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2021 Rule 5 Overview: breaking down the pitching mix

No slam dunk additions, but a lot of plausibilities

Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Indians Photo by: 2021 George Kubas/Diamond Images via Getty Images

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: Jose Berrios, Alek Manoah, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling
  • Unestablished starter profiles: Nate Pearson
  • Established MLB relievers: Adam Cimber, Tim Mayza, Trevor Richards, Jordan Romano
  • MLB level/ready: Ryan Borucki, Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather,
  • Prospects: None
  • Other/bubble: Anthony Castro, Anthony Kay, Tayler Saucedo, Kirby Snead, Trent Thornton

Notable Rule 5 eligibles: Hagen Danner, Kyle Johnston, Zach Logue, Joey Murray, Eric Pardinho, Graham Spraker, Fitz Stadler

I opened this breakdown last year by noting that there was significant work to do, but the situation with Ryu, Ray, Roark, Stripling and Pearson was better than what was in place a year before that. I think the same is true this year, at least in terms of reasonable expectations.

Of the two carryovers, Ryu slipped but still should project as at least a solid starter. Stripling rebounded nicely, and was really good in the middle third of the year. But the big difference is having an established frontline starter in Berrios, plus Alek Manoah. He’s not truly established and young pitchers have a nasty habit of backsliding, but he’s clearly slotted into the rotation and there’s also upside with more consistency of his offspeed pitches. Pearson is even more of a wild card, and they can’t really pencil him in for much, but could emerge with big impact.

The bigger difference though is the bullpen, where last year there was few pitchers with much experience and track record (with Dolis as arguably the leading established option, and look what happened with him). Between Romano, Mayza, Cimber and Richard, the Jays start with half a bullpen of quality options written in. Granted, a bullpen needs to be closer to 10 deep in this day and age, so there’s still a lot to fill out. But it’s a lot to build a good bullpen with this foundation rather than essentially from whole cloth.

At a high level, it’s useful to consider the numbers game as a starting point. With fringe players squeezed in-season for 40-man spots and trimming since the start of the offseason, there’s 17 pitchers left on the 40-man. Unlike the last couple years (21 and 23), that’s at the low end of the range of 17 to 22 in recent years after setting the roster in November.

This range had tended to narrow to 19 or 20 pitchers by Opening Day until recently. They’ve gone into Spring Training with 22 and 24 pitchers the last two years, holding that level by the start of the season (the constraint loosens by then with the 60-day IL open). Stability on the positional side has facilitated carrying more pitchers and that remains intact, so there’s reason to think this trend at least could continue.

Of note, there’s no true prospects on the roster, pitchers with little experience who would not be expected to contribute at the major league level throughout 2022. Major league additions are a given of course, at least one one starting pitcher and a couple relievers, so for planning purposes holding four slots makes sense.

That would bring us to 20-21 spots without subtracting any existing options, and there certainly are some candidates on the bubble especially given that the active roster spots would be largely spoken for barring a major rash of injuries. All in all, that means there’s room to add some prospects, even if they don’t figure into the 2022 picture or are question marks to do so.

At the same time, there’s a fine line in the decision making. They don’t want to expose and lose a prospect they like, but it’s hard for teams to carry players. The risk in adding a player now that is that an ensuing roster crunch during the season can result in those players ending up on waivers, where it’s a much more favourable situation for a team to pluck them with no restrictions.

For example, Ty Tice was added at last year’s deadline, with a decent half season of Triple-A under his belt (plus the Alt site). But nonetheless he didn’t prove MLB ready, and ended up lost on waivers in May. Perhaps he’d have been selected if left unprotected, but I’d venture he’d have been returned sooner than later (as have the last four Rule 5 pitchers the Jays lost, though they lucked out with Romano). A similar argument could be made with Riley Adams last year.

The plausible candidates fall into three buckets. The first is pure prospects, who don’t forecast to contribute in 2022 but whose upside down the road justifies protecting them with a 40-man spot. Eric Pardinho is the obvious one here. There’s just too much we don’t know from the outside, by my inclination is if a deep rebuilder wants to make an Elvis Luciano-type play, force them to carry them. If he does make it on, it’s a good sign the stuff is back after surgery.

The more interesting one is really Hagen Danner, whose first full season as a pitcher went very well, there’s two legitimate big league pitches there and he’s not all over the place. He’ll start in Double-A, so he’s not that far off, and I wouldn’t totally discount that he could stick on his merits if selected. I’d think real consideration would be given to adding him, even if his future is “only” in relief.

The next bucket is upper level starters. As discussed in the overview, missing 2021 makes Joey Murray a question mark. If the health outlook is fine, his performance, inclusion in the 2020 alt site and 2021 Spring Training all point to being added and being in the 6th-8th starter depth for next season.

Zach Logue on the other hand had a good full season. He’s should be close to a finshed product and major league ready, so definitely a candidate for another team to nab and audition in Spring Training if they really believe in the overall package. So if the Jays believe in him, he should be added and again serve as starting depth in 2022. What they do wil be a good insight into how they feel.

Finally, there’s the pure relief prospects, which is often where Rule 5 selections are concentrated. Given that and the discussion about about how not creating a crunch, it makes it for a tough line. Fitz Stadler was flat out dominant when he was on with an upper-90s fastball and slider. As of right now I don’t think the command/consistency is enough that he would stick, but could be one tweak away. My gut says that leaves him on the outside looking in, but they like him, they’ll add him.

Kyle Johnston completed the transition to full relief in 2021 after coming over as a starter for Daniel Hudson. Being a guy targeted by the front office in a trade has been a good indication of being added previous (Jacob Waguespack), and he should be pretty close to ready. The numbers were great, but it’s not really plus stuff. From the outside, my inclination would be leave him off.

Graham Spraker has been having a great AFL, closing out the Fall-Stars game last weekend. Jonathan Mayo of said during the broadcast he’ll pitch in Toronto next year quite matter of factly; I’m not sure if he meant as a midseason call up or that his stock has risen that much. I’ve always liked him (mentioning him in passing last year), but I don’t see the slider currently as enough of a big weapon. Again, I’d keep him off, see what he does in Buffalo in 2022 and force his way to the Jays.

My guess is about three pitchers added, with even just one or two quite plausible whereas four would be more on the excessive side. Which ones is much harder to forecast this year.