There’s this story about a young pitcher whose team had no choice but to expose him to the Rule 5 draft. They rolled the dice and lost, with another team scooping him up. The young pitcher was hit hard in spring training, and was used mostly in a mop-up role, compiling a 6.49 ERA while his team went on to lose 93 games.
Ok, it’s a reach about as long as Bryce Harper’s second homer yesterday to comp Elvis Luciano to Johan Santana, but the comments about him on social media suggest that the Blue Jays made a huge mistake in selecting him, have set his development back, etc, especially with Travis Bergen pitching well and looking like a lock to break camp with the Giants. I’m not one to try to cover for the Blue Jays, and while Luciano was lit up by the heart of the Braves order earlier this week, given the injury updates of yesterday, he still has to be considered in the mix for a spot at the front of the Blue Jays bullpen.
Look – I was as sad as anyone to see Bergen go. As someone who watched him pitch the final days of Vancouver’s championship run two years ago and a great deal of his work over the final weeks of New Hampshire’s 2018 winning season, I’ve always admired his ability to command his pitches and dodge barrels. He’s not the hardest-throwing guy in the world, but his ability to mix pitches and a bit of a deceptive delivery has allowed him to close out games successfully at every level. The Blue Jays must have felt that his stuff might not be enough to get MLB hitters out, or that they had enough depth on the left side (or could find replacements on the open market). Let’s face it – even if Bergen earned a berth with the Blue Jays this year (unlikely, at least at the start of the season), the Blue Jays are still likely headed to a 90 loss season, even with Vlad Jr likely to join the team when he’s healthy.
There are those who suggest that the Blue Jays are hindering Luciano’s development by having him get pounded at spring training, and that is a valid concern. Maybe they’re testing his character to see how he responds to adversity for the first time in his career, maybe Charlie Montoyo was running out of arms, but you have to keep one thing in mind – this is a front office that doesn’t cross the street without consulting multiple traffic reports first. In addition to the scouting reports they had on Luciano, they certainly compiled notes on his character. Management wasn’t naive enough to not see this pounding coming – they may have wanted to see how he responded.
One of the reasons Bergen was left exposed to the Rule 5 is that injuries had taken away a huge chunk (the better part of two seasons) of his development time. If not for those two lost years, he most likely would’ve made his MLB debut by now. Luciano was available because of technicality. Bergen is a college grad who has been in pro ball since 2015; Luciano is 19, has only a pair of pro seasons behind him, and hasn’t pitched above short-season ball. Bergen projects as a lefty specialist, while Luciano’s long-term future is in the starting rotation.
The Blue Jays will have to offer Luciano back to the Royals for half his draft price if he fails to stick on the big league roster. Maybe the two sides are working on a deal which would allow Luciano to stay with the Blue Jays, but permit them to send him to the minors, which would be the best possible scenario, although one the Royals would be hard-pressed to agree to. Luciano checks a lot of boxes for the Blue Jays: clean, athletic delivery, an innings-eater frame, feel for pitching, room for added velo, and a potential lineup-turning-over mix of pitches. Clearly, as the youngest player in the Rule 5, he’s overmatched at MLB spring training, and it’s probably the days in between outings, when he works with coaches Pete Walker and Matt Buschmann, that will determine whether the team elects to keep him.
There’s no avoiding it- the Blue Jays bullpen is a shambles right now. Axford and Tepera are likely out for an extended period, and even Bud Norris was scratched from his scheduled outing. In their assessment of his long-term viability, Luciano’s performance this spring is likely at the bottom of their metrics. He’s not a replacement for Bergen, nor was he meant to be. If the Blue Jays do keep him, they’re willing to live with the ups and downs that are probable this year.