Blue Jays notebook: Could pitching depth facilitate trades?

Ben Nicholson-Smith joins the Jeff Blair show to discuss the Toronto Blue Jays' lack of participation in the Rule 5 draft, and what happened as the winter meetings wrap up.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – On a few occasions at the recently completed winter meetings, general manager Ross Atkins identified the Toronto Blue Jays‘ young middle relievers as a highlight of a difficult 2017 season. Along those lines, Atkins and manager John Gibbons both pointed to Joe Biagini as a pitcher with considerable upside for 2018.

At first glance those statements are unremarkable, but combined they’re more intriguing – especially when you consider the Blue Jays’ needs. Adding a middle infielder’s a priority for the front office and while free agent Eduardo Nunez is a consideration, he’s recovering from an injury and questions about his defence persist. Far more depth exists on the trade market.

Speaking in general terms, Atkins said the Blue Jays were pleased with the volume of trade talks at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Hotel.

“There was a lot of discussion in and around our opportunities with other teams,” he said.

That’s where the Blue Jays’ pitching depth could intersect with the club’s off-season decision making. Not only are the Blue Jays’ middle relievers effective, they’re affordable to all 30 teams. Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes aren’t yet arbitration eligible while Dominic Leone shouldn’t cost more than $2 million in his first trip through the arb process. By way of contrast, the going rate for capable bullpen arms has been $14-18 million over two years. In that context, it’s no wonder the Blue Jays have been asked about their relievers. Those talks could create momentum this off-season, even though the Blue Jays haven’t heard an offer to their liking just yet.

It’d be a surprise if Biagini’s name hasn’t come up as well given his successful 2016 season, flashes of promise in 2017, MLB minimum salary and remaining options. That said, he’s appealing to the Blue Jays for those same reasons. Biagini’s now their fifth starter, so they couldn’t deal him unless they were confident that a deal for a suitable replacement existed.

One way or another, the Blue Jays’ willingness to deal pitching off of their MLB roster could help them in a developing middle-infield market. Now that Ian Kinsler’s in Anaheim, there’s one less team in the mix for infielders, which could help the Blue Jays and Mets, two of the more active teams involved. (By the way, the Blue Jays aren’t believed to have pursued Kinsler seriously, although he was on their radar.)

The Brewers’ Jonathan Villar remains available in trade talks, as does Freddy Galvis of the Phillies. If the Blue Jays were to aim higher they could pursue Philadelphia’s Cesar Hernandez, but he’ll be much tougher to acquire given that he’s an impact player with three years of control remaining. Jurickson Profar, while interesting on paper, doesn’t appear to be a likely fit in Toronto. There’s still plenty of depth, though, with Josh Harrison, Starlin Castro, Jason Kipnis, Yangervis Solarte and Chris Owings among the other trade candidates in play across MLB.

Of course that’s just one of many needs for a Blue Jays front office also seeking outfield and pitching help, and moving pitching depth would be just one way to entice rival teams. For example, Atkins has also pointed to Toronto’s controllable outfield depth on multiple occasions.

Regardless, a slow-developing off-season finally has some momentum. Within a week or 10 days, the Blue Jays roster could start to take shape.

“That might turn into two weeks or three weeks, but it just feels like there’s momentum,” Atkins said.

BACKUP CATCHER UPDATE

The Blue Jays seem patient in their pursuit of backup catchers, according to some agents involved in that market. While the Blue Jays have interest in adding an experienced backup to compete with Luke Maile, they have many other needs to address and their searches for infielders, outfielders and pitchers will take priority. Plus, there’s some depth at triple-A thanks to Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire.


“We’ll be fine,” Gibbons said. “We got a couple good young kids coming along.” 


The Blue Jays liked what Maile offered after returning from the disabled list late in the season, although his overall offensive numbers were below average, even compared to other backup catchers.


As for Russell Martin, the Blue Jays will strategically mix in off-days as a way to preserve his health over the course of the six-month season.


“We’re going to have to be smart and give him a day when he needs it. You hope that he stays injury-free,” Gibbons said. “The catcher is the centre of the whole team.” 


READY TO WAIT FOR RELIEF

Unless the Blue Jays address their position player and rotation needs more affordably than expected, they seem poised to slow-play the relief market in the hopes that bargains emerge.

“There’s some depth to it, so we could be able to be opportunistic there later in the off-season,” Atkins said.

JAYS KEEP RULE 5-ELIGIBLE PROSPECTS

The Blue Jays didn’t add any talent to their organization in the major-league phase of the Rule 5 draft, but Atkins was relieved that former first rounder Max Pentecost and right-handed starter Jordan Romano weren’t selected by anyone else.

“We’re really excited about keeping our prospects at the upper levels,” he said. 


The Blue Jays debated selecting a player but ultimately preferred to keep their two empty 40-man roster spots open and preserve flexibility. Players selected in the major-league phase of the Rule 5 draft cost $50,000 and must stay on the acquiring team’s active roster all season or be offered back to the original club for $25,000.

On the minor-league side, the Blue Jays lost third baseman Mitch Nay to the Reds, but added right-hander Andrew Muren from the Giants, catcher Alberto Mineo from the Cubs and shortstop Ivan Castillo from Cleveland.

NEW HOMES FOR FORMER JAYS

Former Blue Jays starter Jesse Litsch is now helping minor-league pitchers rehabilitate injuries for the Atlanta Braves.

Meanwhile, former Blue Jays right-hander Chris Smith won’t be back in Toronto as he’s nearing a deal with an NL team, according to an industry source.