Blue Jays Face Many Decisions Ahead of Rule 5

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.

 2017 Eligibles

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.

2018 Eligibles

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:

 

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.

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Blue Jays Minor League All-Star Team

Catcher – Danny Jansen  .275/.390/.473 (MiLB numbers)

Jansen solidified his label as the Blue Jays Catcher of the Future with a good season on both sides of the plate, and earned a late season call up as a result.

Jansen has long been lauded for his leadership skills, and his ability to handle a Pitching staff.  Over the last two years, he’s added a potent bat, and vastly improved blocking skills to go along with the tools he already has behind the plate, which include being able to set a good low target, and excellent framing skills.

With Reese McGuire joining him in more than a day game after a night game role, the Blue Jays will be able to keep Jansen’s bat in the lineup on occasion while giving him a day off from Catching duties in 2019.  Barring injury, the team appears set at this position well into the next decade.

1B Ryan Noda  .256/.421/.484

After a disappointing draft year showing, Noda slipped to the Jays in the 15th round last June.  He led the Appalachian League in OPS, and continued his on-base ways in Lansing this year.

Noda led the minors in walks with 109, and his ABs continued to be a sight to see.  Eschewing batting gloves, Noda grinds out plate appearances, plain and simple.  His 20 HRs were 2nd best in the Midwest League, as were his 80 RBI.

With Kacy Clemens in the lineup for the first six weeks of the season, Noda had to split time with him at 1B, heading to LF when Clemens had a turn at First.  His defensive skills in the Outfield were a work in progress –  his numbers improved once Clemens was promoted to Dunedin, and Noda became a fulltime First Baseman.  He finished the season in a flurry, posting a 1.130 OPS in August.

Noda will no doubt continue to work the count at High A next year, but he may have to become more aggressive.  When he works the counts, he sometimes becomes vulnerable to off speed pitches on the outside edge of the plate.  Pitchers with better command at higher levels may be able to exploit that.

2B  Cavan Biggio  .252/.388/.499

Biggio increased his SwStr% and Flyball rate last year in an obvious attempt to add some loft to the ball, but the humidity and Pitcher-friendly Florida State League ballparks conspired to keep many of his long balls short of the fences.

This year, he’s broken out in a big way.  Biggio led the Eastern League in Homers, Slugging OPS.  He also led the league in walks, and just missed leading in strikeouts, almost winning the three true outcome title.

Biggio played three infield positions, finding himself most often at 2nd this year (68 games).  The Blue Jays also experimented with him in the Outfield late in the season, and will continue his trial there in the Arizona Fall League.

SS Kevin Smith  .302/.358/.528

Smith was regarded as a glove-first SS when the Blue Jays took him in the 4th round last year, and that label seemed apt after a .271/.312/.466 season with Bluefield.

Except that if there’s one thing that drives Smith, it’s proving the doubters wrong.

An ardent student of the game and diligent worker, Smith set about last off-season to eliminate a loop in his swing in an attempt to catch up to high fastballs, and to improve his two strike approach.  The changes paid off, as Smith dominated at Lansing, and earned a late May promotion to Dunedin.

Smith is probably the best defensive SS in the Blue Jays system – a clear evaluation on that is admittedly difficult.  He split time at 3B and SS at Lansing, then played in the online streaming black hole that is the FSL for the rest of the year.

One thing is certain – Smith has worked his way onto the Blue Jays top prospect list.  He is very likely to stick at SS,

3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr  .381/.437/.636

The easiest choice by far.  Not only did Guerrero have an offensive minor league season for the ages (possibly the best in Blue Jays prospect history), he made tremendous strides with his defence.  While he may not supplant Brooks Robinson one day in terms of reputation, he has built on the skills he already displayed in abundance at the hot corner:   footwork, sure hands, and a strong accurate arm.  Guerrero has been working on his first step reactions, and this play demonstrates the progress he’s made:

 

OF – Harold Ramirez  .320/.365/.471

Ramirez may have been in the shadow of more illustrious teammates this year like Gurriel, Guerrero, Bichette, and Biggio, but he was one of the most consistent hitters in New Hampshire’s lineup, winning an Eastern League batting title.  In his third go round at AA after injuries interrupted his 2017 season, Ramirez was among the league leaders in Total Bases and Slugging.

Where does Ramirez fit in a now crowded Blue Jays Outfield situation?  That’s hard to say, but his versatility and bat could help him force his way into the picture sometime next year.

OF Chavez Young .285/.363/.445

From 39th round pick to near Top 10 prospect in three seasons is a remarkable journey. Young was the only player in the minors this year with 50+ extra base hits and 40+ steals, demonstrating his power-speed potential.

