By Jay Blue
Wile the spotlight was on Russell Martin and his unveiling as a Toronto Blue Jay, the Blue Jays made a quiet move to fill their 40-man roster.
Last year, the Blue Jays added former first-round draft pick Deck McGuire and outfielder Kenny Wilson to the 40-man roster in order to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, held on the last day of the winter meetings in December.
In general, players with four years of minor league experience are eligible for the Rule 5 draft every winter (unless they were 18 or younger when they signed their first pro contract, in which case, they get five years) and this year, players like Aaron Sanchez and Dalton Pompey would have been eligible. Since the Blue Jays added them to the 40-man roster during the season, they are already protected and the Blue Jays aren’t really speculating about whether they want to use a roster spot for them. Daniel Norris, also put on the roster, was still one year away from eligibility while Marcus Stroman and Kendall Graveman were both still a couple of years away from eligibility.
Players have to be on the 40-man roster in order to be protected and the Blue Jays made one small, unsurprising move to clear one more spot for Ryan Tepera, the only player added to the roster at the Nov. 20 deadline. Very quietly, the Jays had designated Juan Francisco for assignment and he was claimed on waivers by the Boston Red Sox.
This little move tells us a lot about how the Blue Jays would have treated Francisco when it came time to offer him a new contract. Eligible for arbitration and estimated to make about $2.2 million, Francisco was tagged by MLB Trade Rumors’ Tim Dierkes as a non-tender candidate, meaning that the Jays weren’t likely offer him a contract, making him a free agent.
Since the Jays weren’t planning on bringing him back, Francisco was DFA’ed now in order to make room for Tepera. Ryan Tepera is a hard throwing righty who had a very solid year in Buffalo. The 27-year-old was eligible to be selected last season but wasn’t protected (or selected) and responded with a 3.66 ERA, 1.41 WHIP and 24 walks and 67 strikeouts in 64 innings for the Buffalo Bisons. Josh Norris at Baseball America says that he has a “plus fastball that sinks and cuts” but his “high-80s slider . . . is below-average.”
If you’re a loyal reader, you’ll know that I wrote about Tepera last year because he was tapped by Marc Hulet as being a guy that could be selected in the Rule 5 draft. This year, after a successful season at the highest minor league level, the Blue Jays aren’t going to take any chances.
These moves now have two more cascading effects. The first is that the Blue Jays, with a full 40-man roster, will be unable to select anyone in the Rule 5 draft, so you won’t see a move like the Jays made last year, selecting Brian Moran from the Mariners and then flipping him to the Angels for cap money in the international free agent bonus pool.
The second effect is a little more interesting when we look at who the Blue Jays didn’t protect in the draft. The biggest name that comes to mind is Andy Burns, a versatile infielder who has played all of the infield positions (although he’s been moved off of shortstop somewhat permanently) and a couple of outfield positions over the last couple of years. Defensively, he is capable of excellence although when I’ve seen Burns over the past two seasons, he’s had a tendency to run hot and cold. He sometimes looked Brett-Lawrie-esque at the hot corner and sometimes looked disinterested. I did see him play a game at second base and he made all of the plays and looked fine there.
Offensively, Burns is really intriguing. While he hasn’t had a truly outstanding full season at any one level, Burns made Double-A in 2013 when he came out of the gate hammering the ball in High-A Dunedin, posting a .907 OPS in 64 games. In another 64 games in Double-A New Hampshire, Burns’ OPS dropped to .728 but he still managed to put together some solid numbers with a .253/.309/.419 that included 19 doubles, two triples and seven home runs after a slow start adjusting to the higher level.
In 2014, Burns started slowly, hitting just .213/.292/.330 in April and May but rebounded well with the bat, hitting .280/.328/.492 with 11 of his 15 home runs and 24 of his 32 doubles in the final three months of the season. With the combination of solid power, speed (18 stolen bases) and decent contact ability, Burns could offer a team a good player off the bench if he’s selected in the Rule 5 draft. I don’t think he’ll be back.
The other players who were left off the 40-man roster include pitcher John Stilson and second baseman Jon Berti. Stilson is coming back from shoulder surgery and would be a risky pick for a team. Still, he could be selected, placed on the 60-day DL and activated when healthy. Remember that players selected in the Rule 5 draft have to be on the major league roster all season and must be active for 90 days of that. However, there are cases (Brian Moran is one) where a player who is injured can spend a full season on the 60-day DL and then must be on the 25-man roster for the full year the following season. I think Stilson is just about major league ready, having seen him (and interviewed him) in Spring Training in 2014 and he could be a somewhat risky pickup with the upside of being a fairly high leverage arm in the bullpen.
Jon Berti is also a curious omission. Has he become expendable now that Devon Travis is in the organization? Berti, a two-time winner of the Jays’ R. Howard Webster award for being the MVP of his minor league team, has hit Double-A so far and has been classified as a hard-nosed player who has great speed and defense but may not make it with the bat. Berti will be 25 next year and could very well be in Buffalo.
Travis, incidentally, has one more year before he’s eligible to be selected in the Rule 5 draft and the Blue Jays will get another chance to see what they’ve got in him before they have to decide whether or not to put him on the 40-man roster. There is also a likelihood that, like Sanchez and Pompey, Travis will join the Blue Jays at some point in 2015, making his protection in the 2015 Rule 5 draft automatic.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be an interesting Rule 5 draft for the Blue Jays, primarily to see if any of the non-protected players find new homes on other teams.
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