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State of the 40-man roster: January 2019 (and some thoughts)

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Plus some related thoughts on the back end of the roster and Rule 5 fallouts

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Periodically throughout the offseason, I like to take a high level look at the outlook for and breakdown of the 40-man roster. That starts with an initial breakdown at the outset of the offseason, and a fresh look a month ago after the roster machinations but the offseason really tends to get going in earnest. With the front office having broken their holiday quiet and finally doing some shopping in hitting up the post-Christmas discounts on offer, it’s opportune to take another look.

40man breakdown 1.2019

In sheer numbers, there hasn’t been that much change, with three additions and two departures filling up the 40-man. Effectively, Elvis Luciano replaces Oliver Drake on the can’t-be-optioned-in-2019 bubble, since it’s not ironclad that he will make the 25-man roster — or in any event, spend 90 days active — in order to be retained (though the pick makes little sense unless there is a pretty high degree of commitment to doing so). But since Luciano has to be kept for a couple weeks of Spring Training, the real bubble has further shrunk to five.

On the other end, two guaranteed contracts have been added in Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard, netted against jettisoning Tulo from that same bucket. The net effect of all this, in conjunction with earlier moves with infielders, is to greatly clarify how the Opening Day roster would look barring further moves:

2019 lineup Jan

(As usual, green is for players who can be unilaterally optioned in 2019; blue is for for those that cannot. Note that six days into the season Shoemaker will hit 5 years and “go blue”.)

The default is in favour of veterans starting even if there’s a reasonable chance of them being moved or it’s not clear that would actually prevail at the end of Spring Training, and priority is given to players on the 40-man without options.

Three months are it was hard to get a good read on the infield situation, and the glut meant someone would have been the odd man out, with Brandon Drury left off the 25-man even though there was almost no way that was going to happen. Now he’s slotted in at third base to start the season, and Richard Urena is the only other middle infielder on the roster so he’s the default back-up. I suspect the preference would be him playing everyday in Buffalo, so we’ll either see another acquisition or maybe someone like Eric Sogard until Vlad comes up.

Alternatively, maybe Danny Jansen breaks camp as the primary catcher and Russell Martin plays some infield and then...I don’t know what would happen when Vlad comes up. It seems to me like a really bad idea and I really hope they don’t hang onto Martin with something like this in mind.

I’ve left the last spot on the bench/utility spot open because there’s not yet an obvious candidate. It could also go to an 8th arm in the bullpen, especially if they carry Luciano. It could also be Pompey’s spot if they wanted to use him more for pinch-running and defensive replacement while carrying both Billy McKinney and Teoscar Hernandez in more of an outfield rotation. My bet though would be (in the absence of a trade opening a starting spot) both getting everyday at-bats, one in Toronto and the other in Buffalo.

On the pitching side, the I assume the two additions slot into the rotation, or at least in both cases it’s their job to lose. That pushes Sean Reid-Foley and Thomas Pannone out and likely back to Buffalo. I’ve got Gaviglio as a long man in the bullpen, that’s obviously not set in stone but with all the pitches they’ve acquired I’m not sure a 40-man spot is justified if he’s ticketed for Buffalo.

While on the subject of the broader 40-man backdrop and the changes made recently, I think it’s worth briefly retouching on the Rule 5 Draft. In its wake, there were a lot of recriminations against the front office for not protecting and losing Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen, especially with spots occupied by players perceived as marginal.

My contention at the time was that the limitations on protecting pitchers wasn’t an immediate matter of freeing up 40-man spots. Rather, the real limiting factor was balancing the need to fill out a pitching staff for the beginning of 2019 against stockpiling pitchers who aren’t major league ready (“developmental pitchers”), or at least don’t figure to be over the first half of 2019. The additions of Shoemaker and Richard underline this point.

It was inevitable that the the Jays were going to add pitchers for 2019 this offseason, especially to the extent that they subtracted they trading the likes of Sanchez or Stroman. And frankly, they may be done adding, especially given the tendency to add bullpen arms late in the offseason. But even without that, there are currently 21 pitchers on the 40-man roster, which is at least approaching the extent of how many pitchers can be sustainably carried on the 40-man.

Sure, one or two of the three bubble outfielders could be jettisoned, or Kendrys Morales if one’s so inclined. But as that second graphic above shows, the Jays are already pretty short on the positional side, and a provision has to be made for a spot for Vlad’s eventual promotion (and/or someone like Sogard in the interim). There’s no reason a team can’t deviate from a roughly 50/50 allocation of 40-man spots to pitchers and position players, especially if an organization’s strengths lean heavily one way. But it’s not like the Jays are really deep in pitching.

More critical s the matter of actually putting together a pitching staff for 2019. The opening day pitching staff will have 12 if not 13 pitchers (especially if Luciano is carried). Almost inevitably, at least will come out of Spring Training on the 10-day disabled list. And then teams need an arm or two they can rotate up or down from AAA to keep the bullpen fresh. So that’s something like 14 or 15 big league or MLB ready arms needed on the 40-man.

The Jays started the offseason with Julian Merryweather and David Paulino (as a starter) as developmental pitchers. At the Rule 5 deadline, they added another five. Trent Thornton has almost two seasons in AAA, perhaps he can be considered big league ready if one is so inclined. But at a minimum, that’s already six developmental arms (for at least the first half of 2019), plus the likes of Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley who don’t have much experience (for this purpose, Luciano is considered a big league arm for 2019 since he has to be).

If you need 14 or 15 big league pitchers, and don’t want to go beyond 20-21 overall pitchers on the 40-man, that’s about the extent of developmental pitchers a team can carry. Adding Romano and Bergen would have brought that to eight, and more broadly upwards of a dozen pitchers who are not established at the MLB level. It’s just not feasible.

That’s not to absolve the front office of criticism for their Rule 5 choices. My view is they were right to limit themselves to adding four or five developmental arms — but they still had the burden of choosing the right ones. And with a couple of the additions being surprising, there’s plenty of grounds for scrutiny when two players are lost among the first eight chosen.

In particular, I would have protected Romano over Jacob Waguespack and probably Yennsy Diaz. Luciano was the only player chosen this year without at least AA experience, and it’s rare for a player to be taken (much less retained) where that’s not the case. Diaz is not without his merits, but for that reason I have doubts he would be taken/retained. That said, if you really like a player, better safe than sorry so that one doesn’t bother me. If you really like Bergen, maybe he should be have protected over Diaz.

That brings us full circle to Luciano — who not protect one instead of a hail mary play at an 18 year old who’s never played in full season ball and may never even reach MLB? Setting aside the fact that if you’re facing a rebuilding year, low probability upside plays are exactly what one should be doing, it’s not clear that Luciano’s absence would open a spot for another developmental arm. Recall that int he discussion above, Luciano is considered one of those 14 or 15 big league arms by default. Without Luciano, that spot likely gets filled by another big league arm, maybe a free agent signee. Maybe with Luciano the total increases to 15 or 16 instead, but still, unless you’re going to 22-23 pitchers, that’s crowding out a developmental arm.