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2021 Rule 5 Overview: breaking down the infield mix

Atlanta Braves v. Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Matt May/MLB Photos 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 gone through the outfield and pitching mix for the Toronto Blue Jays, we finish with the infield:

  • Established MLB regulars: Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  • Complementary player profiles: Santiago Espinal
  • Prospects: Otto Lopez, Kevin Smith
  • Out of options/bubble: Breyvic Valera

Rule 5 eligibles: Miguel Hiraldo, Leo Jimenez, Samad Taylor

The core of the infield picture remains unchanged, with some changes on the periphery. Vladdy broke out in spectacular fashion, while Bichette just kept hitting and was much more reliable defensively in the second half. Biggio got off to a terrible start, but posted his normal production after coming off the IL in June through late July when he got hurt again. This introduces a degree of uncertainty, but it should be mostly an aberration if he’s healthy, though it’s probably best not to play him out of position at third.

If the season started today, Espinal would slot in as a starter, and while that would not be out of place give his 2021 performance, it’s likely the Jays bring in a more established veteran starter. That frees up Espinal as the main infield back-up and injury depth (and could always play his way into more again). Subtracted is Rowdy Tellez, with those DH at-bats likely distributed around rather than replaced by one person.

That’s the major league picture, and after that is a pretty big dropoff at least in terms of certainty. Otto Lopez projects as more of utility guy than a pure infielder, and keeps hitting as he moves up, but will be ticketed for AAA. He either could force his way up or come in play if there’s a spate of injuries, but otherwise doesn’t really figure into baseline 2022 plans.

Kevin Smith struggled badly in his short MLB debut, which is not definitive but any means but comes against the broader backdrop of the roller coaster of ups and downs thus far in his career. For a contending team that can’t afford to dig itself a hole again this year, that likely leaves him in Buffalo awaiting an opening or really banging the door down.

Valera continues, perhaps improbably, to hang on at the back of the roster (though has already been sent outright once). He’s out of options, so for now the default 26th man utility spot, but one could easily see gone getting chopped over the winter for either a roster spot or upgrade elsewhere. Failing that, this could be an opportunity for one of those unestablished younger players to make their case and win a spot at Spring Training.

In terms of normal numbers, the last two years the Jays have had just eight infielders on the 40-man after the Rule 5 deadline, and seven on Opening Day the last three years now. But that range is also tighter than the prior historical trend of 9-10 infielders after 11/20, and as many as 11 by the start of the season.

Samad Taylor would appear likely to be protected on the heels of a strong season in New Hampshire where the offensive production came through to match scouting reports which had been more favourable. He’s also a guy the front office liked in the first place to target from Cleveland in the 2018 Joe Smith deal.

With the assumed major acquisition that would be nine, or perhaps eight if Valera were chopped in the process. While overall the Jays are could add further from an overall numeric standpoint, a key consideration is that they’d already carrying three players who are essentially prospects in that at this point they cannot be forecast as 2022 contributors and are ticketed for Buffalo. There are limits to how many such players can be carried without unduly hamstringing flexibility or precipitating in-season roster squeezes.

That looms large considering Miguel Hiraldo and Leo Jimenez, big bonus 2017 international signings who have performed well but advanced only to low-A and would not start 2022 further than high-A. Hiraldo is a consensus top-10 prospect in the organization, and Jimenez top-20, a level which normally assures 40-man protection (particularly in the former case); though in an increasingly thinned out system that has below average depth at this point.

It seems a stretch to leave a top-10 prospect open to the Rule 5, but while uncommon it’s not actually unprecedented. Helpfully, publishes summaries of their Rule 5 eligible top 30 prospects for each team (2018/2019/2020). The Mets left Shervyen Newton unprotected in 2019, and the Twins Wander Javier, though a difference is that both really struggled in low-A.

Jimenez would be closer to sticking, having shown a knack for hitting and a good eye, and holding his own in the AFL (.257/.438/.371 in 43 PA). But it would really come down to a rebuilding team eating a roster spot to try and steal a prospect, and neither are impact prospects where the end would justify the means. Especially further setting back their development, already missing 2020 and Jimenez half of the 2021 season.

At the end of the day, I just can’t see it, especially with something of a glut of infield prospects on the 40-man. If their stock really is that much higher, I guess one possibility would be adding one or both now, and then packaging some of the infield prospects in a trade this winter. There’s just not room to carry that many in anything but the shortest run.