in that time pointed to his potential. In his first full season, Bergen absolutely owned his opponents, striking out 32% of them, while walking only 6.5%. Combined with a 0.32 HR/9, Bergen produced a stellar 2.24 FIP between High-A and AA. JFtC’s own Ryan Mueller was an early proponent of his 2018 breakout .

 

Hector Perez seems like a classic Rule 5 pickup—enough talent to pitch out of the bullpen today, combined with enough upside to be a great starter in the future. This season, in his first taste of AA at the relatively young age of 22, he produced a 29% K rate and a 0.29 HR/9 over seven starts. He also walked 15%, evidence that he is not a finished product. With “four plus-flashing pitches“, according to FanGraphs, Perez has massive potential, if he can make even modest improvements in his control.

 

Yennsy Diaz might be a stretch as a Rule 5 pickup, given his age (21) and highest level (High-A). Nevertheless, his fastball (FanGraphs gives it a present value of 60) and slider (55 PV) combo could potentially hang in the majors out of the bullpen next season. At the same level, but a year and a half younger, Diaz produced a FIP (3.37) that was very similar to Murphy’s (3.19). Moreover, the two produced similar K, BB and HR rates.

 

Harold Ramirez rounds out the list of prospects I hope to see protected from this winter’s Rule 5 Draft, the lone position player. He’s had an up and down experience with the Jays, being protected from the 2016 Rule 5 Draft and subsequently removed from the 40-man last winter. This year, he broke out, thanks to a long-awaited power surge and the return of his excellent contact skills. Adjustments at the plate helped him substantially increase his outfield fly ball rate, from 19.9% to 28%. He ended up winning the Eastern League batting title, while also producing an above-average ISO and stealing 16 out of 18 bases. While Cavan Biggio led qualified AA batters with a 145 wRC+, Ramirez wasn’t far behind, finishing 14th with a 132 mark.

 

Some of the key prospects left out

I opted to leave out some prospects that I feel are fairly unlikely to be picked up by another team and kept on their 25-man roster all season long. New additions like Corey Copping and Jacob Waguespack are interesting, but don’t really seem to have the upside that would motivate a team to keep them for a season. Angel Perdomo does have some of that upside, but has only reached High-A at this point.

 

Jon Harris’ pedigree as a first round pick means he will get every chance to crack the majors, but through 250+ IP at Double-A, he has struck out only 17.4% of batters and given up 1.32 HR/9. Further development is necessary. Similarly, I don’t think Max Pentecost and Forrest Wall need to be protected, as they too require further development time in 2019, likely again at AA. Plus, they’re position players.

 

Jackson McClelland (and his 100mph fastball) is an interesting case. A reliever, he struck out 30.2% of the batters he faced at High-A this year. While he struggled somewhat in his first (short) taste of Double-A—he struck out 28.1% of the batters he faced, but gave up his fair share of walks (15.6%) and dingers (1.42 HR/9)—a team might be willing to give him a shot in their ‘pen next season. The decision could come down to whether the Jays want to protect a lower upside/upper-level reliever, like Fernandez or Shafer, from waivers or a higher upside/lower-level reliever, like McClelland, from the Rule 5 Draft.

 

What are we left with?

Let’s say the Jays dropped all of the players from the first group above (the straightforward decisions), outrighted Taylor Guerrieri and Justin Shafer, and added my list of six prospects to the 40-man roster. Without any significant moves, enough space would be created to protect those that are most likely (though not certain) to be picked.

 

Enough MLB talent remains on this hypothetical 40-man roster to put together a 25-man lineup that could play a major league baseball game, if not necessarily win the majority of them. This lineup, unlike those of recent seasons, would be made up predominantly of twenty-somethings.

 

 

Consider this roster a jumping-off point. Free agent signings and interesting trades involving these players and/or prospects could certainly be completed that would bolster this lineup further, particularly on the pitching side of things. Once the 2019 season starts, further room will have to eventually be made for Vlad Jr. and any other upper-level prospects that show they’re ready for the big leagues. Obviously, injuries will occur as well, which will serve to create space.

 

At the end of the day, while a roster crunch does exist and some talented prospects will likely be left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, there is a plausible way forward that protects the best of these eligible prospects without requiring too many big transactions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.