Tuesday is the deadline to add Rule 5-eligible players to the 40-man roster, and teams with an excess of candidates for addition often find trade partners, especially if doing so enables them to fill holes on other parts of their own roster.
The Toronto Blue Jays have scavenged the overflow of talented rosters several times over the last few years. Billy McKinney, Brandon Drury, David Paulino and Teoscar Hernandez were all upper-level performers who were blocked by more dynamic talents. Toronto also has to contend a potential infield surplus of their own, especially with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki hoping to return to the field in 2019. Saturday’s trade with Houston helped both clubs inch closer to 40-man equilibrium.
INF Aledmys Diaz
Blue Jays get:
RHP Trent Thornton
The 28-year-old Diaz is coming off a 1.6 WAR season during which he slashed .260/.303/.453 and hit 18 homers. He instantly becomes the most versatile bench infielder on a roster that’s heavy on big-bodied 1B/3B/DH types, a fact which likely puts him first in line for reps should Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve continue to have injury problems.
Though he’s a below-average defender at short, Diaz’s lackluster lateral quickness can be hidden somewhat by modern defensive positioning. On days when he is at short, his relative inability to get to balls in the hole to his right should be more manageable if he’s playing next to Alex Bregman. With Marwin Gonzalez leaving via free agency, Diaz is also probably second in line for reps behind Altuve at second base even though he has barely played there (five games in 2017, six in the 2015 Fall League) because he’s likely better than Tony Kemp and Yuli Gurriel.
Diaz’s 2.7 WAR rookie season seems to have been a caricature of his skills, drawn by some BABIP luck and a walk rate that was twice what he has averaged during the last two combined seasons. His flat bat path made it difficult for him to lift the baseball early in his career despite his ability to hit the ball hard. This improved slightly in 2018 when his groundball and dribbler rates combined to make up 40% of his balls in play, down from 49% in 2017, according to xStats. Steamer is expecting him to SLG .438 next year, but that’s probably based on some regression instead of extrapolating improvement, and Houston is good at fixing swings. Because Diaz is so aggressive in the box, he’ll probably always be a low-OBP hitter, but he’s a versatile infielder with some pop and is under team control for another four years. He’ll play a valuable role for the Astros.
Trent Thornton is also likely to make a big league splash in 2019. The 25-year-old righty spent 2018 at Triple-A Fresno and just wrapped up an eye-opening stint in the Arizona Fall League. He has bat-missing big league stuff, sitting 92-95 and touching 96 in my multi-inning looks at him this fall, and sitting comfortably in the 95-96 range when he was asked to air it out for a single inning.
Thornton also has elite breaking ball spin rates. His 12-6 curveball spins in excess of 3,000 rpm and his firm, upper-80s slider often approaches that mark, which is rare for a breaking ball that hard. He also has a unique delivery that disorients hitters. His arm action is ugly but, short of a 7-day DL stint this year after he was hit with a comebacker, Thornton hasn’t been hurt as a pro. His usage has been atypical, however. Thornton’s starts were often spaced out by seven or eight days in 2018, and it’s unrealistic to expect him to have that kind of recovery time between turns on a big league pitching staff. If asked to throw every fifth day, his stuff may not be as nasty as it was this year. I have Thornton projected as a 120-130 inning starter with a FIP near 4.00, which puts him in the 1.5 to 2.0 WAR range annually, assuming his stuff holds on a normal schedule. He needs to be added to the Jays 40-man to be protected from the Rule 5 draft. I expect he will be, and that we’ll see him in the Majors next year.
If you’re tracking long-term transaction outcomes, you’ll likely already consider this deal a win for both clubs. The Astros took a 5th round college arm who was throwing 89-92 and touching 93 or 94, helped him turn into a guy sitting 92-96, then flipped him for four years of a power-hitting infielder who fills an immediate need. The Jays traded J.B. Woodman, who turns 24 in three weeks and struck out in 41% of his PA’s at Hi-A this year, to St. Louis for Diaz (himself a roster overflow guy who was expendable after Paul DeJong’s breakout) and then flipped him a year later to fill an immediate need.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.