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2020 Rule 5 Overview: breaking down the infield and catching mix

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-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 gone through the outfield and pitching mix, we finish with the infield (and catching):

  • Established MLB regulars: Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  • MLB level: Rowdy Tellez
  • Complementary player profiles: Santiago Espinal
  • Non-tender candidate: Travis Shaw
  • Out of options/bubble: Breyvic Valera (restricted list)

Plausible Rule 5 eligibles: Otto Lopez, Kevin Smith

The picture here is largely static from last year, the significant difference being that while they entered 2020 having staked their claims to starting positions, it was premature to refer to players who debuted in 2019 as established. But even with a only a 60 game season added to the sample, each built upon their debuts to where they can rightfully be considered established big leaguers.

Bichette made his unconventional approach work again, Biggio was even more productive at the plate and is now drawing Lou Whitaker (!) comps from ZiPS, and for all the frustrations and criticisms Vladdy still ended up posting a very solid 115 wRC+. On top of that, Tellez was crushing the ball and arguably breaking out himself before he got hurt. It’s thus premature to be writing him in for the long term, but he’s firmly moving himself away from the bubble where it where it wasn’t clear 12 months ago he’d still be around now with another weak or mediocre campaign.

With those four pretty firmly set for four of the five infield and DH positions in some configuration, one of the major questions for the offseason is whether the Jays go out and make a significant acquisition, be it more of a solid regular like Didi Gregorious, rolling the dice on a major international foray for Ha-seong Kim or even something bigger that to really move the needle.

Alternatively, they could look to take a shorter term flyer as they did last year with Shaw, especially if industry rumours come to fruition and the market is flooded in a couple weeks. Shaw failed to rebound to his pre-2019 form, with both lower power and a bloated strikeout rate so I’d expect the Jays to move on, but in any event even if the door’s not completely closed I can’t see him tendered a contract.

Then there’s the curious case of Breyvic Valera, who remains on the restricted list and not on the 40-man after he was reportedly unable to get out of Venezuela to report in July for the 2020 season. I’m unsure exactly how it works, if he can stay there all winter while remaining under reserve potentially through the spring when he would next report. Regardless, he’s a fringe player who the Jays let go last winter, but then again they’ve been sufficiently interested to claim him twice in the last 15 months.

Turning to the numbers game then, there’s the four mentioned at the outset who should get everyday time in 2021, plus Espinal as bench depth. If we assume the Jays move on from Shaw, but bring in some sort of established MLB regular, that’s six. I’d also further expect them to add a quality veteran backup/second division regular (similar to Freddy Galvis two years ago) for depth and injury coverage. That would be seven for the 2021 picture.

Over the last five years the Jays have had 9 or 10 infielders on the 40-man after Rule 5 machinations, with the exception of last year when it dipped to eight. The opening day range has been as high as 11, dipping down to just seven the last two years. So the figuring above would put the Jays on the low end of that range, which facilitates some overweighting in other areas such as below.

But it also allows room to protect and carry some prospect types who don’t figure to fit into the 2021 picture. That’s where Otto Lopez comes, who would have started 2020 in Dunedin and maybe made it to AA later in the year if things went well. He’s not even a slam dunk to be added as it’s not obvious another team would roll the dice knowing they had to roster him for most or all of 2021 rather than getting everyday at-bats at Double-A or Triple-A (on top of losing 2020). But for a rebuilding team who liked him, it would be tempting, and the Jays have the room to add him assuming they think he will hit.

The other possibility is Kevin Smith, who could really have used 2020 after he struggled in 2019 in New Hampshire. A strong year would have had him as a guy with experience in Buffalo and at the cusp of the big leagues. Instead, he’s not really someone who figures to be a 2021 contributor, and given the strikeout rate doesn’t really project to have everyday upside. Strictly speaking, the Jays have the room to add him — but not if they’re going to carry 20+ pitchers and 4+ catchers and make significant additions this winter. So I don’t see it.

Catching mix

40-man players: Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, Reese McGuire

Notable Rule 5 eligibles: Riley Adams, Gabriel Moreno

Here the issue is largely a numbers game. Moreno is a highly enough regarded prospect as to be effectively be a slam dunk even if he’s likely a couple of years away. Adams is a cut below, but his power started playing in game, he’s got a good arm behind the plate, and should be close to MLB ready which makes it more feasible for another team to carry him in 2021. On balance, in a vacuum, he’d be a player a team normally adds and protects.

The issue is with three young catchers already on the 40-man, that’s...a lot of catchers. At various points in the last 10 years, the Jays have had four, but generally for short stretches of time with three being much more common. I’m not aware of them having ever had five at any point in franchise history, and it doesn’t make much sense to devote one-eighth of the entire roster to one position.

At some point, decisions have to be made. The front office almost undoubtedly has an internal pecking order based on much more in-depth evaluation, and it seems to me the most logical scenario is moving one (or more) of the three “prospects”. in Kirk/Moreno/Adams. It could instead be Jansen or McGuire, but unless you’re very confident handing an MLB job to Kirk or perhaps Adams of out the chute in 2021, it would mean backfilling with a veteran in the short term who’d himself occupy a spot at some point.

That said, with five open spots the Jays have the ability to add both Moreno and Adams and carry both in the very short term. I think that’s more likely than not, with subsequent transactions this winter. Especially given the franchise history here, the abundance of promising options is a blessing and I’d expect to see an overweighting of catchers on the 40-man in the medium term as things sort themselves out.