LAS VEGAS — Ross Atkins’ search for starting pitching depth is leaving no stone unturned.
Coming into the Major League Baseball winter meetings this week, the Toronto Blue Jays general manager had talked about the obvious routes — trades and/or free agency — as ways to start satisfying a need that’s only going to grow as his team becomes competitive.
One path he did not mention was Thursday morning’s Rule 5 Draft, which wrapped up the week in Las Vegas, where Blue Jays decision-makers had been holed up on the 60th floor of the swanky Delano hotel.
It won’t help what’s expected to be a patchwork rotation in 2019 — it might not ever pay off — but Atkins went out Thursday and plucked 18-year-old right-hander Elvis Luciano from the Kansas City Royals organization with the 10th pick in the Rule 5 process.
Normally, talking about a pitcher who won’t turn 19 until February as a potential major leaguer would be foolish.
But in the case of a rule-fiver, it’s now or never for Luciano in a Jays uniform because he has to stick on the 25-man roster or be offered back to the Royals for half of the $100,000 it took to steal him.
There are ways to work around that stipulation, but that’s a conversation for late March when the roster is decided.
If all goes according to plan and he shows enough in the spring, the Jays will stick Luciano in a low-leverage bullpen role this season, hoping to get him through 2019 with an eye towards the young right-hander returning to a starting role in 2020.
At that point, the Jays could send him back to the minors to continue his development.
It’s a complete wild-card, but an intriguing one, especially since it’s the only player Atkins and the Blue Jays acquired during an expectedly slow winter meetings in Sin City.
“This is a unique opportunity,” Atkins said prior to boarding a flight back to Toronto on Thursday. “To acquire a young, potential starting pitcher that’s 19 years old, that has all of the attributes to pitch in the major leagues, is not easy to do. It presented itself and we have the roster flexibility to do it.
“Our goal is to add pitching and this is one more step towards that.”
The youngest player selected in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft by a wide margin — he’d be the first player born in the 2000s to play in the majors — Luciano has not pitched above short-season ball.
This past season, he was traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Royals in a swap for outfielder Jon Jay, going on to compile a 3.90 ERA across 67 frames.
“Low 90s fastball, good feel for a breaking ball, good changeup, incredible delivery,” read Atkins’ scouting report on his newest acquisition. “The eye test is a very good and then our objective tests if you take the age and performance off of it, those benchmarks and measurements predict a major league pitcher. It’s just the lack of track record is why there’s so much risk to it and we feel the risk is worth it because of the upside.”
The Jays also selected 26-year-old right-hander David Garner in the Triple-A phase of the Rule 5 Draft, and he’ll serve as organizational depth in the upper levels.
Garner did not pitch last season after being suspended 100 games for a third positive test for a drug of abuse, one that is now legal in Canada.
Despite the interesting selection of Luciano, it wasn’t all positive on this day for Atkins.
With the third selection, the Chicago White Sox took Markham, Ont., native Jordan Romano, who the Jays selected in 10th round of the 2014 amateur draft. The 25-year-old was quickly traded to the Texas Rangers, where he’ll shift to a bullpen role, hoping his stuff will play up in short stints.
Romano spent the season in the Double-A New Hampshire rotation, posting a 4.13 ERA across 25 starts.
To make matters worse, the San Francisco Giants then plucked Double-A left-hander Travis Bergen from the Jays, hoping the southpaw can lock down a bullpen role.
Both were somewhat surprisingly left unprotected by Atkins & Co. last month at the roster deadline.
“No, actually, not surprised,” Atkins said of them being selected. “Jordan cleared last year through the draft, so, I think, with Travis Bergen, the year that he had this year from a performance standpoint, both guys are exceptional teammates, exceptionally hard working, so the teams did a good job in scouting them.
“We do a lot of second and third and fourth guessing before we get to today, so we’re aware of the risk of not protecting and ultimately prepared for that.”
The Jays exit the annual winter meetings still in search of at least two veteran rotation options, as well as bullpen depth that will likely come in the form of scrap-heap signings, similar to Tyler Clippard, John Axford and Seunghwan Oh a year ago.
“We have an incredible feel for the opportunities and at some point either we’ll have to push a little bit or someone else will blink and we’ll start to move close to executing one of the deals,” Atkins said.
“It could be days, it could be weeks, but we certainly accomplished what we set out to accomplish while we were here.”