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Minor Moves: Jays Claim Depth Starter Taylor Guerrieri On Waivers, Clear Space on 40-Man Roster

The Blue Jays have made their first addition of the offseason, claiming up right-handed starter Taylor Guerrieri on waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays organization, and adding him to their 40-man roster in a spot vacated Sunday when José Bautista became a free agent after the club formally declined their end of a mutual option for 2018 in his contract. The club announced simultaneously that they have outrighted four players — relievers Leonel Campos, Taylor Cole, and Luis Santos, and catcher Raffy Lopez — creating four more spaces on their 40-man.

To wit:

The four freed spots will allow the Blue Jays to add some of their Rule-5-eligible players to the 40-man before the November 20th deadline, in order to ensure they’re protected from selection by other clubs. This question will, in all likelihood, be rendered academic by further moves, but for the time being I’d say that the most likely candidates to take these spots, in my view, are Danny Jansen, Connor Greene, Thomas Pannone, and Reese McGuire. Though Max Pentecost and Rowdy Tellez are both also eligible to be taken in the Rule 5, the four I’ve listed seem more in need of protection, as they are more likely to be viewed by other clubs as big league ready and able to hold onto a roster spot for a full year.

Would the Jays risk losing Pentecost by leaving him protected? It’s possible. Are they down enough on Tellez after his poor 2017 season (and not-great scouting profile) to risk letting him get away — or, worse, the bad PR of watching him succeed elsewhere? Maybe! Are they OK with exposing Jordan Romano, Francisco Rios, Tom Robson, Angel Perdomo, and others? Could be!

But with guys like Matt Dermody, Luke Maile, Harold Ramirez, Rob Refsnyder, and Dwight Smith Jr. still holding spots on the 40-man, it’s certainly possible that more movement is still to come — either in the form of more outrights, or perhaps even a trade or two. (Pentecost and Greene might land you something nice!)

That, of course, remains to be seen. What we know now is that the Jays have lost four players and picked up one. Some thoughts on that!

Raffy Lopez was the only Jays’ backup catcher to produce a positive WAR in 2017, and he showed enough power in his 63 big league plate appearances to produce a wRC+ of 100 despite an ugly .306 on-base, and a .222 batting average. His defence was poor, though, and his strikeout totals were high. He was a nice hitter in Buffalo too (and New Hampshire, where he spent 14 games), and that’s probably the thing about Lopez: he’s the kind of guy who, now that he’s a going to be a free agent, will get a minor league deal, not a big league one. Not a guy the Jays really needed to keep, especially with Russell Martin, Maile, Jansen, McGuire, and Pentecost all potentially having 40-man spots before all is said and done (having five catchers on there is a lot, let alone six!).

Between Buffalo and Toronto this year, Leonel Campos had a nice ERA and very nice strikeout totals (54 in 46.1 innings), but he walked guys, eight in his 13.2 big league innings, doesn’t throw especially hard (his fastball averaged 92.9, which these days isn’t “especially hard”), and is pretty firmly behind several relievers in the Jays’ pecking order: Roberto Osuna, Dominic Leono, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes, Joe Biagini, Carlos Ramirez. Evidently the club thought he’d end up behind Guerrieri, too.

Same goes for Cole and Santos, who are fine enough depth relievers, but nothing special. (Read: not worth my pulling up a bunch of stats).

Taylor Guerrieri has yet to reach the big leagues, despite being taken 24th overall by the Rays in 2011. He pitched just 9.1 innings last season, missing most of the year after suffering an elbow injury in mid April. There’s good news in that, though: first, that he was quite good in two Triple-A starts he made, striking out 12 and walking just two, and second, that an April MRI revealed that he’d suffered no structural damage to the elbow, meaning that he didn’t go under the knife, he simply needed rest and rehab. Guerrieri has had Tommy John surgery though, back in 2013. He’s also once been suspended 50 games for a positive test for a drug of abuse. He’s certainly at times looked like a fairly unimpressive minor leaguer. In 2016, for example, he struck out just 89 batters in 146 innings in Double-A. But his 2015, split between High-A and Double-A, was pretty good. And maybe the lack of strikeouts matters less given the fact that he’s an extreme groundball pitcher.

Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs covered a lot of ground in this brief comment back in March, as he named Guerrieri the Rays 23rd best prospect:

Once a prototypical prep righty with a mid-90s fastball and hammer curve, Guerrieri has been sidetracked by Tommy John surgery and a 50-game drug suspension. A 2011 draftee, Guerrieri didn’t throw more than 80 innings in a season until last year; ironically, it’s the year his stuff backed up. He now sits 87-91 with a sinking fastball. There just isn’t as much arm acceleration here as there used to be, and the curveball is lacking the same depth and bite that once made Guerrieri such a desirable prospect, now profiling closer to average. He throws strikes, though, and might still carve out a spot at the very back of a rotation as a sinker/command arm. He’s on the precipice of the big leagues and projects as a fifth starter.

Presumably the Jays think Guerrieri’s floor is decent enough for him to be able to help them in the big leagues if he’s called upon, and perhaps even that there’s a chance more might still be there, if he can stay healthy and rediscover some of the stuff he had before it backed up on him in 2016. Even if not, there are reports that maybe his stuff could play up in short, maximum effort bursts out of the bullpen, should all else fail. There’s potentially something here, in other words — though there’s certainly something to think about in the fact that the Rays, who know more about him and his arm than anybody, don’t seem to think so.

Still, though, with Brett Anderson and Mike Bolsinger gone, Tom Koehler and his $6 million arbitration projection likely soon to be as well, plus Tom Pannone, Ryan Borucki, and Chris Rowley still likely in need of more seasoning in the minors, and Biagini maybe not the rotation option you thought he was, you certainly understand why the club would want to add a piece like this. Even if it means losing a reliever and the chance to protect another prospect. It’s probably not likely that the Jays have found themselves a diamond in the rough here, but it’s not difficult to see why they’d take a chance on finding out.