The Blue Jays face more 40-man roster decisions than they have in some time ahead of the roster freeze that comes in late November prior to December’s Rule 5 draft.
The Rule 5 has been in the spotlight for the past several years, and truth be told, probably gets more attention than it deserves; few teams are adding crucial pieces to World Series-contending puzzles at the draft, but it does force teams to make some hard decisions about players they’ve been developing.
The Blue Jays’ potential dilemma this year comes from several angles. At the moment, there are only two pending openings on the 40, depending on what happens with free-agents-to-be Marco Estrada and Tyler Clippard, but those two vacancies may be quickly swallowed up by the addition of P Julian Mayweather, slated to come to Toronto from Cleveland in the Josh Donaldson deal, and (if and when) SS Troy Tulowitzki comes off the 60-Day DL. In addition, several players who have been added to the 40 this fall (Dwight Smith Jr, Jose Fernandez, Justin Shafer, and Jonathan Davis) were given auditions in September in an attempt to determine their long-term futures with the club. On top of that, there is a wealth of talent bubbling up from the minors that the club will have to factor in when determining their final 40-man.
Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins admitted this week that the club may lose a player or two to the Rule 5. He may have to be creative in opening up roster space – the club has only two options they could decline, one being Justin Smoak (not going to happen) and Yangervis Solarte (could very well happen). Another route is non-tendering arbitration-eligible players – we’re looking at you, Kevin Pillar. Atkins may have to consider packaging several players currently on the 40 to teams with roster space to help alleviate the crunch the Blue Jays are facing.
A very quick primer for those new to the Rule 5
Baseball has had rules in place for over 70 years to keep teams from hoarding minor league talent. The Rule 5 draft forces teams to make decisions about players who have been in their system for several seasons. Player signed at 19 or older (typically college players) and who have played four or more seasons are eligible for the Rule 5 if not placed on the team’s 40 by the November deadline, and players signed at 18 or younger (high schoolers, international free agents) who have played five years are eligible as well.
Teams that draft a player must pay $100K for his rights; if they fail to keep him on their 25-man roster for the entire following season, they must offer him back to his original team for half that price. Many teams use spring training as a tire-kicking exercise on these players. The Blue Jays have a lengthy history in the Rule 5, drafting players like George Bell, Kelly Gruber, Jim Acker, and Manny Lee. With the change in roster composition over the past several decades, teams rarely can afford to stash a young player at the end of their bench, and the Blue Jays have not often been Rule 5 players as a result. One of the exceptions, of course, was Joe Biagini, who was a revelation in the Toronto bullpen two years ago.
Prospects On the Bubble
Again, for the newbies – don’t worry about Vlad and Bo. Neither has to be placed on the 40 until a year from now, by which time both will have long since likely been added. The tough decisions the Blue Jays face are on players who are not necessarily top prospects, but have potential value just the same.
These are players who actually were eligible a year ago, but were deemed too risky either due to injuries or the fact that they were too far away. That may not be the case this year with:
RHP Patrick Murphy – Murphy has a lengthy injury history, but has been healthy for the past two seasons. He led the Florida State League in strikeouts, and hit 100 on the radar gun this year. Scouts suggests he needs to refine his change-up to go with his fastball and hammer curve, but he’s unlikely to make it through the Rule 5 if he’s not added to the 40.
C Max Pentecost – the Blue Jays faced a huge decision with Pentecost last fall, but placed him on the DL after the Arizona Fall League ended, and that was enough to scare teams off. Pentecost had a strong second half, but more importantly, he was healthy enough to be behind the plate for 90 games this year. He hasn’t necessarily proved he can be an everyday MLB player, but he has shown enough to tantalize. His future may be one of the Blue Jays’ toughest decisions.
P Jordan Romano – the GTA native started the Eastern League All Star Game, and got the ball in the final game of New Hampshire’s title-winning game. Romano’s change-up grew by leaps and bounds this year, but still has some room to grow. If left off the 40 this year, some teams may be tempted to do a Biagini-like conversion with him.
P Travis Bergen – the lefty reliever was lights out for Vancouver in their run to a league title in 2017, and filled the same role for New Hampshire this season. Bergen has an injury history himself, but he will be quickly scooped up if he’s exposed to the Rule 5.
P Hector Perez – acquired in the Roberto Osuna deal, Perez has an electric arm, but inconsistent arm. His stuff would likely play up in a bullpen role.
P Jon Harris – the 2015 1st rounder had a remarkable second-half turnaround, adding some velo and deception to his delivery. The jury is still out on his ability to turn an MLB lineup over one day, but scouts no doubt took notice of the velo uptick. He’s a longshot at this point.
P Yennsy Diaz – armed with a mid 90s fastball, Diaz has one of the most exciting arms in the system. He’s also only pitched one full season, splitting this year between Lansing and Dunedin, so teams may give him a pass if he’s left off the 40.
P Corey Copping – Copping came over in the deal with the Dodgers for John Axford, and fanned 20 hitters in 14 innings for New Hampshire, then another 6 in the 3 playoff IP. Copping fills the strike zone, and probably won’t make it through the Rule 5.
OF Harold Ramirez – the Eastern League batting champ can play all three OF positions. He could add some offence and versatility to a team, but he’s also played three years at AA. He’s a low risk of being selected in the Rule 5, but he’s worked his way into the discussion this year.
P Danny Young – Young could become next year’s Aaron Loup. A side-winding southpaw, Young doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he held Eastern League left-handed hitters to a .217 average.
P Jackson McClelland – after helping to lead Dunedin to a FSL co-championship last year, McClelland could well have expected to head north with the core of that club to New Hampshire. He didn’t, and spent some time on the DL early in the season. By June, McClelland was hitting his stride, and by the summer was routinely hitting 100. His fastball can be a little straight, and his command off at times, but it looked more and more like the Blue Jays were stashing him in High A with the Rule 5 in mind until a late-season promotion to New Hampshire. He may be a longshot to make the Blue Jays’ 40 at the moment, but a strong Arizona showing might change the team’s mind, or with teams always looking for bullpen help, make him a potential Rule 5 sleeper. This tweet by scout.com’s Jeff Ellis, one of our favourite evaluators, sums up McClelland perfectly:
Jackson McClelland making people go wow in the box. Big kid, with big heat, and a really hard to spot release. Control issues but big time potential arm
— jeff ellis (@jeffMLBdraft) September 13, 2018
And no discussion about the Blue Jays 40 man roster can be complete without a few words about Dalton Pompey. The Mississauga had another sideways season in 2018, and was not added to the active roster in September, which probably gives broad hints about his future. Pompey will be out of options next spring, and given the roster crunch the team currently faces, he likely won’t be a Blue Jay for much longer.