Blue Jays facing tough decisions ahead of Rule 5 protection deadline

Thomas-Hatch-Toronto-Blue-Jays

Pitcher Thomas Hatch, seen here pitching of Oklahoma State, is one pitching prospect the Jays could consider adding to the 40-man roster (Nati Harnik/AP)

TORONTO – In a way, the Blue Jays began their off-season roster management a couple months back, when they promoted Anthony Kay and T.J. Zeuch to the big-league roster.

At the time, the Blue Jays needed innings and wanted the two young pitchers to get some big-league exposure. But there was also an awareness that Kay and Zeuch would be Rule 5 eligible unless they were added to the 40-man roster by November 20. With that in mind, the Blue Jays promoted them both in early September.

Now, Kay and Zeuch have spots on the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster. By Wednesday evening’s 8 p.m. ET deadline, at least one more prospect will likely join them – potentially more. But since the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster is full, each addition will force the front office to part with someone.

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As last call to protect players from next month’s Rule 5 Draft approaches, teams around baseball will be forced to make some difficult decisions (college picks from 2016 are eligible as are high school players from 2015). At the very least, some intriguing players will be left exposed. And as last year’s Trent Thornton for Aledmys Diaz deal showed, this deadline can also drive trade discussions for teams overflowing with talent.

With all of that in mind, here’s a closer look at the Blue Jays’ upcoming decisions…

Long shots to be added

RHP Bryan Baker | 24 | 3.17 ERA | 54 innings | 36 walks | 71 strikeouts | reached AAA
RHP Zach Jackson | 24 | 3.97 ERA | 68 innings | 34 walks | 68 strikeouts | reached AAA
RHP Dany Jimenez | 25 | 2.59 ERA | 59 innings | 21 walks | 93 strikeouts | reached AA
RHP Jackson McClelland | 25 | 3.77 ERA | 57.1 innings | 32 walks | 56 strikeouts | reached AAA
LHP Kirby Snead | 25 | 3.45 ERA | 62.2 innings | 19 walks | 68 strikeouts | reached AAA

Considering the shortage of lefty relief on the Blue Jays’ roster, they’ll have to at least consider adding Snead, their 10th-round pick in 2016. And Jimenez is intriguing from the right side after posting some impressive strikeout rates on his way to double-A. Even so, it’d be a surprise if any of these five has a roster spot by Wednesday evening.

Exposing Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen didn’t ultimately cost the Blue Jays last winter, as both were selected in the Rule 5 Draft but ultimately returned. One year later, rival teams will be able to choose from some more Toronto arms.

Note: Nate Pearson, a 2017 draft pick, does not have to be added to the 40-man this winter.

Candidates to be added

IF Santiago Espinal | 25 | 122 games | 7 HR | 27 2B | 12/13 SB | .287/.347/.393 | reached AAA
OF Josh Palacios | 24 | 82 games | 7 HR | 18 2B | 15/20 SB | .266/.371/.416 | reached AA
OF Forrest Wall | 24 on Wednesday | 123 games | 11 HR | 30 2B | 14/22 SB | .268/.351/.422 | reached AAA

All three of these players have gotten serious consideration for 40-man spots in recent months, but it’s not clear if any are locks ahead of Wednesday’s deadline. Of all the decisions facing the Blue Jays front office, these three cases are most likely to be real challenges.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Wall, a former first-round pick who came to Toronto in the Seung-hwan Oh trade, had a solid but unspectacular season in which he reached triple-A. But his double-A teammate, Palacios, is also in the mix for a roster spot after posting a .371 on-base percentage in 82 games with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

If the Blue Jays add one position player, it seems likely to be Espinal, who they obtained for 2018 World Series MVP Steve Pearce. Listed at 5-foot-10 and 175 Lbs., Espinal doesn’t hit for much power, but he projects as a capable backup whose bat-to-ball skills give him a lifetime .285 average in the minors.

Baseball America recently listed Palacios and Espinal as players who could draw interest if left unprotected.

Likely to be added

RHP Thomas Hatch | 25 | 4.12 ERA | 135.1 innings | 39 walks | 127 strikeouts | reached AA

The David Phelps trade looks like a good one for the Blue Jays thanks to Hatch, who posted a 2.80 ERA in six starts with the Fisher Cats late last summer. His final outing of the year was his best: a seven-inning effort in which he struck out 11 and walked none.

Expect the Blue Jays to keep stretching Hatch out in 2020, but some believe he could also be a shutdown late-inning reliever. Either way, he should be on the roster by Wednesday evening.

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