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On Elvis Luciano: Under what circumstances would it make sense to return him?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Workouts Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a mixed Spring Training so far for Rule 5 draftee Elvis Luciano. His first couple appearances in February were actually pretty good — two strikeouts, the four outs via weak contact against just one hard hit, and only one walk despite some iffy strike throwing.

March has been a different story. Even before giving up two home runs against Philadelphia on Saturday in the first time most Jays fans would have seen him, he had a couple of rough outings before that. He gave up two hard singles and two walks against Philly three days before, and allowed two more hits including a solid double against Tampa Bay.

All told, he sports a 13.50 ERA, having allowed 7 runs on 8 (mostly well struck) hits in 4.2 innings, albeit with 7 strikeouts of 25 batters faced (28%). Though he’s also walked three of those (12%), so along with a couple of wild pitches, the wildness is evident. And these largely haven’t been bona fide MLB hitters, it’s more of a AA/AAA (still well beyond anything he’s seen, in fairness). This pretty strongly belies any notion that he’s MLB ready, or would be a real contributor in 2019.

That’s significant because when they made the pick Ross Atkins said it was predicated on Luciano being able to stick in his own right: “We wouldn’t have taken him if we didn’t think he had the stuff to do that”. So if that was in fact the bar required for the Blue Jays to retain him, it’s a good bet he’s going back.

There’s good reason to believe that’s not the case. The first is the simple reality that only the most precocious of prospects are able to contribute at the highest level of the game as 19 year-olds, and Luciano has never been mentioned at that level. The second is that Atkins has a demonstrated history of statements that don’t reflect what he actually does, so that kind of proclamation is not entitled to much authority given how extraordinary it would be for a teenager to be big league level.

So let’s proceed on the basis that Luciano was in fact about taking advantage of a loophole in Major League Rule 5 to poach a prospect whose longer term upside they liked. Where does that leave us?

Rule 5 picks must receive a 15-day trial period in Spring Training (or the regular season if injured) before they can be returned or otherwise removed from the 40-man. That milestone has now passed, so he could returned at any point now. That’s unlikely to be imminent, as there’s little reason not to continue to evaluate him and have coaches work with him. But the opt out date for Bud Norris is March 21st, and they’ll need a 40-man spot so that could make sense as a decision deadline. If not exactly then, there figure to be multiple further needs early in the following month or so.

The question is then under what circumstances would it make sense to return him? The front office received a fair bit of criticism for making a seemingly long shot in the first place instead of protecting at least one of the two pitchers taken from the Jays. But ultimately, if Luciano were to be returned to create a spot for one of the above, nothing will have been lost. The Jays would have needed the same spots and lost the same players to clear them as if Luciano had never been selected (just a little bit later-on). At the margin, 40-man spots for Jordan Romano or Travis Bergen would have required others not to be on the 40-man (and perhaps that should have been the case — but that has nothing to do with Luciano).

But regardless, even if a mistake was made then, it doesn’t mean they should stick to it and double down on a mistake. For $50,000, they buy the opportunity to intensively evaluate Luciano for about six weeks in Spring Training, and that may turn up additional information that changes the calculus. Most obviously, if his stuff had gone backwards since last year when he was obviously seen quite highly (or if he was a lot less consistent than when he was seen by Jays people). Or for example, if he was not very coachable, to an extent that changed the front office view of the probabilities of having big league success.

Beyond those considerations, there’s also the question of how good he’d have to be to justify not only the costs of a Rule 5 selection, but reduced value to the team as well.

The most obvious cost is the roster spot occupied, for at least 61 pre-September days. Even in a rebuilding year were it doesn’t matter if effectively playing with a 24-man roster costs a win or two (or three), there’s an opportunity cost in being able to see what someone else could do. If the Jays decide to keep Kevin Pillar, Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney as the four outfielders, and it comes down to Luciano as the 8th reliever in the pen or Dalton Pompey as a 4th bench player, that’s a pretty big trade off.

Moreover, if the Jays keep Luciano, they have to pay him a full year of MLB salary at the minimum of $555,000. But he’s likely to require at least a year, maybe two, after that in the minors. The CBA mandates that 40-man players on optional assignment must be receive at least 60% of their previous year’s salary. So that would mean another $300,000+ in 2020 and potentially $200,000 in 2021. So the pure monetary cost is way more than the $100,000 cost of the pick itself, it’s more like $1-million.

On the flip side, assuming he’s a longer term prospect play and you’re not getting anything in 2019, one of his six control years are burnt. And it’s one of the cheapest ones, so the net loss in value is more than than just 1/6th. So a Rule 5 selection probably loses about 20% of his value to the team compared to not being a Rule 5 selection.

Combined, that’s a fairly significant combination of increased cost and reduced benefit. FanGraphs published research on the value of prospects this winter, estimating $1-million in value for a 40 grade prospect, $3-million for a 40+ pitcher, and $4-million for a 45 grade pitcher. These are averages, but they can give us some idea.

In their Blue Jays top 34 prospects, FanGraphs ranked Luciano 29th, with a 35+ grade. MLB Pipeline has him 28th, however also noted that all players on the list had a future grade of at least 45 (for what it’s worth, our BBB list had him 25th, I was a little lower than Tom and put him in my “40” group). That’s a pretty significant difference, assuming the scales are used the same way and one is not more generous than the other.

Fangraphs didn’t have a value for 35+ grades (we can infer less than $1-million), but we can assume the Jays valued him more highly than that to even roll the dice in the first place and have better information. So let’s use the 40 grade value of $1-million. If we cut that back by 20% for the Rule 5 loss of value and then layer on $1-million in additional costs from being a Rule 5, it’s at best a marginal proposition before considering the other factors (roster spot, potential to impair development).

On the other side, if you end up with more of a 45 grade prospect, then even cutting back the $4-million by 20% and subtracting $1-million, it’s still a positive value gambit with an expected value above $2-million. At 40+, a little less but still about $1.5-million. On that basis, it certainly seems like something worth doing.

Circling back to the Spring Training performance, while it’s spotty, there’s certainly been flashes that would suggest he’s the calibre of prospect that would make it worthy to keep him. He’s brought the fastball velocity, the stuff has been good enough to get swings and misses against more experienced (if sub-MLB) hitters.