Blue Jays face roster balancing act ahead of Rule 5 protection deadline

Ross Atkins, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, speaks to the media. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – There’s nothing quite like a deadline to push MLB front offices into action, and with the first off-season decision point approaching Friday, this slow-paced winter may pick up a little momentum.

That’s not to say Trevor Bauer and George Springer are about to sign – this is far smaller in scale – but as the Nov. 20 deadline for protecting Rule 5-eligible players approaches, we’ll see teams make moves at the edges of their 40-man rosters: protecting some players, leaving others exposed and trading those who no longer fit.

For the Blue Jays, a delicate balancing act exists between now and Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Protect too few players, and they risk losing talent to rival teams in next month’s Rule 5 Draft. That possibility exists every year, but perhaps even more so now that teams are likely to have expanded rosters and are certainly looking for ways to cut expenses. But if the Blue Jays protect too many players, they cost themselves roster flexibility in the short-term while exposing themselves to further risks down the road.

At this stage, the Blue Jays have 35 players on their 40-man roster. That’s plenty of room to work with already, and another spot would open up if they non-tender Travis Shaw when baseball’s next deadline arrives on Dec. 2. But they won’t fill those spots just for the sake of filling them.

This year, college picks from 2017 are Rule-5 eligible as are high school players from 2016 and players who were previously eligible. For the Blue Jays, that means these players are among those who must be protected or exposed:

• Gabriel Moreno, C (top prospect)
• Josh Palacios, OF (was in the Blue Jays’ 40-man playoff pool)
• Kevin Smith, IF (was in the Blue Jays’ 60-player regular season pool)
• Riley Adams, C (was in the Blue Jays’ 60-player regular season pool)
• Ty Tice, LHP (was in the Blue Jays’ 60-player regular season pool)
• Josh Winckowski, RHP
• Otto Lopez, SS
• Logan Warmoth, IF
• Cullen Large, IF
• Zach Logue, LHP
• Justin Dillon, RHP

After a year with no minor-league games, it’s hard to know how these players are developing from the outside looking in. There’s incomplete information out there, and that creates a challenge for everyone – rival teams included. Internally, the Blue Jays know how these players fared at their alternate training site and development facilities. To some extent, they may even share that information with other teams. But compared to most years, teams have less information than usual about prospective Rule 5 selections.

Even so, we have at least some idea of how the Blue Jays value these players. Those who were added to the Blue Jays’ player pools this year have already obtained votes of confidence from the front office.

With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising to hear GM Ross Atkins confirm that the likes of Moreno, Adams and Smith are earning consideration for 40-man spots ahead of the deadline. Along with those three, about four others are also in the mix.

“We need to keep room for adding free agents on our 40-man and we feel as though our system is in a very strong place,” Atkins said when asked last week about the upcoming deadline. “Every year those decisions get harder and harder and I'm so glad they are.”

Moreno is a lock to be added given his status as one of the team’s top catching prospects. Beyond that, the Blue Jays could go in a few directions. Palacios would also appear to have a real shot after being added to the team’s playoff pool just a couple of months ago, Smith and Adams are evidently in the mix and, for what it’s worth, the team liked Tice enough to add him to the player pool back in June.

Technically speaking, there’s nothing preventing the Blue Jays from adding all five players, but it doesn’t sound like the front office is seriously considering that approach. As Atkins mentioned, the team needs room for more free agent additions in the months ahead.

Even beyond this winter, there’s a downside to clogging up the 40-man. Every spot a prospect occupies is one less spot for intriguing waiver claims like Anthony Bass or minor trade targets. Plus, players with remaining options have more industry value, so teams prefer not to ‘waste’ one of three option years on a player who’s not yet MLB-ready. For example, if the Blue Jays had added Palacios last year, he would now have just two option years remaining rather than three.

The risk, of course, is that someone gets claimed. But as Jordan Romano’s career arc shows, even some Rule 5 picks end up back where they started.

“We need to be cognizant of not protecting every name,” Atkins said. “Once you do start that ‘clock’ of putting someone on your roster, you don't want to have them coming off any time soon because that makes them very attractive to other teams to be able to go to another team and be optioned to a double-A or triple-A site for a very low cost. We're in a good position in terms of depth, but that means we have hard decisions."

In other words, the Blue Jays would rather leave some intriguing players off their 40-man and accept the risk of losing someone than go too far the other way and let an overprotective approach limit their options going forward.

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