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2019 Rule 5 overview: breaking down the pitching mix

At least to the extent it’s possible to sort through the current muddle

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing from where we left off in the outfield, 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: Chase Anderson, Matt Shoemaker

Unestablished but MLB level starter profiles: Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay, Trent Thornton, Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch

Established MLB relievers: Ken Giles

MLB level/ready: Thomas Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley, Jordan Romano

Prospects: Yennsy Diaz, Elvis Luciano, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy, Hector Perez

Non-tender candidates: Anthony Bass, Derek Law, Wilmer Font

Other/bubble: Jason Adam, Sam Gaviglio, Tim Mayza, Justin Shafer

Plausible Rule 5 eligibles: Travis Bergen, Corey Copping, Thomas Hatch, Zach Jackson, Dany Jimenez, Jackson McClelland, Kirby Snead

Where to start really? There’s so much up in the air here, particularly with no single spot in the 2020 bullpen locked down. Fortunately, this exercise is mostly about a 10,000 foot bird’s eye view.

Unlike last year when there were just 14 pitchers on the 40-man, this year is the opposite with 23 even after some early offseason culling. That’s significant because that’s already above the range in recent years of 17 to 22 after Rule 5 additions are made, and the Opening Day range of 19 or 20 in the Shapiro/Atkins era. That’s not to say those are hard targets, but if pitchers are half the active roster then it follows they’d be about half the 40-man too.

Considering that the front office has spoken of adding up to three more starting pitchers, and the certainty of adding a couple veteran relievers to bolster a bullpen devoid of predictable track records, the Blue Jays will already in be in a position of trimming current players to accommodate those prospective additions. And then even further to add Rule 5 protectees. There’s certainly no shortage of candidates, but at the margin that means an increasing opportunity cost to add prospects.

We can knock a couple off that number though. Giles is very likely to be traded, and notwithstanding the slow markets of the past couple winters, probably by the end of the Winter Meetings, with a paucity of high end relievers available. And if not, it probably net out to one less veteran addition anyway. So we’ll remove him from the count, and Mayza as well — either because the Jays decide it’s not worth carrying him for two winters before he meaningfully pitches again, or because he’ll be on the 60-day IL when at least one of those prospective additions is made or selected to the 40-man in the Spring.

So that’s effectively 21 pitchers then, which is still on the higher end. Three are arbitration eligible, and while none would break the bank, all are non-tender candidates. Part of that is that they’re all out-of-options in 2021 so if they’re tendered it’s necessarily with the intention of them having a job more or less locked down. I’ll examine these cases in more detail next week, but either way the decision will effectively be made next week.

The other consideration is accounting for pitchers who will be in the minors. If the Jays carry even 22 pitchers by Opening Day with a 13-man MLB pitching staff and say one more inevitably ending on the injured list, that means only about eight can be on optional assignment.

Let’s assume that the Blue Jays make one significant starting pitching acquisition, giving them three established starters, and the rotation is filled out from among the five in the next group of MLB ready starter profiles. That leaves the three others starting down in Buffalo, maybe two if one assumes someone is injured. And let’s not forget that Nate Pearson likely is promoted into this mix by May.

On top of that, there’s another five in the “prospects” category. At least some of them should be a position to contribute in 2020, but not likely at the beginning of the season. So that’s seven 40-man pitchers in the minors, very close to that de facto cap, and any Rule 5 additions get added to this. That’s even before accounting for Reid-Foley, Pannone and Romano, none of whom are locks to make the Opening Day roster (among others who might not make it through the winter).

So while room can certainly be made, unless the Jays are planning to trade some of their young pitchers, the real constraint is how many of unestablished pitchers they already have. The spots of Jason Adam, Shafer and maybe even Pannone are vulnerable, but moreso in terms of established additions who clearly slot onto the major league roster.

Could any of those prospects/very inexperienced pitchers be at risk of removal? Merryweather can’t stay healthy, but I can’t see them cutting bait one year after he was handpicked as the return for Josh Donaldson. Hector Perez only had an okay year in AA, and is probably more of a reliever profile. He’d probably be the most vulnerable and first in line to go — but would that happen just to make room for a pure reliever? I’m not sure.

In the broad context then, it’s hard to see more than one or two additions unless the front office is really planning to shake things up in a way they haven’t over the last four years, nor have they signaled or hinted at doing. Thomas Hatch appears to be a very strong bet in the same vein as Waguespack or Thornton last year, players they were able to get in trade because their teams weren’t able or willing to roster them.

That might be it, or possibly one of the multitude of relievers. I’ll continue to point to Jackson McClelland, who now is up to AAA and has the raw stuff to be an above average reliever. If the rationale for keeping Merryweather that’s he has a big arm ability to hit triple digit, the same case can be made in McClelland’s case, just with the ability to stay on the mound.