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Rule 5 overview: breaking down the pitching mix

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays
Had be not debuted in 2018, Sean Reid-Foley would have been first time eligible for the Rule 5 this winter (and an easy protectee)
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing from where we left off in the outfield on Monday, we’ll look at the pitching side in terms of how the 40-man roster and beyond break down in Rule 5 terms:

Established MLB starters: Marcus Stroman, Ryan Borucki

Established MLB relievers: Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera

MLB wild cards: Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini

Unestablished but MLB level/ready: Tim Mayza, Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley

Prospects: Julian Merryweather, David Paulino

Other/bubble: Danny Barnes, Sam Gaviglio, Mark Leiter

Plausible Rule 5 eligibles: Travis Bergen, Corey Copping, Yennsy Diaz, Conor Fisk, Jon Harris, Jackson McClelland, Patrick Murphy, Hector Perez, Jordan Romano, Jacob Waguespack

The first thing to note is with just 14, there is a very low number of pitchers currently on the 40-man roster. That’s not totally unprecedented, the Jays also only had 14 at this time three years ago but that’s the low end of the five year range of 14 to 21 pitchers on the 40-man. Once Rule 5 related machinations are done, that range narrows to 17 to 22 pitchers. So fewer pitchers usually means more arms protected by the deadline (go figure).

When we look at the Opening Day rosters over the last five years, there’s been an even narrower range of 19 to 22 pitchers on the 40-man. That said, there’s a pretty big break between the last three years and the two before that: when Alex Anthopoulos was in charge the Jays would typically make a bunch of waiver claims early in the offseason and fill up the 40-man, and that skewed towards fringey pitchers.

Looking then at just the last three years of the Shapiro/Atkins era, the Jays have had 19 or 20 pitchers on the 40-man come Opening Day, which seems like a reasonable target considering teams devote about half their active roster to pitchers in an era of 12- to 13-man pitching staffs.

It comes as no surprise that the pitching staff is very thin at this point. Even calling Borucki an established MLB starter is a stretch, but he’s earned a virtually certain spot in the 2019 rotation with Stroman. Likewise, Giles and Tepera are the only established pieces in the bullpen. What Sanchez will do in 2019 is anyone’s guess, but if he’s healthy he should get what might be the last opportunity to see if he can reprise some of his 2016 form. The same idea applies to Biagini with a fresh start now that the starting experiment is over.

That’s three starters and three relievers that can be penciled into the 2019 staff as established arms. I don’t see any as particularly likely to be traded this offseason, but collectively it wouldn’t surprise if one were moved. Based on what he did down the stretch, I’d consider Mayza a prohibitive favourite to be included in this mix, and I’d think Barnes gets a shot to show that his 2018 struggles were injury related.

I’m tempted to add Reid-Foley as a member of the rotation, as I don’t think there’s much left for him to prove in AAA with needed adjustments to be forced by MLB hitters. But it’s possible that he starts back in AAA, especially if the Jays opt to bring in multiple starters. Paulino could possibly stick in the bullpen, but 2019 is his last option year so it makes sense to use that as a last chance at starting in Buffalo.

That leaves the Jays in need of reinforcements, and while I don’t expect anything major, adding some “buy low” reclamation types either through trade or free agency would be a good use of a rebuilding year. I’d expect one or two starters, and another reliever or two (perhaps as this past year in the early spring after the market shakes out). My working assumption would be three such additions requiring 40-man spots by Opening Day (net, if they trade established guys it would follow to further backfill).

Where does that leave us in terms of the Rule 5 and adding pitchers? Adding three to the 11 spots occupied by pitchers unlikely to go anywhere gives a hard total of about 14 towards the 19-20 likely number on Opening Day. As I said last week, Murphy and Perez look to me as complete slam dunks to be added. That would bring us to 16.

That leaves room to add potentially another 3-4 of the eligibles, but there’s another factor to consider. Assuming Paulino (and to a lesser extent Perez) are kept as starters next year, then they along with Merryweather and Murphy are not MLB ready options at least to begin 2019. Even in a rebuilding year where results don’t really matter, a team can only carry so many such pitchers.

Realistically, maybe 14 or 15 spots have to be allocated for the active roster and the “near active roster”, that is players going up and down. That’s where pitchers like Pannone, Gaviglio and Leiter come into play, or at least pitchers like them if not them specifically. The point is, the need for those spots has to be factored in so you don’t get to April or May and are faced with having to DFA someone to open a 40-man for a org pitcher needed simply to bolster an overworked bullpen in the short run.

By my figuring, that leaves 5 or 6 total spots for pitchers who don’t figure to be potential MLB contributors until at least the second half, with four spots taken. So while it may be possible to add four or more of the other Rule 5 eligibles now — say Bergen, Harris, McClelland and Romano — it’s likely not advisable in that it risks creating exposure later. Far better to risk the exposure now in the Rule 5, where a team faces having to carry a player on their 25 man for at least half the season, rather than being able to make a waiver claim later with the ability to option the player and easily stash him away.

That would imply perhaps another two pitchers protected beyond Murphy and Perez, maybe a third considering the Jays will of course have better insight into what they intend for players already on the 40-man, as well as offseason plans and targets. For me, that would mean McClelland, Romano, and Bergen, in that order. But I’d be happy to get even two of those right.