2017 Blue Jays Rule 5 Draft Decisions: whom to protect?

The 2017 Rule 5 Draft is exactly one month away, as the last item of Winter Meeting business on December 14th. But before playing offence and looking for the next hidden gem comes the defensive element, preventing your farm system from being the one raided. Teams must set their 40-man rosters by this coming Monday, November 20, adding any eligible prospects they want to protect from being selected by other teams.

Whether an eligible player is added or not is a combination of expected future value/impact, the availability of roster spots, as well as the likelihood of another team selecting the player and him sticking. The 40-man roster currently stands at 36, including six whom I identified as “on the bubble“, so there’s a reasonable amount of room for additions, with the caveat that there will certainly be additions soon. The 40-man constraint will be a real factor in protection decisions.

Rule 5 Primer

The basic goal of the Rule 5 Draft is to prevent teams from unduly stockpiling talent in the minors without giving the players a shot at the majors. The timelines for Rule 5 eligibility are complex, but as a basic rule of thumb, high school draftees and international free agents (IFA) are first eligible four years after signing, with college players being eligible three years after signing.

For 2017, this generally means high school draftees and IFAs signed in 2013 and college players signed in 2014. In addition, all players who were previously Rule 5 eligible remain eligible, unless they are likewise added. This includes minor league free agents signed prior to the Rule 5 draft and former major leaguers who have been outrighted off the 40-man roster.

In the major league phase, teams can select eligible players from other organizations who are not on a 40-man roster for $100,000. Drafted players have to remain on the 25-man (active) roster for the entire subsequent season, with a minimum of 90 active days, or be put on waivers and offered back to the original team if cleared. If the player fails to reach 90 active days, he has to remain on the 25-man roster in subsequent seasons until he reaches 90 active days. The minor league phases of the draft are much less important and generally used just to fill out rosters.

First Time Eligible Players

Below is a table of first time eligible players, along with some background information and the levels at which they've played in the organization the last three years.

Let’s start with the one slam dunk: this time next week, Danny Jansen will be enjoying his first full day on a 40-man roster. In my view, he’s the only one that’s a guarantee to be added.

Rowdy Tellez is an interesting case after the dichotomy of 2016-17: is he the 21-year old who destroyed AA; or the first baseman who put up a .628 OPS in AAA with questions about his ability to hit premium velocity. Tellez is a rare first time eligible player with full seasons in AA and AAA, so it’s not hard to see him sticking in some capacity and not inconceivable he could step into a lineup if one believes he’s ultimately an impact bat.

At a minimum, it would be pretty easy for a rebuilding team that believed in him to take him and give him a long look in Spring Training. Unless no one believes he can be an impact bat, then there’s a good chance he gets taken. So the question is what the Jays think. The conservative thing to do is to add him, and then send him back to Buffalo. The cost is just a 40-man spot, and for that reason, I think it’s more likely than not he’s added. But it’s worth remembering the current regime aren’t the ones who drafted him, and there’s a lot of a division on his future outlook.

Sticking with 2013 high school draftees, Conner Greene. The raw stuff and upside is unquestionable, but since a breakout 2015, he’s stagnated or arguably gone backwards in AA. I can’t imagine the Jays would expose such a gifted arm, who will still only be 23 next year. Especially considering that if you put him in the bullpen in 2018, not only could he stick, but if something clicked he could be an impact arm.

Reese McGuire was one of the top high school players in the 2013 draft. But he didn’t really hit at all in pro ball, and despite a strong defensive profile six months I wouldn’t have had him a strong candidate to protect with a backup type profile. Then he came back from injury and mashed for the last six weeks. Catchers are highly prized, he was acquired by this front office, and it’s again a rebuilding team that liked him could conceivably carry him as a backup given his defensive chops and experience in AA.

Then there’s the other first round catcher, Max Pentecost. Though with less than 250 professional innings behind the plate, catcher might be a bit of a stretch. He simply can’t stay healthy, and one really has to question if his future is behind the plate. If not, the question is whether he’ll hit enough to be a regular at another feasible position anyway, given his performance so far (more fine than standout). I simply can’t see him sticking regardless, and don’t think it makes sense to protect him.

Jordan Romano has been a really pleasant surprise since coming back from Tommy John surgery 18 months ago. While he’s succeeded as a starter, and should probably get a chance to do so in AA next year, ultimately I think he profiles as a reliever given that he doesn’t have a third pitch and is often “effectively wild” in terms of command. But with a mid-90s fastball and knockout slider, he could be a pretty good one. But could he stick in 2018 or is the upside worth hiding? It’s not unquestionable but probably not, so I would expect him to be more of a consideration a year from ow if thinks go well.

Finally, Patrick Murphy, another player who struggled to stay healthy. There’s some comparison to be made with Ryan Borucki a year ago, also since after struggling early he was really really strong from June onwards (the mediocre season numbers are misleading). He’s got a big fastball and wipeout curveball, but unlike Borucki doesn’t have a viable third pitch which limits his upside, likely to a reliever (potentially a closer type). Given that, I think he falls short of being added...but I don’t think it’s impossible a team really likes his arm and tries to hide him in the back of a bullpen.

That’s all the players who stick out to me to consider. The one other player I’d note is Justin Shafer, who could profile as a ground ball machine reliever with a fastball/slider profile. But I don’t see him as MLB ready right now, and the upside doesn’t justify a 40-man spot now. None of the big bonus IFA players from this class have distinguished themselves.

Previously Eligible Players

There’s a number of interesting names, but other than Thomas Pannone there’s no one who had the kind of 2017 that would make them a real candidate after previously being passed over. Statistically, Pannone would seem a slam dunk, and the safe thing to do would be protecting him (especially since he was acquired by the new regime). But he profiles as a backend starter, and I’m not convinced he could stick. Maybe in the bullpen, with shades of Joe Biagini?

Summary

I have a pretty spotty record over the last five or so years when it comes to predicting the players the Jays ultimately select, so a grain of salt is in order. But in addition to Jansen, I’ll guess Tellez, Greene and McGuire to fill up the 40-man. I’m on the fence with Murphy, and Pannone is probable a close call as well.

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