Photo Credit: Douglas DeFelice, USA Today Sports

Predicting where Elvis Luciano starts the 2020 season

It was rather weird that the Blue Jays selected Elvis Luciano from Kansas City in the 2018 Rule 5 Draft. At the time an 18-year-old hurler who’d never pitched above Rookie, Luciano wasn’t exactly the most natural choice for a team to select.

Still, Ross Atkins and the Blue Jays chose him and became instantly faced with the challenge of keeping him on the big-league roster all season. Though the season came with its fair share of growing pains — Luciano pitched to an ERA of 5.35 in 33.2 innings, allowing 20 earned runs on 36 hits and 24 walks, striking out just 27 — the organization was, miraculously, able to keep him in the system, thanks chiefly to a timely stint on the injured list.

Now, the Blue Jays have full and complete control of Luciano’s future, which, ultimately, is what they wanted when they took him from the Royals. With years of control and an electric yet raw arm, Luciano becomes more intriguing now than ever.

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Since his rookie status is still intact as of the end of the 2019 season, the Blue Jays can develop him as they wish. Player development, especially in this organization, is a challenging and at times divisive topic. Do the Blue Jays send him to one of their lowest affiliates and re-work his mechanics? Or, do they opt to ship him to an upper-minor league team and polish his somewhat complete makeup?

The Blue Jays of 2020 have many, many questions to answer ahead of the start of the season, with this one being one of the more nuanced. Here are a few thoughts on where he might begin his journey back to the bigs:

The Logical Choice: Double-A New Hampshire

It’d be hard to have this conversation without mentioning the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Eastern League, who’ve already been named as the “likely” starting squad for Luciano in 2020 by TSN’s Scott Mitchell.

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Routinely ranked as one of the more hitter-friendly leagues in the mid-minors, the Eastern League could be the most predictable, yet understandably paced, starting point for the young righty, especially considering the recent success Detroit’s Casey Mize and Baltimore’s Zac Lowther have enjoyed as recently as the 2019 season. Still, pitchers as young as Luciano don’t normally log innings in Double-A.

“We really don’t see many pitchers under the age of 20 in Double-A,” New Hampshire Fisher Cats broadcaster Tyler Murray observed in addressing the Luciano situation. “In Double-A, you’re so close to being one step away from the Major Leagues, and we’ve seen more and more guys get the call up straight to Toronto (Anthony Alford, Yennsy Diaz, Lourdes Gurriel). It’s all about showing consistency at this level, especially when you’re matched up against some of the best prospects in baseball.”

The Conservative Choice: High-A Dunedin

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It’s no secret that the Blue Jays adore sending pitchers to their Floridian affiliate. Just this year, the likes of Simeon Woods Richardson, Nate Pearson, Josh Winckowski, and Maximo Castillo all spent significant time with the D-Jays, most of them succeeding immensely.

Though not nearly as advanced as Double-A, Dunedin broadcaster Jim Tarabocchia calls the Florida State League “a real proving ground” for young players, adding that the season’s gruelling schedule and tough opponents make the FSL one of the more intriguing minor-leagues for pitchers to play in. However, it appears unlikely that Luciano will start as far down as High-A.

“Nobody should be rushed to the Advanced-A level,” Tarabocchia told Blue Jays Nation. “But, if they’re in their natural progression and are under the right supervision, then they’ve got a shot. There are some instances where organizations will send young pitchers- top prospect types straight to Advanced-A and these hitters get exposed to some future big leaguers with nasty stuff.”

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The Optimistic Choice: Triple-A Buffalo

The Triple-A leagues are perplexing in baseball’s new age. While the level was once reserved for final polishing and additional reps, the highest minor-league level has now become a place for fringe major-leaguers, optionable bullpen arms, and rehabbing starters.

Young starters in the Blue Jays organizations haven’t fared too well recently in Buffalo, Nate Pearson notwithstanding. This season alone, Sean Reid-Foley, Jacob Waguespack, Jordan Romano, and Conor Fisk all posted ERAs above 5.00. T.J. Zeuch and Anthony Kay, however, performed excellently, earning themselves timely promotions.

Based on Luciano’s developmental schedule, and the current state of Buffalo’s pitching staff, it’d be a little ambitious to foresee him starting the season in the International League. Had he pitched in the IL this season, he would’ve been roughly five years younger than the average player in Triple-A.

The Aggressive Choice: MLB

Elvis Luciano’s 2019 season with the Blue Jays at the major-league level was more or less disappointing results-wise. While he did post decent K/9 and LOB% numbers throughout most of the season, he struggled with walks and, on numerous occasions, lost control of his fastball and offspeed pitches.

Still, it’s possible that Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro, forever optimistic about his progress and development, could see the big-league club as a place for him to be in 2020. Considering the bullpen is losing Tim Mayza next season and will potentially see the departure of Ken Giles, it might not be the worst idea to have a fresh, young arm in the bigs to start the campaign.

Projecting the 2020 pitching staff is an almost impossible task, especially given the team’s tendency to search for bargain arms in March and April. It’s even possible that the team hasn’t yet made a decision, and will wait until spring training to make the final call on where he begins his season.

Regardless, Luciano’s development will certainly be one of the more challenging tasks this front office has ahead of them, especially when taking into account the alarming lack of precedent involving these types of decisions. At this point, guessing he’ll start in New Hampshire is probably the safest bet.