At the plate, Young has a solid approach, and demonstrated that this year with a career-high walk rate.  A plus defender who can play all three OF positions, Young was a solid presence at the plate and in the field for Lansing this summer.  There are still some aspects of rawness to his game, but he smoothed off a lot of the rough edges in his first year of full season ball.

OF  Cal Stevenson

Firmly entrenched at the top of Bluefield’s lineup, the 10th round pick led the Appy League in runs, walks, and OBP, and was second in Average and Stolen Bases.  He was the catalyst in a lineup that nearly reached the Appy finals.

Ut – Otto Lopez  .308/.399/.406

Easily Vancouver’s most valuable player, Lopez can play the OF, as well as 2B/SS/3B.  He runs the bases well, and is a smart, high baseball-IQ player.

RH Starter – Patrick Murphy

Finally healthy for a full season for the first time in several years, Murphy was dominant in the Florida State League, leading the loop in Ks, and a nearly 60% GB rate indicates that when FSL hitters weren’t swinging and missing at this pitches, they had trouble squaring him up.

LH Starter – Zach Logue  12-4 3.15 ERA .259 OBA

Logue started the year at Lansing, and was promoted in May to Dunedin.  Not an overpowering Pitcher, he relies on command and a four-pitch mix to keep hitters off-balance, which he did for much of the year.  He uses his fastball to get ahead, and then relies on his improving secondaries to finish batters off.

RP – Travis Bergen  4-2 0.95 ERA .200 OBA

Another Pitcher who was finally healthy for a full season, Bergen was lights out at two levels in relief.  Moved up to New Hampshire after starting the year in Dunedin, the left-hander fanned 74 hitters in 59 innings at the two levels.  Bergen does not approach triple digits, but has command of all of his pitches – he surrendered only 15 walks this season.

DH – Alejandro Kirk .354/.443/.558 

Kirk came within 3 feet of tying up what proved to be the deciding game of Bluefield’s semifinal playoff matchup with the Rays Princeton affiliate, but his game travelled a long way this season.

Coming into the season, Kirk was a C/DH (with emphasis on the latter) was a fairly unknown commodity.  A late September signing in 2016, the Mexican had all of 2 ABs in the GCL in 2017 before being assigned to Bluefield this season.  Kirk busted out in a big way, and was named the Appy All Star DH.  With starting Catcher Hagen Danner in an out of the lineup with injuries, Kirk stepped in and from all accounts handled himself well.

Kirk swings hard and seldom gets cheated at the plate.  He put up gaudy numbers at a Low Level, so he comes with the usually cautions as he moves up.  That bat holds considerable promise, however.

B.C Product Bouchey Aims for the Big Leagues

brayden_bouchey_june_20_nbd
csplusbaseball.com/Niall O’Donohoe photo

The Blue Jay selected RHP Brayden Bouchey, a product of the Vancouver-area tourist hub of White Rock (seconds from the U.S. border), in the 33rd round of the 2016 draft from Louisiana-Monroe.

A starter for most of his two seasons at ULM, Bouchey was moved to the bullpen after the draft.  After a solid pro debut at Bluefield last year in which he fanned 33% of the hitters he faced, Bouchey had an up-and-down first half of the season pitching for Vancouver, but had a lights-out second half and playoff that bodes well for his future.

We caught up to Bouchey as he came home from a workout.  Like most minor leaguers, he has to balance getting his training in with a part-time job.

While in high school, Bouchey pitched for the Langley Blaze, a travel team that has had 34 players drafted by MLB since 2001, and whose alumni include Scott Mathieson, Tyson Gillies, and Brett Lawrie.  Playing for the Blaze exposed Bouchey to a number of U.S schools at showcase events in Arizona, and it was at one of those showcases that he got connected to Odessa, a Junior College in West Texas.  After a year at Odessa, however, Bouchey was looking for a change:

I went there for a year, but there was a coaching change, and it just wasn’t challenging enough for me, and I figured I would put some feelers out there if I could get a scholarship after just a year of JC, and I was lucky enough that I ended up talking to the pitching coach at Louisiana Monroe (a school in the Sun Belt Conference)…………it just worked out from there.

Bouchey had a successful sophomore season at Louisiana-Monroe, and an even more successful summer, where he was a Great Lakes Summer League All Star and Pitcher of the Year.  Bouchey was the ace of the Warhawks’ rotation (he threw a pair of 12-strikeout games that year), but he ran out of gas and his draft stock tumbled:

I was talking to  couple of teams….but then I started struggling mid-way through the season, and didn’t have the finish to the season that I wanted, so I think that dropped my stock….but I had continued to talk to the Blue Jays – Gerald Turner was the scout, he had seen me pitch a few times when I was in Texas, so I was talking to him throughout the draft, and I was lucky enough to get drafted by the team I grew up watching.

