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Potential Minor Leage Free Agents in the Blue Jays’ System

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Photo credit:David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
Tammy Rainey
3 months ago
I actually really wanted to write up something on the potential payroll next year and what kind of options it leaves – and I might eventually – but at this point, Jays-online is swamped with such discussions. I don’t like just getting on that bandwagon. Likewise, I have the core of a concept about one specific trade possibility but I haven’t really outlined it yet, probably next week sometime.
In the meantime, let me take a stab at something that maybe you haven’t read elsewhere (because it’s a really fringe topic that maybe most won’t be interested in?) – a look at the players likely to exit the system this winter, either as MiLB free agents or possible Rule 5 selections.
As a primary source for sorting this out, I keep going back to the invaluable info provided by The Cubs Reporter. For the question of free agency, here’s the key part of the rules (as summarized on Cott’s):
A player becomes eligible to sign with any organization as a minor league free agent when he has played six full minor-league seasons with the club that drafted him. If a player is released, he becomes a minor league free agent upon expiration of any subsequent contract he signs.
There are other considerations but the great majority of people who’ll turn up on the list – which won’t be published until five days after the conclusion of the World Series – are covered by that description. The second clause, to clarify, means that any players whose original draft/signing contract ends either via the passage of time or having the team end it early for some reason will become free agents after the end of their successor contract (generally referred to as “second” contract though it might be their third, fourth, etc). But at the end of each (and MiLB contracts are almost always one year), they are eligible for free agency again.  There are things I can’t know from the outside but I believe the Jays’ will total have a total number of such free agents in the low 20’s, partly affected by who comes off of the 40-man roster as they fix their protected list for the Rule 5. Let’s take a closer look.
Let’s be clear, however, this sort of list should be considered a first approximation, until Baseball America publishes the official list we won’t know for sure. For example, I’d have identified Shaun Anderson as the sort of player that would be a FA based on the fact that he didn’t run out his clock with the Jays but rather was outrighted after the team claimed him on waivers last fall. But he’s already opted for free agency so there had to have been something in his circumstance that made him eligible to go ahead and file. There’s so much that we can’t know if we don’t work in an MLB front office. So what follows is a list which includes players that the Blue Jays added to their system in 2016 (or have acquired in trade but their first year under contract was 2016) thus having “timed out” and players that the team has signed who were previously under contract in a different organization (meaning at least their first contract is no longer in effect and the one with the Jays is a successor contract). I’ll repeat for the record that I think it’s nonsense that 2020 counts for these purposes, particularly as it relates to the Rule 5 draft – but it does so you deal with what is, not what you think ought to be.
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Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
First order of business, as a matter of clarity, are players who are currently on the 40 man but likely will come off. If Tapia, Zimmer, and Thornton are non-tendered, as most observers assume (theoretically Thornton might be dealt for a minor return) then they’d be MLB free agents; It’s safe to assume Casey Lawrence will be designated to clear space on the 40 man roster for prospects that need to be protected before the Rule 5 draft and there’s a considerable chance Matt Gage or Forster Griffin (or both?) might be as well. All three, were they DFA’d, would become MiLB free agents. Lawrence obviously has been before, Griffin was originally drafted in 2014, and both apply to Gage. Less likely to be DFA’d are Anthony Kay and Thomas Hatch – but they also signed their first contract in 2016.
Beyond those, which are all pending a transaction to potentially end up on this list, the major category of MiLB free agents are those who have been before and signed for this season with the Blue Jays, which naturally means most of them are on the Buffalo roster. To me, the most interesting name here, and one I’d love to see re-signed so they can let the gamble play out for another year is Jose DeLeon. The one-time ranked prospect is 30 now. He was really good climbing the Dodgers ladder in 2014-2016 before beginning a long battle against injury after being traded to the Rays. He missed all of 2018, and struggled with control when he came back in ’19 (though he got good results other than the elevated walk rate), He got six IP in the majors during the plague year and only 13.2 in the minors in 2021. He signed with the Jays last winter, opened the season on the IL, and managed to come back in mid-August for another 13.1 before the season ended. Add all that up and the dude has gotten into 33 innings at any level since early August 2017. Maybe he just CAN’T stay healthy but given what he once was, why not take the flyer again?
The rest of this cohort in Buffalo include RHP Eric Yardley, catcher Stevie Berman, 1B/LF Yoshi Tsutsugo, OF Nathan Lukes, and CF Chavez Young, a 2016 39th-round pick by the Jays who is so very good defensively that he would sometimes show up on Top 30 prospect lists. You might think of Young as a sort of Jon Davis re-run except probably not as good a hitter.
From the Fisher Cats, there’s much more of a balance of the two types. Among the “second” contract crowd are pitchers Andrew Bash, Jake Elliot, Brady Lail, Sean Mellen, and Juan Nunez (who’s on his second go-round in the Jays org). Players who’ve been in this organization at least six seasons include RHP Jol Conception, infielder Hugo Cardona, and catcher Ryan Gold. As you move down the system you find fewer examples of second-contract guys and most all of them are guys who were signed as international free agents.
On the Vancouver, roster are pitchers Abdiel Mendoza (who came over in the minor league portion of the last Rule 5 draft), Naswell Paulino who was considered a fringe/sleeper prospect from time to time, Nathaniel Perez (the older one, there are two in the system), Roither Hernandez and outfielder Steward Berroa. In Dunedin, you can include second-contract pitcher Trey Crumbie and oft-injured pitcher Eddison Gonzalez who I imagine they will put some effort into re-signing given that he’s just 23 and was very good in the Rays system before coming over in a trade. Between covid and injury, he’s only thrown 16.1 IP in the Toronto system – in which he struck out 15 and walked only one, consistent with his pre-injury history. He is a legit sleeper and the one guy I’ve mentioned here who could actually pop up on a top 30 list if he got to string together a full healthy season.
Finally, let me briefly update my 40-man/Rule 5 speculation from some weeks back (given subsequent roster maneuvers). As of this moment, there are three official pending free agents (Phelps, Stripling, and Bradley Jr) and three players on the 60-day IL which need to be reinstated (Ryu, Saucedo, and Capra) so their first move will leave the roster at 40. We (pretty much everyone) anticipate three players will be non-tendered (mentioned above) which leaves 37. Speculating further, Casey Lawrence is a lock to be designated, Vinne Capra is a near-lock, and both Matt Gage and Foster Griffin look likely to go, though both have solid work in their career so far and the team would love to sign them back on minor league deals. Saucedo would be next in line if they need that many spots, I imagine, but they like him as far as we can tell. This produces 7-8 openings.
In rough order of importance, here are the candidates to be added: Orelvis Martinez, Yosver Zulueta, Addison Barger, Jimmy Robbins (unless he gets an extra year because of injury – I don’t know if they do that anymore, I can’t find a reference to it in the rules), Spencer Horwitz, Gabriel Martinez,  Adrian Hernandez, Tanner Morris and Rainer Nunez. Any of these they leave off, as well as Capra, would be candidates to be drafted. We’ll know how all this plays out in 30 days.

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