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Tough choices for the Blue Jays ahead of the Rule 5 deadline

 

The Toronto Blue Jays have some tough decisions to make ahead of the Rule 5 draft and JFtC has some ideas to help them out

 

Two days from now, on November 20th, MLB teams must finalize their 40-man rosters ahead of the Rule 5 Draft. Any Rule 5 eligible players left off a team’s 40-man could be taken by any other team, provided they keep the drafted player on their 25-man roster for the entire 2020 season.

 

By this point, I’ve been fortunate to read a number of blog posts detailing who the Blue Jays might remove from their 40-man roster and who they might opt to protect from the Rule 5 draft. Jays From the Couch’s Ryan Mueller wrote a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) last month, while Future Blue Jays, Blue Jays from Away (1 and 2) and Bluebird Banter each offered their thoughts.

 

The choices of who to remove and who to add are simultaneously separate and connected. With a full 40-man roster right now, the decision to add a prospect requires comparing their value to that of the player being removed.

 

Santiago Espinal for Breyvic Valera

This is the most obvious move of the bunch. Espinal’s most likely future is as a backup infielder, which is what Valera is. However, Espinal still has the upside to potentially be an everyday infielder. This move is a low risk bet on him.

 

Offensively, Espinal’s bread and butter is putting the ball in the air and avoiding whiffs. Those two skills put him on Carson Cistulli’s radar back in May 2018 and not much has changed since.

 

Over 409 plate appearances at Double-A this season, Espinal produced a 36.3% groundball rate and a 6.9% swinging strike rate, marks that ranked in the 81st and 94th percentiles (min. 100 PA). Only seven of the 458 qualified Double-A batters posted a combination of groundball and swinging strike rates that were better than Espinal’s. Following his promotion to Triple-A, he posted a 35% groundball rate (83rd percentile) and a 9% swinging strike rate (75th percentile) over 112 plate appearances. Only 16 of 499 qualified Triple-A batters posted a better combination than Espinal.

 

These qualities have helped Espinal maintain above-average production at the plate at every single full-season level. While he has struggled to consistently produce extra-base hits, his generally low strikeout rate and solid BABIP have allowed him to provide value as an on-base guy. However, given his ability to hit balls in the air, one wonders what kind of power numbers he might post in the MLB.

 

Importantly, Espinal has a track record of decent defence at shortstop, key for a backup infielder. At second base, his primary position since joining the Blue Jays system last summer, Espinal has been an above-average performer—he produced 9 fielding runs above average (FRAA) over 71 games in 2019, between Double- and Triple-A.

 

Add Thomas Hatch

I feel confident saying that Thomas Hatch should be protected from a Rule 5 selection. Statistically, his Double-A performance since joining the Blue Jays was excellent—34 strikeouts against only two walks says it all. Importantly, there’s an underlying reason to think his improved performance since joining from the Cubs’ system is legit: he added a cutter to his repertoire.

 

The scouting evaluations back up the numbers-based optimism. In FanGraphs’ most recent update, they assigned Hatch at least a 50 present value grade on his fastball, curveball, changeup, cutter and command. Only one other pitcher currently on the FanGraphs’ prospect board has 50 or better PV grades on four pitches and their command: their tenth-ranked prospect, Brendan McKay.

 

It is not hard to see why a team might take a chance on Hatch having the quality to stick on their MLB roster in 2020.

 

Drop Richard Ureña

Deciding who to drop to open a spot for Hatch was not easy. The obvious move would be to drop a pitcher. However, when I scan the long list of pitchers on the Blue Jays’ 40-man, I don’t see one that feels like an obvious cut. Of the 23 pitchers, there are those I feel are likely to make the Opening Day rotation (Chase Anderson, Ryan Borucki and Matt Shoemaker) and bullpen (Jason Adam, Anthony Bass, Wilmer Font, Sam Gaviglio, Ken Giles, Derek Law and Justin Shafer); those starters that will be in Buffalo, waiting for an opportunity (Anthony Kay, Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack and T.J. Zeuch); those whose days as starters are over (or just about over), but who have relief potential (Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley and Jordan Romano); the near-term starting prospects (Yennsy Diaz, Elvis Luciano, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy and Hector Perez); and Tim Mayza. That said, I understand if another set of eyes can see one or more guys worth cutting.

