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2020 Rule 5 Overview: breaking down the pitching mix

A work in progress, but in better shape than the last few winters

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

With the broader roster context often a significant factor when it comes to Rule 5 eligible players beyond the very top prospects, it’s useful to break down in details where things stand. Having started with the outfield, today we’ll move on to the Blue Jays pitching mix starting with classifying the current 40-man:

  • Established MLB starters: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark, Robbie Ray, Ross Stripling
  • Unestablished starter profiles: Anthony Kay, Nate Pearson, Trent Thornton, T.J. Zeuch
  • Established MLB relievers: Rafael Dolis
  • MLB level/ready: Ryan Borucki, Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy, Sean Reid-Foley, Jordan Romano, Jacob Waguespack
  • Prospects: Yennsy Diaz, Elvis Luciano, Hector Perez
  • Other/bubble: A.J. Cole (non-tender candidate), Shun Yamaguchi

Notable Rule 5 eligibles: Maximo Castillo, Zach Jackson, Dany Jimenez, Zach Logue, Tim Mayza, Jackson McClelland, Curtis Taylor, Ty Tice, Josh Winckowski

Surveying the above, two things are clear: there is a fair bit of work to do, but the pitching situation is much better than at this point last year. That applies particularly in the rotation, where with Ryu, Roark, Ray, Stripling, and Pearson there are five pitchers already in the fold who have either been quality established pitchers recently or project as such. There’s real concerns about a number of those, but Ryu alone makes for a much stronger starting spot.

The bullpen has little nailed down, but there’s no shortage of talented if not established internal options, and it will inevitably be filled out with some free agent signings. In terms of roles, it will be interesting to see if Thornton and Merryweather are starters, presumably in Buffalo, or make a more permanent transition. This would be especially interesting in they weren’t shoehorned into one-inning or 15-20 pitch roles. To a lesser extent, this is true with Thomas Hatch as well.

At a high level, it’s useful to consider the numbers game. There are already 21 pitchers on the 40-man which is already on the high end of the range of 17 to 22 in recent years after setting the roster in November. With the Jays clearly needing and the front office signaling further additions of established MLB pitchers this winter, that implies a limited ability to carry more pitchers even with five spots currently open on the 40-man.

By the time Opening Day rolls around, that range has tended to narrow to 19 or 20 pitchers, in line with pitchers being half of the active roster, but that isn’t a hard constraint either. Last year is instructive, when the Jays had 24 pitchers going into spring training, blowing through the top end of that range. That was facilitated by stability on the positional side, which remains largely or perhaps even more the case this winter, so the same dynamic could play out this winter. But there’s effectively no room for further expansion, at some point you can’t just keep stockpiling pitchers.

It’s also the case that there’s fewer clear candidates for cuts than a year ago, when they already had 23 pitchers before adding Ryu, Roark, Yamaguchi and Dolis on major league league contracts while protecting Hatch. The net increase in pitchers was held to one by removing four of seven “bubble” pre-arb players and non-tender candidates from the fringes, but that’s a shallower pool this year.

Two of those major league signings last winter were two year deals who flopped in 2019, spurring speculation the Jays could or should cut their losses and move on. Given the extraordinary nature of the 2020 season and his broader track record, I can’t see the Jays cutting bait with Roark this winter. I suppose they could be bearish enough to remove him from the 40-man and force him to win a spot from the outside in, but that would be unusually drastic treatment of a veteran just a year after signing.

Yamaguchi is a different story without the long record of MLB success and there’s little reason even if other than the rebuke it would represent not to remove him even if the front office isn’t completely ready to turn the page.

Beyond that, the Jays may be at the point of making some calls even their hands being forced by more usual circumstances like a lack of options. Yennsy Diaz and Hector Perez enter 2021 in their last option years with only cups of MLB coffee. Not being able to observe 2020 campaigns renders things even more opaque from the outside, but both profile as relievers and if they don’t project as able to contribute in 2021 might be pushed off the 40-man,

Reid-Foley has had a little more opportunity but is largely in the same boat, though with the wild card that his stuff seems to go and down from year to year. Waguespack seems to have had an inside track internally in terms of getting opportunity, but ultimately has mediocre results in almost 100 innings and could be simply squeezed out especially if the likes of Thornton end up in the bullpen. I’d think the others are safe, which isn’t to say they surely be around for 2021, but they’ll have a 40-man spot somewhere.

The bottom line implication for Rule 5 purposes is that without any slam dunk additions, any pitchers added effectively have to be at the expense of others currently on the 40-man — not strictly speaking immediately since there are five open spots, but eventually when major league upgrades are made. Does a Maximo Castillo or Josh Winckowski stack up ahead of Diaz or Perez or Reid-Foley? Quite possibly, but not having anything from 2020 to go on makes it quite opaque from the outside.