With something like only 17 days left before Daylight Savings Time, the light at the end of the winter tunnel no longer appears to be a train, although if you live in Atlantic Canada, it may be snowplow.
Spring training is almost upon us, a time when we take time in the days just before it approaches to take stock of things from a Blue Jays prospect perspective. For some prospects, 2015 will be a make or break year, either because they are out of options, or because the club will have to decide on their future by the end of November, or risk losing them in the Rule 5 draft.
Thanks to Bluebird Banter for graphics which show information about each Blue Jays minor leaguer's Rule 5 status, and their outright and options status.
Not every prospect in the Blue Jays system is facing such a potentially make or break year. Players are eligible for selection in the Rule 5 draft if they are not on their team's 40 man roster, and were 18 or younger on the June 5th preceding their signing, and the upcoming Rule 5 draft will be the fifth Rule 5 draft, or if they were 19 or older on the June 5 preceding their signing, and this will be the fourth Rule 5 draft. In most cases this applies to High Schoolers and International Free Agents drafted/signed in 2011, and college players selected in the 2012 June draft. Also, we should consider players whose options were used up in 2014 - this group is on the extreme edge of the bubble.
Players Out of Options
This year, even though we can't really consider them prospects anymore, Kyle Drabek and Liam Hendriks are out of options, and will be under the microscope this spring.
Drabek, the jewel of the Roy Halladay trade, was once the organization's top prospect, but has struggled with his command since his second Tommy John surgery in 2012. Mid-way through last season, the team converted him to relief, and he pitched reasonably well out of Buffalo's bullpen. He even pitched well in a pair of games during a brief August call-up.
Drabek has not recovered the velocity he had prior to his second TJ. Prior to it, he sat 93-95 with his fourseamer/sinker touching 97. Now, he sits at 91, which creates less separation between his fastball and his curve and change, making them less effective. He has turned to his sinker more in an effort to get more groundball contact. I saw him late in the season at Buffalo, and he was pounded by the Red Sox affiliate. It was a small sample size to be sure, but he wasn't fooling anyone.
While the Blue Jays still likely love his arm, he will need to have a knockout spring to make the major league roster.
Hendriks was a sensation with Buffalo last year, and even had a brief stint with the big club before being packaged in the Danny Valencia deal with Kansas City. Toronto reacquired him this off season, but it would take an enormous stumble by all the candidates ahead of him for the 5th starters' job, including Aaron Sanchez, Daniel Norris, Marco Estrada, Todd Redmond, and maybe even Chad Jenkins, for that to happen.
The Blue Jays are likely hopeful he would accept an assignment to Buffalo if he doesn't make the big club out of spring training, because with the trading of Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, the organization is a little thin on starting pitcher depth.
High Schoolers Drafted/IFA's signed in 2011
The Blue Jays signed an impressive crop of International Free Agents in 2011. Toronto gave then Latin America director Marco Paddy a huge budget to work with, and they outspent every team except for the Rangers.
Among the most notable signings was Mexican RHP Roberto Osuna, who received a $1.5 million bonus. Osuna has given the Blue Jays good value for that money, even though he missed the last half of 2013 and the first half of 2014 as a result of Tommy John surgery. Post TJ Roberto Osuna is a slimmed down version of the old one, and as an added bonus, he's had an uptick in velocity, now sitting mid 90 with his fastball. Control was an issue in both the Florida State and Arizona Fall leagues last year, but that's a common pattern with Tommy John patients. Osuna likely will begin the season in New Hampshire, and should be a lock to be placed on the 40 man by November.
Dwight Smith Jr is seen by many as something of a sleeper prospect. He hit well in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League without much protection in the lineup, and fared well as a taxi-squad player in the Arizona Fall League, where he had a brief trial at 2nd base. Because he may lack the power of a corner outfielder, the trial may continue. Unless he stumbles at AA, Smith should be added to the 40 by November, too.
Jairo Labourt signed for $350 000, and had an up and down year in 2014, but finished on a high note with Vancouver. He may move quickly this year, and has an outside shot at a roster spot by season's end, depending on his progress.
Dawel Lugo signed for $1.3 million, and was making a name for himself as a potential impact back before last year. He did not hit as well in his first year of full season ball with Lansing, although a hot July may have given a glimpse of what is to come. The thinking was that Lugo's size would mean an eventual move from shortstop, but he has played steady, if unspectacular defence there, and will likely remain there for this year, which for him will likely begin in the FSL. It's hard to see him making the 40 man unless he has a huge breakout year. The advantage to not skipping a player over a rung on the minor league ladder can be that by the time he becomes Rule 5 eligible, he's too far away to consider taking a flyer on.
Matt Dean is in a similar spot. Taken in the 13th round, he produced well at Bluefield and won a batting title there in 2013, and produced respectable numbers at Lansing, but nothing comparable to what he did in the Appy League. He likely will move up the ladder this year, but he doesn't seem to give indications that he's a breakout prospect.
Alberto Tirado was on everyone's radar after 2014, but command issues last year have lessened his status somewhat. He still has is on some Top 10 prospects lists, but since his most effective pitching this season was done out of the bullpen, he doesn't carry a lot of value. It will be interesting to see if the organization continues using him in relief this year, or gives him another shot at starting. If he is effective this year, they may have to make a decision on him in November - if he returns to his former electric arm state, he may be tough for some teams to pass on in the Rule 5 draft.
Christian Lopes was a highly rated high school player, but his stock dropped in his senior year, and the Blue Jays took him in the 7th round. His numbers have not been overwhelming in four minor league seasons, but he had a bit of a breakout in the Aussie Winter League before injuring a hamstring. Unless he has a similar bust out this year, he's a long shot for the 40, as is IFA Emilio Guerrero, who teamed with Lopes in Dunedin's infield in 2014.
Jeremy Gabryszwski's last name is now firmly entrenched in my laptop's spellcheck, and I'm grateful for that. Gaby was taken in the 2nd round in 2011, and truth be told, has pitched decently, but has not missed a lot of bats in his milb career. To his credit, he doesn't walk a lot of hitters, either, so he's been a bit of a victim of BABIP. At the higher levels, the lack of strikeouts isn't as alarming, but at the lower levels, if you're giving up 176 hits in 141 IP, you're likely not in possession of an electric fastball. He likely will start the year at Dunedin. To this point, there isn't much in his performance to label him a prospect.
One more body to add to this list is Jacob Anderson, who is more of a missing persons case. The 2011 sandwich round pick missed all of 2013 with a rib injury, and amassed all of 10 PA's at Bluefield this year before being shut down again. I've scoured the milb transactions page at Baseball America to make sure he is even still with the organization.
For players who don't get placed on the 40 man, it's not the end of the road, but the view starts to get a little clearer. For most of these players, there's little chance an MLB team will take them in the Rule 5 draft. Just ask Jon Berti, John Stilson, or Andy Burns, who were left unprotected last November. What it does mean, though, is that the clock essentially starts on their minor league free agency, which they can opt for after their sixth season. And their window for making the majors is rapidly closing.