Blue Jays: Five Interesting Arms Available in Rule 5 Draft

The Blue Jays have a history of success with Rule 5 draft picks. As they continue their rebuild in 2020, which pitchers could they target for depth, especially if Ken Giles is traded?

Toronto GM Ross Atkins has promised fans a “competitive” team from 2021. So as the Jays continue to rebuild in 2020, their fifth selection in the Rule 5 Draft this December 12th in San Diego offers an opportunity to acquire overlooked talent.

Given ongoing trade talk around closer Ken Giles, the Rule 5 Draft is also a chance to acquire pitching depth. With question marks about the three remaining lefties on the 40-man roster, targeting a LHP makes sense as well.

With 26-man active rosters in 2020, rebuilding (and creative) teams may be more willing to carry an intriguing Rule 5 pick (or two) than in previous years. Given where they are in the competitive cycle, young teams like the Jays – who need pitching – might also risk stashing a power arm with promise.

There are lots of good Rule 5 prospect lists, from MLB Pipeline here, from Baseball America here and here, and from other sports sites here. Jays Journal contributor Jim Scott took an interesting look recently at some potential pre-Rule 5 draft trade opportunities here as well.

112 players were recently added to 40-man rosters to protect them from the Rule 5 Draft. However, 25 players currently listed amongst teams’ Top 30 prospects did not make the cut.

The consensus at Sportsnet, TSN and MLBTR is that Ken Giles will be traded, if not this offseason then at the July TDL. While unlikely to take over closing duties from Giles, could some late-inning heat from a Rule 5 arm add to the bullpen mix if triple-digit power arms Julian Merryweather and Jackson McClelland, already in the Blue Jays system, can ever catch lightning in a bottle?  Remember 20-year old rookie Roberto Osuna saved 20 games over 69 2/3 innings in 2015 after only 22 innings in high A ball in 2014!

Teams draft in reverse order of the regular-season standings, so the Jays will have the fifth selection. Note also that Toronto has no vacancies on its 40-man roster, so a player (or two) would need to be DFA’d before December 12th if they want to make any selection(s).

Five Interesting Rule 5 Arms

Below are five Rule 5 draft-eligible pitchers (and a wildcard pick) that might fit as relief depth or a left-handed arm. All became Rule 5 eligible for the first time this year (of course previously eligible players could still draw interest, but let’s assume GM Ross Atkins didn’t select them in previous years for a reason and is unlikely to now):

  1. LHP Thomas Burrows (25), Atlanta Braves. The #16 prospect on the Braves Top 30 list, the 6’1″ Burrows has missed bats with 11.6 Ks/9 in the minors but also needs to improve upon his 4.0 BB/9 (40-grade control). He has been nasty against left-handed hitters at times and had a 4.42 ERA and 1.25 WHIP over 57 innings at AA and AAA in 2019. The FA signing of Will Smith blocks him after an up and down 2019.
  2. LHP Brady Aiken (23), Cleveland Indians. Atkins is familiar with Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2015. The 6’4″ lefty was the #1 overall pick by Houston in 2014, but he didn’t sign after failing a post-draft physical. He underwent Tommy John surgery before the Indians took a chance on him, which caused him to miss his first pro year. He pitched 138 1/3 innings from 2016-17, but has been limited to two appearances in the past two years. He needs to recover 5-7 mph lost post-surgery.
  3. RHP Jordan Sheffield (24), Los Angeles Dodgers. The #26 prospect on LA’s Top 30, Sheffield is Mariner Justus Sheffield‘s older brother. His 98 mph fastball grades at 70, with a 60-grade curve, but 40-grade control and walks (7.0 BB/9 this year) have slowed him. A move to the bullpen in the 2018 AFL helped, with a high-90s fastball missing bats, and an effective change neutralizing lefties. In 2019, he had a 3.27 ERA, .168 opponent average and 74 Ks in 55 innings (12.1 Ks/9) with 13 saves between high A and AA.
  4. RHP Sterling Sharp (24), Washington Nationals. The #13 prospect on Washington’s Top 30, the 6’4″ righty has a plus sinker (avg spin rate ~1900 rpm) in the low 90s; his 59.7% ground-ball rate was best among qualified starters in the Nats’ farm system and was top 10 in MiLB in 2018. Paired with a quality change, he has two above-average pitches. At AA in 2019, he had a 3.99 ERA over 49 2/3 innings, with 45 Ks against only 14 walks before six starts in the AFL (1.50 ERA over 24 innings with 9.0 Ks/9).
  5. RHP Alec Hansen (25), Chicago White Sox. The #27 prospect on the White Sox Top 30 list led MiLB with 191 strikeouts in 2017 with his 94-99 mph fastball, 12-6 curveball, and hard slider. However, the 6’7″ righty has since lost the strike zone with 103 walks in 103 2/3 innings, and a 5.45 ERA in 39 2/3 innings at AA in 2019.

Conversely, there are also interesting veteran players who’ve just been designated for assignment from 40-man rosters who can be either traded, placed on waivers, or released within seven days. Here is a look from Dylan Chase of MLBTR at some of the players available for selection via waiver claim or trade after being designated, including Tim Mayza of the Jays. From his list, 27-year-old righty Jharel Cotton, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors in two years, has already been traded by the Oakland A’s to the Chicago Cubs for cash considerations.

Conclusion

Toronto has a long history of Rule 5 draft success, starting with 1B Willie Upshaw, LF George Bell, 3B Kelly Gruber and SS Manuel (Manny) Lee who were acquired by Pat Gillick and Epy Guerrero. While not a Rule 5 draft pick, closer Tom Henke was chosen from the Rangers as a Free Agent compensation pick. More recently, Joe Biagini and Elvis Luciano were Rule 5 picks. José Bautista was a Rule 5 pick of the Baltimore Orioles in 2003. Closers Joakim Soria (Royals, 2007) and Héctor Rondón (Cubs, 2012) are examples of quality Rule 5 arms. Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente was drafted by the Pirates from the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1954 Rule 5 draft.

CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins have been talking about the importance of acquiring better pitching talent this offseason. With Tim Mayza out next season, internal left-handed pitching depth in the Jays system includes prospects Jake Fishman, Kirby Snead, and Luke Gillingham, but there are options to consider in the Rule 5 draft headlined by Thomas Burrows of the Braves and Brady Aiken of the Indians. If they are looking for hard-throwing depth to support a closer-by-committee in case Ken Giles is traded, Jordan Sheffield, Sterling Sharp, and Alec Hansen could all be projects.

Next: When can the next Guerrero be signed?

The coaching staff will have its work cut out trying to improve the control and pitch mix of each of these prospects, but they all feature potentially plus stuff when fully healthy. Taking a $100,000 educated guess on one or two of the pitchers above could payoff with significant upside, especially given where Toronto is in its rebuild, and with the added player on a 26-man active roster creating a perfect opportunity to carry an exciting arm. It’s a risk worth taking as the front office builds towards the opening of the competitive window from 2021.

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