Jay Blue: What to expect from Jays' pitching prospects on 40-man in 2019
By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away
The Blue Jays just added five pitchers to their 40-man roster before the deadline that precedes the Rule 5 draft, protecting them while leaving other players exposed to other teams. But what can we expect from these young players in the 2019 season (should they remain on the 40-man roster until then)?
I consider any player who hasn't really established himself in the major leagues over two-to-three years as one who is still on the bubble and young players can be very volatile (relievers are more so than starters). After all, we need only look to the cautionary tales of Ricky Romero and Brett Cecil to see how a young career can be affected by the ups and downs of major league life and competition.
While Ryan Borucki exceeded the rookie playing time guidelines in 2018, we can still consider him, as a player under 25 years of age, a prospect. Borucki showed himself to be up to the big league challenge, posting an ERA under 4.00 (3.87) with a 1.32 WHIP while striking out more than two batters for every one he walked. Right now, he's pencilled in as the No. 3 starter on the 2019 Toronto Blue Jays, behind a healthy Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, but ideally, I think most fans would be more comfortable with Borucki as a No. 4 or 5 starter as he enters his first season with an inside track on a starting role. Don't be surprised to see big league hitters start to figure out Borucki more, forcing him to make some adjustments of his own as the age-old cat and mouse game unfolds. I wouldn't be surprised if he spends some time in the minor leagues but I also think that he has the ability to step up to the challenge.
Yennsy Diaz, 22, is probably the youngest pitcher on the 40-man roster and he's coming off a stellar first full season of baseball (while he pitching in Lansing in 2017, he only made 16 starts and threw just 77 innings). Diaz jumped his innings total to 147 1/3 with a 3.05 ERA and 1.13 WHIP at two levels, getting more time in Dunedin after winning the Midwest League Pitcher of the Month award in April. He maintained solid strikeout rates at both levels and actually saw his walk rate drop in the Florida State League. Diaz will likely pitch in double-A in 2019, although a warm-weather start in Dunedin could also be likely to ensure that he gets regular work early in the season. Don't expect the club to rush him, although I wouldn't be surprised if he finished the year in Buffalo.
Julian Merryweather, 27, is generally considered a bit old to be a prospect but he didn't pitch at all in 2018 due to injury and we thought it would be important to discuss the arm the Jays got in return for Josh Donaldson. Merryweather had the best fastball in the Indians' system going into 2018 but he started to struggle in 2017, seeing increases in his walk rates and home run rates in triple-A Columbus. Merryweather had his Tommy John surgery in March 2018 so I wouldn't expect him back pitching in games until around May.
Patrick Murphy, 24, is a guy who I see as a right-handed Ryan Borucki but with more oomph on his fastball. Murphy hit triple digits last year and hit 98mph regularly, sitting 93-96 in games. Murphy spent all of the 2018 season, save for one start, with the Dunedin Blue Jays, earning himself the Florida State League Pitcher of the Year award with a 2.64 ERA and 1.20 WHIP, striking out 135 with 50 walks in 146 2/3 innings. He acquitted himself well in his one double-A start and that's where I expect him to return in 2019. That said, with a full season's worth of innings under his belt (152 2/3 in total last year), he could be moved up to Triple-A if space allows. That said, there are a lot of pitchers vying for triple-A spots and Murphy may be held back in double-A all year.
Thomas Pannone had a whirlwind year in 2018, missing the first half of the season because of a suspension for a performance enhancer but making his way all the way to Toronto after a brief tour of the minors. While Pannone had some excellent games and generally held his own in the major leagues, the 24-year-old has a few red flags that suggest he may be up and down for a couple of years. First of all, he gave up a ton of home runs (1.5 HR/9). He's always allowed home runs, mainly because, with an 88-90 mph fastball, he doesn't have a lot of room for error when he misses. He does have a deceptive delivery, allowing his fastball to play up but when he gets too much of the strike zone, hitters will hit it a long way. He also not striking out too many (6.1 K/9), putting the ball into play more than average while giving up a lot of fly balls. Those fly balls turned into home runs at a league average rate last year but that could go up or down due to general statistical fluctuations. Pannone will likely start the year in the minors.
David Paulino, 24, has spent parts of three years in the majors but only has 42 2/3 innings in total under his belt at the major league level. Paulino comes with a good fastball and what Baseball America called a "devastating curveball." He has struggled to stay healthy but, when he returned to action with Toronto last year, his fastball showed a 0.5 mph increase in velocity from his 2017 season with Houston. That said, Paulino was being used in relief in 2018 but he was used as a starter in 2017. Paulino's future could be in the bullpen but the organization has said that he's still being looked at as a potential starter. Look for him to start the year in the rotation (unless they decide to move him into the bullpen permanently in spring training) in Buffalo.
Another pitcher acquired from the Astros at the trade deadline, Hector Perez, 22, has a ton of potential with a big arm and has gotten to the upper levels of the minors. Pitching in class-A Advanced and double-A with Houston's organization and double-A with Toronto's, Perez features a mid-90s fastball as a starter with a plus changeup. While reports after the 2017 season suggest that his breaking balls needed work, the main concern was Perez's control as he averaged walking five batters per nine innings despite a strikeout rate that was outstanding at 10.4 K/9. Consistently tough to hit, it was the walks that got him in trouble. Look for Perez to start in double-A with the possibility of being in Triple-A before the end of the season. He's another guy who could wind up a back-of-the-bullpen guy but, for now, he'll start.
With Borucki and Pannone, Sean Reid-Foley, 23, made his major league debut in 2018 with very mixed results. While he showed that he could control his walks much better this year in the minor leagues (3.5 BB/9) and he cranked up the strikeout numbers (10.4 K/9), his walks became an issue in the majors as he walked 21 batters in 33 1/3 innings despite striking out 42. Reid-Foley could start the year in the minors again, throwing for Buffalo before returning to Toronto at some point, or the Blue Jays can work him into the big league rotation and hope that he can find his way at the big league level. For a pitcher who has shown that he can dominate in double-A and triple-A, it may just be a matter of learning to trust his stuff (which is excellent) and settle in to find his command again.
The Jays picked up 25-year-old righty Trent Thornton from the Astros in exchange for infielder Aledmys Diaz and added him to the 40-man roster this week. Thornton had unspectacular numbers in triple-A Fresno but, taken with the grain of salt that is the Pacific Coast League's inflated offensive numbers, he was actually quite good, generating a lot of ground balls (45.6%) while striking out 23.6% of batters and walking only 6.0% (translated to 2.2 BB/9 and 8.8 K/9). In the Arizona Fall League, where Trackman data was gathered publicly, Thornton scored in the elite levels for rotations on his curveball. Thornton could be given a chance to earn a spot in the rotation and could be a solid No. 4 or 5 starter in 2019.
Finally, Jacob Waguespack, 25, was the final addition to the 40-man roster (alphabetically) and possibly, the most curious. That said, one of the Jays' most recent hires, former Fangraphs writer Carson Cistulli, is very high on him and could have been a part of the decision to add him. Waguespack was an undrafted free agent who signed with the Phillies moving quickly through the minors and settling in double-A and triple-A in 2018, throwing 122 innings in 21 starts and seven relief appearances. The numbers weren't eye-popping: a 4.80 ERA and 1.46 WHIP overall but his 8.3 K/9 ratio and 3.4 BB/9 ratio were both pretty solid and he didn't give up a lot of home runs (0.5 HR/9). Without having seen him or seen much of him, it's hard to know what he can bring in 2019 but he'll likely start the year in Buffalo and I wouldn't rule out a visit to the majors at some point.
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