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Friday Bantering: Rule 5ers, injuries, and where to from here

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Media Day Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, the 2019 Blue Jays roster seemed to be rounding into shape with Ryan Borucki, Billy McKinney, Joe Biagini and Tim Mayza receiving the official word they would be going north (all but McKinney being formalities). There were still a few loose ends — what exactly is the plan for Clay Buchholz? Would Dalton Pompey find a way onto the bench, or would the Jays keep Elvis Luciano as an 8th reliever? Eric Sogard or Richard Urena for backup infielder? What 40-man moves would be made to accommodate everything? — but the big picture was set and the uncertainties narrowing.

That was before a spate of injury news the last couple days that has thrown those plans into turmoil, especially in the bullpen. To recap:

  • John Axford will miss four weeks with a stress reaction in his elbow. That means he won’t need a 40-man spot in the near term as was expected, but the Jays have to backfill his presumptive spot in the bullpen
  • Ryan Tepera will visit a specialist to evaluate elbow inflammation, portending the possibility of Tommy John surgery that would wipe out his season. Regardless, after struggling this spring, one of the mainstays of the last couple years will start on the DL which opens up another spot
  • Bud Norris didn’t appear in yesterday’s game after experiencing discomfort when getting loose. Hopefully that’s the extent of it, but yesterday was also the date the Jays had to add him to the 40-man or he could opt-out; so far so news on whether he was added, opted out, or whether they agreed to push the deadline a couple days to make sure nothing’s wrong
  • Dalton Pompey was also scratched after banging his head on bats in his locker. This too is hopefully an appropriate abundance of caution in light of his history of concussions. (Update: diagnosed with another concussion. Ugh). But even if he’s fine, if there’s no spot on the roster for him could it also be a pretense for a short So likely an IL stint to start the season and then (up to) 30 days of rehab in Buffalo, and maybe something will open up in the interim?

So where does that leave us? The good news is the starting lineup and rotation are unscathed; the issues limited to the bullpen where Biagini and Mayza join Ken Giles as the only sure things right now. Despite getting shelled yesterday, Sam Gaviglio has likely moved from the outside-looking-in to the inside track, especially since he can eat some innings. Even assuming Norris is fine, that would only be five and leave two or three spots.

Luciano remains a wild card, but I’ll return to him below. I don’t know if the plan was to start Buchholz in the bullpen and build him up from there (the alternative being an IL placement, building up in Florida and/or a minor league start or two), but perhaps necessity alone results in this now. That would still leave a spot or two.

There’s so shortage of candidates, on and off the 40-man. David Paulino was mentioned by Charlie Montoyo, the only issue being that then he’s not starting in Buffalo in his last option year. To the extent his future is likely as a reliever, that may not be a big issue, especially if it leaves the likes or Thomas Pannone or Trent Thornton to start instead. Danny Barnes hasn’t had a great spring, but is familiar with a fair bit of MLB experience, so it would make sense this opens the door for him. Javy Guerra likewise has experience even if he’s been used sporadically this spring, and isn’t someone you’d worry about losing when others come back and a 40-man spot is needed.

There were also significant developments on the Rule 5 front yesterday. Texas informed Jordan Romano that he wasn’t going to crack their roster, and thus he’ll go on outright waivers. That means any team (the Jays included) can claim him subject to the same Rule 5 limitations, and if he clears waivers the Rangers will have to offer him back.

Texas is apparently interested in working out a deal to retain Romano should be clear waivers, though I’d hope that the Jays would only consider that if they got something sufficiently interesting in return. That said, the front office has shown a strong preference for players they’ve acquired and Romano is not that. If they’re not as high on him — they didn’t protect him in the first place — maybe they’re willing to let him go elsewhere.

On the flip side, Travis Bergen appears to have the inside track on a roster spot with San Francisco on the heels of a very strong Cactus League. He’s pitched 9.2 scoreless innings over eight appearances, yielding just three hits though also four walks against 11 strikeouts. Hindsight is 20/20, but given the bullpen woes above, it would appear he could have been a useful or at least viable option as a second lefty.

Which brings us (back) to Elvis Luciano, as the Jays’ own Rule 5 selection. I did a deep dive a couple weeks ago on his situation, and his last three outings as a whole have only reinforced that he’s simply not big league ready. He’s not consistently throwing enough strikes, and hitters have squared him up quite a bit when he has. If the standard to keep him was in fact big league readiness, then he’s certainly not sticking. Of course, if that was the standard, then the pick was frankly a complete waste of time and a blunder to begin with.

But to the extent this is (and was always) a longer term value play where you suffer some hardship in a rebuilding year with an effectively 24 man roster for part of the year to essentially steal a prospect, I’m not sure much has changed. The raw building blocks are there. It would be ideal if he was throwing more strikes, so you could count on him being able to eat a couple innings in garbage time even if he took some damage.

What is in question is with the injuries, if it’s still viable to hide Luciano with pitchers lower on the depth chart being promoted up. On the other hand, Gaviglio is capable of multiple innings at a time, as would Pannone, and Buchholz would be building up and presumably going more than one inning. There’s also the possibility of stashing him with a strategic stint on the injured list at the beginning of the season until the bullpen situation is more stabilized.

The temptation will be to look at the Luciano/Bergen dichotomy and conclude that the front office blundered in selecting a very inexperienced wild card in Luciano resulted in the loss of a potential quality lefty reliever who looks big league ready in Bergen. I’d still push back pretty hard at that, one doesn’t really have much to do with the other. There was a reasonable case to protect Bergen, especially compared to some pitchers they did. That’s really where the mistake would lie.

So this not to absolve the front office of a potential mistake. In my view, their first and foremost responsibility is to properly assess the players they have, and if Bergen ends up quality MLB reliever in 2019 and beyond it would appear they fell down. Arguably the biggest whiff might have been on his big league readiness. Bergen has just one healthy season and half a season in AA, but there’s a parallel to Aaron Loup who advanced from high-A to MLB in roughly a year after dropping down his arm slot. But in any event, a big league ready reliever is a completely different lane than Luciano.