LAS VEGAS – The house always wins in Las Vegas and, appropriately, the Toronto Blue Jays left the winter meetings a pitcher down after selecting Elvis Luciano following the losses of Canadian Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen in the Rule 5 draft.
Their hope, however, is to collect a big payoff down the road having laid an unusual, off-the-board bet on Luciano, an 18-year-old right-hander typically ineligible for selection but was thanks to Arizona Diamondbacks voiding his first contract over a health issue.
They subsequently re-signed the native of Boca Chica, Dominican Republic – who was no longer under the five-year grace period before Rule 5 protection is needed – and then used him and Gabe Speier to get Jon Jay from the Kansas City Royals, with whom Luciano logged 67 innings across two levels of rookie ball, striking out 70 with a 1.254 WHIP.
Now, Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins is intent on throwing the kid with a “low 90’s fastball, good feel for a breaking ball, good changeup, incredible delivery,” to the wolves in the American League East, seeking to in essence steal a pitching prospect.
“If you just put the eye test (on Luciano), the eye test is a very good one,” said Atkins. “Then our objective tests, if you take the age and the performance off of it, those benchmarks and measurements predict a major-league pitcher. The lack of track record is why there’s so much risk to it. We feel the risk is worth it because of the upside.”
The gamble played out just as word of the three-team blockbuster that sent Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle, Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers to Cleveland and Yandy Diaz to Tampa Bay, began filtering out to upend the baseball nerd nirvana of the Rule 5 draft.
The stunner, a likely precursor to more seismic shifts, put an exclamation point on a winter meetings in which the off-season’s two most significant transactions – the signings of free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado – only seemed to inch forward.
Amidst franchises on the make like the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago White Sox aiming at big moves to propel themselves into prominence lurked the New York Yankees, cocky as ever, with general manager Brian Cashman proclaiming his team a “fully operational Death Star.”
In relation to the defending wild-card winners, the Blue Jays are Jawas in the Tatooine desert, scavenging for any piece of scrap that might hold some value, and the selection of Luciano left some rival executives incredulous.
“Just can’t imagine seeing it work,” texted one.
Asked for precedent on a player who only turns 19 on Feb. 15, 2019, sticking in the majors, another executive said, “Ken Griffey Jr.,” and walked away.
Royals assistant GM J.J. Picollo, speaking to Kansas City media, described the rule making players with voided contracts Rule 5 eligible as “a loophole, and whether it’s a good rule or not is questionable, because you’re sort of penalizing the team.”
The Royals considered protecting Luciano but didn’t because “he’s been in rookie ball, so it’s a huge jump for him,” added Picollo. “It’s a big arm. There’s no doubt. We discussed internally – would somebody do it or not? That’s a sort of a calculation. It’s an interesting pick.”
The Blue Jays, on the surface, would appear to be an unlikely candidate to make such an unorthodox selection given their conservative and methodical approach to player development.
Rule 5 selections cost only $100,000, but must remain on the 25-man roster for a full season to remain property of the claiming club and can’t be demoted without being first offered back to the original team for $50,000. The teams can also work out a trade.
That’s a real possibility if the Blue Jays like what they see in Luciano – they certainly have a surplus of minor-league middle infielders the Royals can be offered – but Atkins also noted that they wouldn’t have made the pick “if we didn’t think he had the stuff,” to pitch as a reliever.
Whether that’s detrimental to Luciano’s long-term development is another matter. Atkins defended that end of things by saying, “he’s not going to start for us” and the Blue Jays will learn “can he get outs, will he be effective enough to get hitters out in the AL East, and we can go from there.”
“This was a unique opportunity,” he said when asked about the contrast to the conservative way the team’s other prospects are handled. “To acquire a young potential starting pitcher … that has all the attributes to pitch in the major-leagues is not easy to do. It presented itself and we have the roster flexibility to do it.”
There is one, loose precedent for this in club history, as on Dec. 3, 1984, the Blue Jays selected a 19-year-old Manny Lee from Houston in the Rule 5 draft, and carried him all through a 95-win 1985 season, giving him all of 43 plate appearances along the way.
What makes that all the more remarkable is that teams carried 24-man rosters back then, so the Blue Jays won their first AL East championship essentially a man short.
Compounding the challenge now for the Blue Jays is that unless Luciano can be a real contributor as the youngest pitcher in team history – Roberto Osuna holds the record now at 20 years, 60 days, surpassing Miguel Castro’s mark of 20 years, 103 days – they’re going to make it even harder for new manager Charlie Montoyo to cover 27 outs daily.
The roster churn necessary to keep a fresh bullpen will mean frequent Toronto-Buffalo/Buffalo-Toronto reliever shuffling, and there’s a human cost for them, and for a kid likely pitching well above his level.
Remember that while Osuna was able to handle it, the stress of initial struggles nearly ruined Castro.
“The age, there are plusses and minuses to that,” said Atkins. “The plusses are the upside, the very high ceiling, the minuses are the risks, and the unknown in how little he has pitched. The stuff projects very well objectively and subjectively, so it will be a very good opportunity for him and our hope is that he’s facing Aaron Judge and some of the best hitters in the game. What an incredible challenge that would be, and we would love to see that happen.”
Part of the cost in making that happen is in the loss of Romano, a native of Markham, Ont., who was selected with the third pick of the Rule 5 draft and subsequently flipped to the Texas Rangers who intend to use him as a reliever, and of Bergen, a lefty with a swing-and-miss curveball taken at No. 9 by the San Francisco Giants. Payback for Joe Biagini if he sticks.
Blue Jays player-development officials were dejected by the losses of two players that had worked their ways through the system, earning respect at each step along the way. And some fans took to social media to second-guess the club’s decision to not protect the duo before last month’s deadline, when Trent Thornton, Patrick Murphy, Yenssy Diaz, Hector Perez and Jacob Waguespack were added to the 40-man roster, especially with Dalton Pompey still holding on to a spot, despite having no future with the club.
A factor on that front is Pompey can easily come off the 40-man roster to clear space if needed, while adding both Romano and Bergen plus the others would have meant exposing someone the team wants to keep to waivers when the time comes to open a spot.
Romano, 25, pitched to a 4.13 ERA in 137.1 innings over 25 starts at double-A New Hampshire, with a WHIP of 1.187 and a strikeouts-per-nine rate of 8.2. He also made one start at triple-A Buffalo, allowing two runs in five innings, and was working out at Rogers Centre when he learned of his Rule 5 selection.
Bergen, 25, allowed only six earned runs in 56.2 innings with 74 strikeouts over 43 appearances at single-A Dunedin and New Hampshire.
“We were aware of the risks of not protecting and ultimately were prepared for that,” said Atkins.
Their priority has been on starting pitching and the selection of Luciano is an example of the lengths they’ll go to get young arms capable of delivering it. The intriguing bet will be watched across the industry, and while the house always wins, the Blue Jays hope to have snuck away with a big-odds ticket that will reap a payday well down the line.