Toronto Blue Jays and some Pre-Rule-5 Opportunities

Teams have to set their 40-man rosters for purposes of the December Rule 5 draft by November 20.  Might this create trade opportunities for the Blue Jays?

The Rule 5 draft is held every year in mid-December.  Teams are allowed to select players from other organizations that are (a) eligible to be taken and (b) not on the other organization’s 40-man roster.  The 40-man rosters for this exercise must be set in advance (in 2019, the deadline is November 20) and can generally not be changed after that date.

For most organizations, the 40-man roster is sufficient to protect all of the players on their major league roster and all of their “top” prospects.  But occasionally a team has such a deep minor league system that setting the November 40-man is problematic: they are forced to leave valuable players off the 40-man, and risk losing them for only marginal cash considerations.

Teams are aware of this issue, and frequently plan ahead to minimize it.  For example, it has been speculated that the only reason the Jays were able to get Thomas Hatch (a promising young pitcher) from the Cubs for David Phelps at the 2019 trade deadline was that Hatch was Rule-5 eligible in 2019 and the Cubs were worried that they might not have room for him.  But even so, teams can find themselves in a November crunch.  A team like the Jays could exploit this crunch during the Rule 5 draft, by taking a player in whom they see upside (both George Bell and Jose Bautista were Rule 5 claims).  Or they could exploit the situation before the draft, by offering to trade for these “unloved” players, thus giving their teams some return for their loss.

The disadvantage of trading for players pre-Rule-5 is of course that you likely have to give something more than cash for them.  But the advantage is that they only need to be put on the 40-man (unless you want to risk losing them yourself) – not on the 26-man for essentially the full season.

The players available under such a strategy usually come with issues (if they did not, they would be protected).  Trading for them would be a gamble.  But, for a team in the Jays’ current position, could it be an intelligent gamble?

Here are a few of the players who could potentially be available.

Anderson Espinoza, Padres

Prior to 2017, Espinoza was considered a top prospect (#21 overall by Baseball America).  But things went rapidly downhill.  Elbow discomfort led to Tommy John surgery in August 2017, which caused him to miss all of 2018.  Returning in 2019, he damaged his arm again, requiring a second Tommy John (!) which will likely cause him to miss most of 2020.  As fangraphs puts it:

Espinoza has front-end stuff but even if it returns, he’ll have missed three years of reps that he desperately needed to polish his below-average control, increasing the likelihood that he’s a reliever or backend starter.

Would the Jays be willing to do another Elvis Luciano maneuver – burning a slot on the mlb 26-man roster – for a young pitcher with high upside but even higher risk?

Jorge Oña, Padres

Jorge was signed by the Pads out of Cuba for $7 million in 2016, largely for his hitting potential.  He has so far failed to achieve that upside, being described as having “a perfectly fine collection of average tools“.  But he had a minor epiphany in 2019, hitting to a 167 wRC+ (albeit with a .433 BABIP) in double-A.  Unfortunately for him, his season was cut short after only 103 PAs with season-ending shoulder surgery.

Jorge profiles as a corner outfielder, and is a marginal fielder, so his value would come from his bat.  It is entirely possible that his breakthrough 2019 is just a mirage – but is there enough of a possibility that he has finally realized his potential for a team like the Jays to take a chance?

Chance Adams, Yankees

Adams was considered a top-100 prospect coming into the 2018 season, based on a strong performance in 2017 in AAA.  But there were red flags – his 2.89 ERA was based on a 4.06 xFIP and on a .236 BABIP.  Sure enough, when he repeated AAA in 2018 his ERA ballooned to 4.78 (with a more reasonable .282 BABIP).  In his limited MLB action in 2018 and 2019 (32 IP) he has an 8.18 ERA with a 4.90 SIERA.

So why would the Jays be interested?  Adams is projected to have four 50-grade (i.e. MLB-average) pitches, and he could have upside.  His 2019 hard-hit percentage of 35% was excellent, and the juiced 2019 ball appears (?) to have affected him more than most.

Garrett Whitley, Tampa

Whitley is a familiar type for the Jays: he has high power potential, but struggles with strikeouts.  In 2019 (he missed most of 2018 with a shoulder injury) he had a 126 wRC+ in high-A ball, but struck out 37% of the time.  But there are also causes for optimism.  Whitley plays centre field, and his 60-grade speed and 55-grade arm could let him stay there.  He also has a better eye that you would expect from a 37% strikeout machine, with a 14.1% walk rate.

Like many of these players, Whitley would be a gamble.  He has 55 grade raw power, with 60-grade upside, but is only currently hitting at a 30-grade pace (he had 10 HRs in 439 PAs in 2019).  And, having missed all of 2018, he still has room to grow.  If (big if) he could tap into that raw power and return his K% to his 2015-2017 level of 25-29%, he could be something special.  And at age 23 in 2020, he could be MLB-ready as soon as 2021.  High upside, high risk – would the Jays want to invest in that lottery ticket?

Yadier Álvarez, Dodgers

Alvarez has been described as “the owner of some of the most dastardly stuff in the minors, which he generates with absurd ease“.  But a combination of injuries (he pitched a total of 59 innings in 2018 and 19), underperformance (a 4.82 / 4.22 xFIP over those years), and souring team relations (he was placed on the restricted list for unspecified “disciplinary reasons” in September) has caused many L.A. writers to suggest that he be moved.

Clearly, Yadier would be a high-risk acquisition.  But he has a 65 grade fastball, a 55 slider and a 55 curve with 60 upside.  Would it be worth taking the chance that, in a different organization with a different environment, he might be able to get his head (and health) together?  If a player like Whitley is high upside, high risk then Yadier would be uber-high upside and uber-high risk.

Next: Jays showing early interest in Odorizzi

The bottom line

Rather than wait for the November 20 deadline, the Jays should be actively negotiating with teams who face Rule 5 crunches (or other roster decisions) to see if they might be willing to move interesting assets at reasonable prices.

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