 

Instead of dropping a pitcher, I’d drop Ureña. He’s out of options, so if he’s not on the Jays’ 25-man Opening Day roster, he’d need to pass through waivers. Should he be on the 25-man roster in 2020? I don’t think so. He’s been a consistently below-average hitter from Double-A to Triple-A to the majors. With that offensive profile, above-average defence across the infield is a must and he just hasn’t shown that.

 

Dropping a second middle infielder (after Valera) is admittedly risky, but the organization seems high on Espinal and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was the Opening Day backup infielder. It’s worth noting that Steamer projects Espinal to be the superior hitter in 2020 (74 wRC+ vs. Ureña’s 65 wRC+).

 

The Relievers

A number of relievers with Double- or Triple-A experience are Rule 5 eligible this winter. Their cases have each been well-discussed in the posts I linked to above. It’s a batch of relievers without any must-protect guys, but a number of guys one can see being taken if exposed, including a handful of interesting lefties (Travis Bergen, Kirby Snead and Jake Fishman) and hard-throwing righties (Jackson McClelland, Bryan Baker and Dany Jimenez), among others. I’d probably roll the dice and leave them unprotected, but I also understand why others (including the Jays front office) may feel it best to protect one or two of them (namely Bergen, given the need for a lefty in the bullpen with Mayza out for the season).

 

The Case of Forrest Wall

Wall had a good season at Double-A in 2019. He mixed decent plate discipline with effective contact to run one of the better on-base percentages in the Eastern League (.353, seventh-best among 60 qualified batters). Plus, he hit for a little bit of power (.149 ISO) and produced 9 FRAA playing in centre field.

 

As Ryan Mueller pointed out, Wall could opt for free agency if he’s not added to the 40-man, like Harold Ramirez did last season after a strong Double-A campaign. As such, the decision is about more than protecting him from the Rule 5 draft. [Author’s Note: Upon further research, Wall will not be a free agent until next Winter. MiLB free agency is granted after six full seasons, which does not include any partial-season assignment in the Summer a player was drafted.]

 

Whether or not he should be added basically comes down to what one thinks of his potential relative to that of Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford and Billy McKinney. If you feel that Wall is clearly fourth-best in that group, leaving him exposed is the right choice. I’m not so sure.

 

Alford is beloved among Jays fans, but he hasn’t been an effective hitter since 2017 and is out of options. Davis has the better recent performance, but has never been viewed as a future major leaguer by evaluators. McKinney has posted a .200-plus ISO over his MLB career, but strikes out a ton and is an average-at-best corner outfielder.

 

Davis would probably be the most logical candidate for a DFA should the Jays choose to keep Wall. That said, Alford is out of options and doesn’t have a clear opportunity in a crowded 2020 Toronto outfield that could end up even more crowded by a hypothetical external addition. Ultimately, I think the Wall decision will be a tougher one than most expect. [Author’s Note: In spite of the fact that Wall cannot declare free agency for another year, I still think adding Wall to the 40-man should be given serious consideration. Obviously, the need to add him is not quite as high as it would have been if he were able to declare free agency in the coming weeks.]

 

Concluding Thoughts

So, to sum up, I think Santiago Espinal and Thomas Hatch are the two players most in need of Rule 5 protection. In order to make room for them on the 40-man roster, I feel comfortable cutting Breyvic Valera and Richard Ureña. There are probably six relievers that one can make a strong case for adding, but I ultimately feel okay leaving them unprotected, as none seem like obvious draft pickups. Finally, I think adding Forrest Wall to the 40-man roster for an outfielder might be the right move, particularly as he could opt for free agency.

 

It’s worth noting that any external additions, expected to include at least multiple pitchers (between starters and relievers) and a first baseman, would require further 40-man moves. There is, however, some flexibility as to what those moves would be—trades involving a player (or players) from the 40-man would not necessarily require any further cuts, while a free agent signing probably would (unless an earlier trade opened up an extra spot).

 

 

 

 

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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.