Blue Jays face difficult Rule 5 decisions with crowded prospect pool

Toronto Blue pitcher Jordan Romano of Markham, Ont. throws long toss prior to the official start of spring training. (Frank Gunn/CP)

TORONTO – There are inherent risks to the enviable challenges of organizational surplus, and the Toronto Blue Jays face an important test with Tuesday’s deadline for the filing of reserve lists, shielding eligible players from the Rule 5 draft.

Right-handed pitching prospects Hector Perez, Patrick Murphy and Yennsy Diaz are the likeliest additions to a 40-man roster currently at 36 players, meaning GM Ross Atkins won’t have the space to protect everyone he’d like to avoid exposing. Recently, he said, “I would be surprised if we didn’t have someone Rule 5’d away from us,” with Jordan Romano, Jon Harris, Forrest Wall, Jacob Waguespack, Corey Copping, Kevin Vicuna and Max Pentecost also among the eligible group.

No matter who ends up landing a coveted 40-man roster spot, the Blue Jays will have their fingers crossed until Dec. 13, when the Rule 5 draft wraps up the Winter Meetings.

The initial risk, of course, is leaving the wrong player exposed, losing him in the draft and then watching him produce for another club. But mistakes can also subsequently be made in how protected players are prioritized in the farm system.

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A spot on the 40-man roster can often be a springboard to the big leagues, and since their control clock is running, those players usually get lots of opportunity to play. The problem is that when an organization has surplus, as the Blue Jays currently do with middle infielders, it can be impossible to ensure that everyone gets suitable reps, which creates the potential that a lower-priority talent slips through the cracks.

That’s precisely what happened to the Blue Jays with Yan Gomes, a 10th-round pick in 2009 who climbed the organizational ladder as second fiddle to then-top-prospect Travis d’Arnaud – part of the return from Philadelphia for Roy Halladay – with J.P. Arencibia ahead of the two of them.

The Blue Jays traded Gomes after the 2012 season with Mike Aviles to Cleveland for Esmil Rogers, and Gomes blossomed with the Indians, winning a Silver Slugger award in 2014 and earning an all-star nod in 2018.

Rogers, meanwhile, was on waivers after a season and a half of replacement-level pitching, so big oopsies on that one. The Blue Jays were so focused on grooming Arencibia and d’Arnaud, they never fully realized what they had in Gomes.

“There was a lot of frustration at the time, but I did get chances and I took advantage of some of them,” Gomes said of his time in the Blue Jays system during a July interview. “It wasn’t until double-A/triple-A where I was like, ‘You know what, I really have to push ahead, I have to figure out how I’m going to get some at-bats.’ That’s when I started moving positions. I played a few innings in the outfield in the big leagues and that was the first time I ever did that. Learning in the big leagues probably isn’t my recommendation.

“Yeah, I was blocked by higher picks and bigger prospects, but it makes the story in the end even better.”

For Gomes and Cleveland it’s a better story, sure, but not for the Blue Jays, who need to avoid repeating the mistake with their glut of middle infielders in both the majors and minors.

At second, shortstop and third at the moment, they have Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Aledmys Diaz, Brandon Drury, Devon Travis, Richard Urena and Yangervis Solarte, a non-tender candidate. Throw the Troy Tulowitzki wild card into the mix, and it’s quite the logjam at the big-league level before Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is even factored in, and he’ll be up a month or so into the 2019 season, to further complicate matters.

In the minors, things are no less crowded.

Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Kevin Smith, Santiago Espinal, Vicuna, Logan Warmoth, Samad Taylor and Jordan Groshans all need playing time and already they’ve been forced to move around the diamond to accommodate each other when on the same teams.

Internal competition is healthy, except when a deserving player gets mistakenly overlooked.

“At times you want to battle with that actual person (ahead of you) and you can’t do that. It takes your love away from the game and that takes away from when you’re on the field if you’re thinking every at-bat is something you’re going to live and die by. You can’t do that,” said Gomes. “You’ve got to just take care of yourself, keep working hard because a lot of times, even when I didn’t do well on the field, my hard work and persistence in wanting to be an everyday player showed in the organization and even though I was blocked, I was getting chances.

“You hate for people to get injured but d’Arnaud would get injured every now and then so I’d get my opportunities and you have to be ready. If you keep putting the woe is me on yourself, you’re not going to be ready when opportunity comes.”

From the player’s perspective, there’s no better way to handle things, but that doesn’t make the decisions on a front office any easier.

The Minnesota Twins, for instance, gave up too early on David Ortiz, who proceeded to deliver a Hall-of-Fame calibre career for the Boston Red Sox. The Houston Astros did the same with J.D. Martinez when they were in a similar rebuild point as the Blue Jays are now.

“It was important for us to evaluate our own players first and make sure we knew what we had and as we were drafting players like Carlos Correa, and George Springer was developing, and Dallas Keuchel started to develop, we knew those guys were going to be part of our future so that checked that box,” said Astros GM Jeff Luhnow. “But we had a lot of role players on our team and we needed to give them playing time to see if they were going be around. Guys like Marwin Gonzalez, who we took in the Rule 5 draft, gave him playing time, he proved he belonged here and was part of what we’ve done. … Guys like J.D. Martinez, we gave plenty of playing time to, and ultimately made the wrong decision on him. But we did give him a lot of opportunity with us.”

Cautionary tales abound, and they’ll need to be top of mind as the Blue Jays transition from the accumulation of assets to the initial stages of culling them.

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