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Rule 5 Draft: Jays lose Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen, select Elvis Luciano

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Jays select RHP David Garner and lose LHP Sam Moll in minor league phase

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Rule 5 Draft was an eventful one for the Blue Jays — or at least the first couple minutes were — as they made an off-the-board selection of an 18-year-old who wouldn’t normally even be eligible. But before that, they had already had two players selected by them. Drafting third overall, the White Sox took 2014 10th round pick and GTA native Jordan Romano, then flipped him to the Rangers (ugh). Right before their pick, the San Francisco Giants made lefty Travis Bergen the 8th player selected.

This caps an interesting cycle of front cycle decisions, dating back to last month’s deadline to add players and protect them from the 40-man. While the Jays added five pitchers, they certainly could have made room for Romano and/or Bergen had they so chosen. Some will undoubtedly fault the front office for not having done so.

But there is a limit to how many pitchers can be carried who are not major league options, at least to start the season. David Paulino and Julian Merryweather are not (as starters), and at least three of the five selected — Patrick Murphy, Hector Perez and Yennsy Diaz — are not either. I think five was the the right number of players to have added (perhaps a sixth as an upper limit). The question is whether they got chose the right five, especially in light of the two lost today.

In particular, I won’t say the additions of Yennsy Diaz and Jacob Waguespack were questionable given the disparities in available information, but they were on the surprising end of the spectrum to me. Diaz had a good season in Dunedin and has a big fastball, but has never pitched in AA so it’s hard to see that he would have been chosen and stuck (of course, the Jays just took a guy who had never even pitched in full season ball, so...). Waguespack on the other hand has AAA experience is close even to plausibly stick or even contribute in 2019. The question is his ultimate upside — is he more than an extra guy/swingman type?

Romano was left exposed last year after a strong season in high-A, and went unclaimed. Not so after a full season in AA, where the statistical performance was more to the pedestrian side and some of the traits that suggest a future relief role were visible. Romano can hold low/mid-90s velocity as a starter with a strong breaking ball, but the development of his change-up as a third pitch will dictate his ability to be a starter. Lefties roughed him up pretty good in AA, hitting 9 of the 15 home runs he allowed.

Still, I’d personally prefer him to Waguespack. There’s some parallels with Romano to Joe Biagini when the Jays selected him in the Rule 5 three years, in that they had full seasons in AA as starters that were not statistically overwhelming, but the stuff to profile as relievers at the MLB level. And indeed, I think there’s a good chance Romano will stick.

After dealing with arm issues for most of the two and a half years after being drafted, Bergen was finally healthy last year and flew up the ranks. The performance was undeniably outstanding, with a sub-1.00 ERA and excellent peripherals. The question was his stuff would profile at the major league level.

Bergen is a deception lefty, and early in the season his velocity was high-80s/low-90s. Later in the year with New Hampshire he was more consistently in the low-90s, touching 92-93, which is more feasible in terms of MLB viability. But he also doesn’t have a true offspeed weapon, a plus pitch. It’s very possible that Bergen has a long career as a reliever — clearly he knows how to pitch — but exposing him to the Rule 5 is a lot more justifiable to me.

So in the end, we’ll have to see what this quartet does. The historical odds would dictate that it’s more likely than not that the Jays get at least one of the two back, those there’s no glaring reason that either could not plausibly stick. That brings us to the player the Jays selected.

Elvis Luciano is just 18 (19 in February), and was only signed two years ago. Normally, he wouldn’t have been Rule 5 eligible for another couple years — for that matter, some North American players haven’t even been drafted into the professional ranks by his age. Major League Rule 5 (pursuant to which the draft is conducted) has language about players becoming eligible earlier under certain circumstances, and apparently Luciano had his contract renegotiated which qualifies.

On the surface, it’s a very weird pick. It seems almost crazy to expect that Luciano could stick with the Jays next year, given that he’s never even pitched in a full season league. Or even beyond rookie ball — just last July, he was shelled by Bluefield pitching opposite Eric Pardinho (was a bigwig in for that and Luciano caught his eye?).

That said, he seems to have an interesting ceiling. Eric Longenhagen has this to say when he was traded to the Royals in June:

I saw him during instructs when he was 90-94 with an average curveball, below-average changeup, and below command, especially later in his outing as he tired.

His velocity has mostly remained in that range this spring, topping out at 96...He’s still had strike-throwing issues and might be a reliever, but he has a live arm and can spin a breaking ball. Though 18, Luciano’s frame doesn’t have much projection, so while he might grow into some velocity as he matures, it probably won’t be a lot. He’s an interesting, long-term flier who reasonably projects as a back-end starter.

MLB Pipeline had him ranked 23rd in the KC system, with a broadly similar assessment to Longenhagen, but adding this nugget:

Kansas City views Luciano, just 18 at the time of the trade, as the equivalent of a top-two-rounds Draft pick.

Assuming the Jays see him similarly, their gambit is to essentially use the Rule 5 Draft to acquire a first day pick, the equivalent of a top-100 high school pitcher. If the Jays do indeed find a way to keep him, it wouldn’t be surprising if he spent most of the next couple years on optional assignment. This could be a similar path to the most successful Rule 5 pick in franchise history, George Bell. He was taken in the 1980 Draft, stuck in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1984 that he was an everyday player.

The cost is potentially having to tie up a 25-man roster spot, as well as potentially setting back his development. Rule 5 picks have to spend at least 90 days on the active roster, though that includes September. So it wouldn’t be surprising if he suffers an injury next year that happens to require some time in extended spring, followed by the maximum 30 days of rehab in the minors. In an age of deep bullpens, even in a rebuilding year carrying a guy like this for 60+ days will hamstring roster flexibility.

This really only make sense as a play on acquiring a high upside prospect they couldn’t have otherwise got for $100,000. If the play is actually banking on him being able to stick, it’s a ridiculous decision versus protecting someone else. It’s even more aggressive than what was done with Miguel Castro, and we saw how that went. Still, for those that have criticized the front office for being uninspired and settling for low ceiling players, this is swinging for the fences. We’ll see how it works out, and maybe backfires, but it’s certainly not sticking to a conventional playbook.

The minor league phases were quieter than in recent years. The Jays made one selections, raiding the Cubs for the second straight year and taking RHP David Garner. He was a 7th round pick in 2013, and a 26 year old reliever with good strikeout numbers. But he didn’t play in 2018, suspended 50 games and then 100 games more for second and third positive tests for drugs of abuse. Barring anything further, he should be eligible to return early in 2019.

The Jays lost LHP Sam Moll, who was curiously not protected on Buffalo’s roster. He was claimed off waivers in March from Seattle, then outrighted to Buffalo. Before he missed the last three months with an elbow injury, his stuff had caught my eye. Alas, he moves back to the Pacific Northwest.