Estrada deal gives Blue Jays head start to challenging off-season

Marco Estrada explains to the Toronto media why his decision to come back was a no-brainer, and why this is the only place he wants to be.

TORONTO – Extending Marco Estrada provides the Toronto Blue Jays a head start on what projects as a challenging off-season but more notably, gives them another piece for 2018 with no commitment beyond that.

A $13-million, one-year deal strikes a balance for a right-hander who struggled badly in June and July and will turn 35 midway through next season, but chose to forgo the open market in order stay put, a desire for stability helping to bring both sides together.

The Blue Jays can now knock one starter from their winter-time to-do list, slotting Estrada in behind Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, with Joe Biagini still under evaluation for his role next year. Brett Anderson, who starts Tuesday night, remains in an extended get-to-know-each-other period and will get some consideration for a return.

Their other needs include one, if not two corner outfielders, a capable middle infielder to protect against the risk of longer-term absences for Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki and a backup catcher. More support for the bullpen would help, too.

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Including Estrada’s $13 million, the Blue Jays now have $88.375 million guaranteed to eight players. Factoring in very rough estimates for their eight arbitration-eligible players (Dominic Leone could make it nine if he qualifies as a Super 2), they’re at about $135 million, leaving some $25 million to spend on external additions and 0-3 service time players if the payroll remains in this year’s $160 million range.

Barring some transformational trades — and that’s very possible — the Blue Jays don’t have very much money to work with relative to their needs.

In that sense, the short-term nature of the Estrada extension is especially appealing, since it doesn’t tie them down beyond next year’s last shot at winning in the current competitive window. A shift younger is coming at some point, and could start as soon as 2018 if the team falters again, but the Blue Jays are determined to exhaust the opportunity with the current group before a reset.

Paying Estrada $13 million carries some risk after he grinded through a dismal 10-start stretch in June and July during which he posted an 8.87 ERA in 45.2 innings with a 1.019 OPS against. But he’s rebounded well over his past 10 starts, pitching to a 3.75 ERA in 62.1 innings with 48 strikeouts and a .678 OPS against.

He doesn’t necessarily need to regain his all-star form of 2016, but if he can steadily deliver an ERA in the high-threes next year, he’ll help give the Blue Jays a chance to be better.

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If they aren’t improved, the fewer guarantees beyond 2018 the better. Right now only four players have guaranteed money in 2019: Tulowitzki, Russell Martin ($20 million each), Kendrys Morales ($12 million) and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. ($1 million).

That makes resetting the Blue Jays fairly straightforward, and how painful the reset is depends on how quickly and capably youngsters like Teoscar Hernandez and Richard Urena, prospects in the system’s upper levels like Anthony Alford, Ryan Borucki, Danny Jansen and Rowdy Tellez and gilt-edged pieces lower down the farm like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Nate Pearson manage to contribute.

In the midst of all this is Josh Donaldson, a generational talent who is under club control through next year before he hits the open market. Locking him up to ensure a star presence during the transition from one core to another makes sense (he’s also an icon and among the franchise’s greatest players), but the feeling right now is that the Blue Jays bring him back next year, see how things go, trade if him the club falters, and risk letting him walk if he doesn’t.

In the interim, extending Donaldson only gets more expensive with each passing day.