Bouchey knew that being drafted by the Blue Jays meant that he would likely spend some time playing in his hometown:

Going into the draft, I knew there was a slim shot I would get sent to Vancouver that first year…..going into Spring Training this year, I knew that was the most likely situation.

Pitching in Vancouver was an affair the whole Bouchey family became part of:

Being so far away the last four years, not a whole lot of my whole extended family or friends have been able to see me pitch….it was awesome in that aspect – get to do it for the people who supported me.

Both my parents came to every home game….one of my sisters lives in London, England, and the other is going to school in Windsor, Ontario, so they both got to come back for a bit and saw me play a couple of games….I have a lot of family on Vancouver Island, and they made the ferry ride over….my dad’s side of the family is local, so they were able to get to a lot of games.

But playing in front of all of those familiar eyes, Bouchey came to learn, was something of a distraction.  He admits that he may have pressed too much in trying to impress the home fans:

This year……I didn’t have my usual mindset – I put pressure on myself, I have high expectations of myself to being with, and pitching in front of people that I know, I think I didn’t stick to my strengths on the mound….it sucks to fail, but now I know what works for me – I didn’t go through any mechanical changes, it was just pitch selection, then I started locating better, started throwing my curve for strikes more often.

But starting with a July 21st outing, Bouchey began to rely on his fastball and his curve, and NWL hitters had trouble squaring him up:  over his next 14 appearances, Bouchey gave up runs in only two of them, as he became a trusted middle relief arm in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen.

It was great to be one of the guys out of the pen down the stretch and in the playoffs. We lost a bunch of our top guys out of the bullpen who moved up to Lansing earlier in the year, to see it work out and the bullpen guys have success was pretty cool.  

In the playoffs, Bouchey was perfect.  In three outings, he tossed 6 perfect frames, fanning 9.  His three-inning, nine-up, nine-down work in Game One of the final vs Eugene settled things down after the C’s had scored 4 in the top of the 5th to take the lead, a game they would go on to win and help them gain a split in the series before returning home.  Bouchey’s two perfect frames in the 7th and 8th in Game Four propelled Vancouver onto the league title.

As befits an accounting major, Bouchey is quite analytical, and credited the C’s coaching staff for giving the team the rest they needed to stay sharp for the final, especially after the long bus ride back to Vancouver for Game 4, played the day after Game Three in Eugene:

It wasn’t ideal to be on a bus for 10 hours, but I think the coaching staff did a good job of realizing that wasn’t an easy thing to do…we still did BP, but coming down the stretch,  there wasn’t as much mandatory early work….pitcher’s conditioning was optional in the final series….if you’ve been doing it all year, four days off at the end isn’t going to kill you…I think as a team and as a coaching staff they did a good job of managing how much work we put in before games.

And on Pitching in Nat Bailey Stadium, a Pitcher-friendly park, where the sea-level air tends to keep balls in play that might fly out of other places:

Vancouver is different from a lot of other parks in the league.  The ball doesn’t fly as well…it’s go different dimensions than most fields.  The ball doesn’t fly out to right or centre very well.  Our team did a good job of adjusting to that and learning how to play at that field early in the year.  Kacy Clemens said it pretty well, that it’s always in the back of a hitter’s mind that playing in theat park you’re not going to have power numbers as good as other guys.

At 6’6″ Bouchey gets a good downward plane on his fastball.  He pounded the bottom of the strike zone in the Game One win against Eugene – so much so that it was easy to assume that he throws a two-seamer.  Such is not the case:

I don’t throw a 2-seam….it’s just natural run and downhill plane from my release point and getting on top of the ball….my bread-and-butter is my curveball, and down the stretch I only threw those two.  At the start of the season, I was working on a slider, but it just doesn’t fit into my pitch repertoire as well, because I can throw my curve and fastball off of each other because the spin is the same….the difference on the curve is because of the top spin.  I throw a change every once in a while…it’s not as consistent as I’d like it to be, but it has taken good strides in the last year…I’m starting to get the feel for it.

