Maxed-out roster gives Blue Jays options for future upgrades

Ross Atkins, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, speaks to the media during an end-of-the-season press conference. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Josh Palacios played a few games during spring training, joined the Toronto Blue Jays for summer camp after the shutdown and spent the season at the alternate training site in Rochester. When it came time to go home, he suddenly found himself on the club’s 40-man playoff pool, travelling to Florida for the post-season series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Then Friday, as he worked out at the Blue Jays’ new training facility in Dunedin, Fla., player development director Gil Kim pulled him aside and told him he was being added to the 40-man roster, a key stepping-stone that positions him for eventual promotion to the majors.

“This is a really, really weird year,” the 25-year-old outfielder from Brooklyn said in an interview. “If you had told me this five years ago, that I would have a whole season without having played one game that counted and still ended up on the 40-man, I would have said you're crazy. This is like some alternate reality type of stuff. But it’s a blessing to make some advancements through all of this. It's exciting to take another step forward towards living out my dream.”

The Blue Jays added Palacios, along with catchers Riley Adams and Gabriel Moreno, infielder Otto Lopez and right-hander Ty Tice to max out their 40-man roster room ahead of Friday’s deadline, keeping them from being exposed in next month’s Rule 5 draft.

While they have options to clear space for future big-league acquisitions – outfielder Derek Fisher is clinging to a spot and Travis Shaw is a non-tender candidate – by adding so many players the Blue Jays positioned themselves to make some trades, as well.

No area of the 40 has more surplus than catcher, where top prospects Adams and Moreno, both part of the club’s 60-man regular season pool, join Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Reese McGuire. That’s an atypically high number of spots to devote to the position, making it an ideal area of depth to deal from.

To that end Kirk, who made an impressive debut, was sought after by the Pittsburgh Pirates during the trade deadline this summer, while the Texas Rangers have also long had interest in the club’s backstops. Cleveland recently picked up Roberto Perez’s option but remain thin behind the plate and have recently sought volume in trades.

At the same time, the Blue Jays are no doubt trying to protect themselves against what could be an aggressive Rule 5 draft, especially if big-league rosters remain expanded beyond 26 players. Collegians from the 2017 draft and high-schoolers picked in 2016 left off a 40-man are eligible to be chosen. Those selected must remain in the majors for an entire season or be offered back to their original team.

Two years ago, for example, both Jordan Romano and Travis Bergen were plucked from the Blue Jays but eventually returned.

“The main focus is that we truly believe in our players, and we do feel like they are going to be able to help us win at the big-league level at some point in the near future,” said Gil Kim, the club's director of player development. “We added five players but are also another group of five that we also feel can help our big-league club sometime soon.”

Notable eligible Blue Jays exposed include shortstops Kevin Smith and Logan Warmoth, righties Josh Winckowski and Justin Dillon, and lefty Zach Logue.

As a left-handed hitting outfielder and a righty-heavy roster Palacios is a logical add with Fisher on the bubble. He spent all of 2019 at double-A New Hampshire and was ticketed for triple-A Buffalo before the shutdown hit.

In the absence of games, he worked closely with hitting co-ordinator Hunter Mense and outfield coach Devon White, really honing in on specific skills during what he described as “a risk-free year” because there was “no fear of failure.”

“With Hunter, we were able to get me a little smoother in my swing, get some more contact going to the opposite side of the field,” said Palacios. “And in the outfield, Devon White was able to open my mind to the different things you do in the outfield, like routes to the ball, being able to take my head off the ball and look in different directions, being more comfortable.”

The strides he made there convinced the Blue Jays that they couldn’t risk exposing him.

“He absolutely deserves this opportunity,” said Kim. “Really, the alt-site experience just solidified it for us.”

The same went for the others, save for Lopez, a 22-year-old who spent all of 2019 at low-A Lansing and wasn’t at the alternate training site. Instead, he spent the summer working out in Montreal and sharing videos of his progress with various coaches.

An under-the-radar talent who has continually impressed player-development staff, Lopez has made the Blue Jays confident that “he’ll become a factor for us at the big-league level at some point,” said Kim.

“He came into our fall development camp in great shape and just continued to show more progress,” Kim continued. “He’s athletic, he’s a high-contact bat, plus speed, defensive versatility to play up the middle in the infield and the outfield as well. Sure, he hasn't played above A-ball, but he also has a history of succeeding. And with those high-contact skills, we just feel like he's a guy who is going to continue to get better.”

Tice, a hard-throwing reliever, put himself on the doorstep of a relief role after splitting 2019 between New Hampshire and Buffalo. He continued to impress while on the club’s 60-man regular-season pool and could find his way into some relief innings next year.

Palacios, meanwhile, finished his workouts Friday, called his parents to break the news and planned to spend the evening chatting with friends and letting them know.

“Everybody is excited,” he said. “But I let them know I haven't made it to the major-leagues just yet. I just got a step closer, though.”

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