With an over-the-top delivery, Bouchey gets some deception with the late release point caused by his size.  His curve is thrown from the same arm slot, and profiles as a potentially plus pitch, because it keeps hitters from sitting on that fastball.  With two strikes, he can elevate the fastball to generate swings and misses.  Bouchey’s fastball sits at 88-92, and his curve offers good separation at 78-80.  Things that stood out about his 2017 season, despite the slow start:  a 14.4% swinging strike rate, a 50% groundball rate, and a line drive rate of only 10% (a league low for Pitchers with over 30 IP).  Hitters had a difficult time elevating the ball on him.

Bouchey is looking forward to full season ball next year, and is hopeful of skipping a level to Dunedin – with the arms ahead of him, and with decent fellow Vancouver relievers like Travis Bergen, Orlando Pascual, and William Ouellette in camp, that may be a tall order.  But he is developing into an OTTO – a once-through-the-order guy who can give a team multiple innings before turning things over to the back of the pen.   If he can carry the success from 2017 over to next season, even if he starts at Lansing, he doesn’t promise to be there long.  The traditional track for relievers has been along the failed-starter path, but there seems to be a new trend – some teams are beginning to stockpile guys who fit the relief model, and allowing them to further develop their stuff in the low minors.  The Blue Jays are one of those teams, and Bouchey may be part of a wave that hits Toronto in 2019 or 2020.

Blue Jays Breakout Pitching Prospect Candidates

Trying to determine which Pitching prospects in the organization might have a breakout season in 2018 is more difficult than it is for position players.

This administration has proven that they’re not afraid of promoting relievers to multiple levels over the course of the season, but with pitch limits a factor, they’re more conservative with starters.  A season like Kendall Graveman’s  (5) or Daniel Norris’  (4) in 2014, when both pitched at a number of levels, just doesn’t seem likely with this management group.

There are several Pitchers who could break through this season, however:

RHP T.J. Zeuch

Zeuch is an obvious candidate to have a break out season.  Shut down in May with shoulder soreness, he injured a hamstring during rehab, and didn’t return until August.

He rebounded nicely during Arizona Fall League play, getting the start in the championship game.  Zeuch’s featured pitch is a bowling ball sinker, which he gets a great downward plane on.  When he is locating that pitch, hitters have an extremely difficult time squaring him up.

Zeuch will start the season in AA, and if he stays healthy, could move up fairly quickly.  He could even find himself in the back of the Blue Jays rotation later in the season.

Emerson Jimenez RHP

   Originally signed as an IF by the Rockies, he reached AA in his sixth year in the organization this year.  After posting a .238/.267/.305 line in his career, the Rockies released him in mid-May.   He decided to give Pitching a try, and the Blue Jays signed him a month later.

Sent to the Gulf Coast League, Jimenez regularly hit 99 with his fastball, and the complex league hitters were no match for him, as he fanned 15 in 9 innings.  Exposed to the Rule 5 draft, there was even speculation that a team might take him earlier this month.

While that would have been a huge leap for a team, it shows how valued Jimenez’ arm is, and the Blue Jays will likely challenge him this season.  Improving his command and developing a second pitch will be necessary for Jimenez to get hitters out at higher levels.  While he may start the season in Extended, it’s not hard to see Jimenez move quickly through the system, and the Blue Jay may have another difficult 40-man decision to make with him next fall.

Justin Maese RHP

Maese reached full season ball in only his second pro season in 2016, but a shoulder problem and command issues led to a sideways 2017.

When he’s healthy, Maese pounds the bottom of the strike zone, and keeps hitters off-balance with a three pitch mix.  He experienced an uptick in velocity this year, touching 97.   An excellent athlete, Maese repeats his delivery and fields his position well.

Maese missed all of June and July, and was shut down for the season after his second start in August.  He will likely begin the season under the watchful eyes of the team’s medical staff at Dunedin.  A return to health, finding his command again, and maintaining that increase in velo would allow Maese to move up in a hurry.

Bouchey
Brayden Bouchey Twitter photo

Travis Bergen LHP/Brayden Bouchey RHP

Bergen missed most of his first two pro seasons after being drafted in 2015, and didn’t begin his 2017 season until late July.  He was a mainstay in Manager Rich Miller’s bullpen down the stretch and in the playoffs, and both he and White Rock, BC native Bouchey were  lights out in relief.

Bergen formerly had a cross-fire delivery, but his mechanics are now more conventional.  He throws 92-94, with a slider that shows great depth.  The 6’6″ Bouchey throws from an over-the-top delivery, giving him a good downward plane on all of his pitches.  His size gives him some late life on his fastball – Bouchey has fanned over 30% of the hitters he’s faced in two minor league seasons.

Both should begin the season in Lansing’s bullpen.  If they pitched like they did over the last month of the season, neither will be there for long.