Marco Estrada gets another year with Blue Jays, city he loves

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 — The Toronto Blue Jays front office first made contact with Marco Estrada about a possible extension in mid-July, right as the 34-year-old’s season was being consumed by trade rumours off the field and doubts about his performance on it. To further complicate matters, Estrada was going through a personal issue that he feels directly led to his poor results over a 10-start stretch leading up to the trade deadline in which he posted an 8.87 ERA with 6.5 BB/9.

There was a lot going on. And that’s why Estrada told the Blue Jays he wasn’t yet ready to contemplate an extension — even if his reticence increased the likelihood the club would trade him, something he dreaded.

“You know, during that time I was in the middle of my really, really bad slump. So, I didn’t really want to listen to much,” Estrada said. “I would rather wait until the season’s over, not put anything in my head.”

Of course, Toronto didn’t trade Estrada. And around seven days ago, when the Blue Jays again approached the starter about a possible extension through his agent, Paul Cohen, things were different. The trade talk was long gone. The personal matter was resolved. And, perhaps most importantly, Estrada turned his season around, pitching to a 3.75 ERA with a 2.5 BB/9 over a 10-start stretch beginning mere hours after the July 31 deadline passed.

That vastly improved performance, a series of mechanical tweaks made under the guidance of Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, and Estrada’s vehement desire to continue pitching in Toronto, a city he’s grown to love, are what set the stage for the one-year, $13-million pact the two sides agreed to this week and announced Wednesday.

“I’m happy here. I knew I wanted to come back here and I knew that if I got a fair offer I would definitely listen to it,” Estrada said. “I liked what they offered. I liked what I heard from them. And that’s all that really mattered.”

By re-upping with the Blue Jays now, Estrada is foregoing an opportunity to assess his value on the open market this winter. Opinions vary throughout the industry, but some believe Estrada could have found a two-year pact worth around $20 million through free agency.

But Estrada had a very strong desire to remain with the Blue Jays, one that was only increased when he was reassured during negotiations that the club intends to compete in 2018. Of course, Toronto’s direction could change drastically beyond that, as one of MLB’s oldest rosters inevitably resets and closes its current competitive window.

That’s why throughout the process the two sides remained focused on a one-year deal, with little consideration given to a longer pact or adding an option year. Toronto’s original offer in July was lower than the one Estrada eventually signed, but not significantly. And when Cohen firmly presented his client’s position over the last week to Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins, negotiating openly and honestly, the deal came together extremely quickly.

“He is as straight forward as they come. Everything that he says, he does,” Atkins said of Cohen. “He’s been exceptional to deal with and Marco has been as well. They both have been very rational, very straight forward, and very thoughtful. So, that allowed us to get something done.”

From Estrada’s perspective, he gets one more chance at a post-season run with a team, and a city, that he feels deeply connected to. Estrada’s career took off in Toronto, and he spoke at length on Wednesday about positive interactions he’s had with Blue Jays fans over his three seasons north of the border. Estrada said that if the Blue Jays reached the post-season in 2018 without him on the roster, “I’d be really upset.”

And, as a pitcher who relies on command and craftiness rather than overpowering velocity, Estrada wagers this is far from the last major-league contract he’ll sign. He’ll have an opportunity to enter the free agent market again next off-season and, with his mechanical issues behind him, he’s confident he’ll be coming off a much better season statistically.

“Who doesn’t want to test the open market?” Estrada said. “But all I can go back to is just saying how happy I am here. It wasn’t a secret. I said it all year. I was affected when I was hearing rumours that I might get traded. It just goes to show you how comfortable I am here.

“I think everybody wants to test free agency at least once in their career. It could have been a fun process. It could have been a negative process, I don’t know. The good thing is that I don’t have to go through it. I know I’m going to be a Blue Jay next year and I’ll be able to enjoy the off-season.”

Estrada’s season has certainly been capricious, as the 10-year veteran’s performance has fluctuated wildly, resulting in the 4.84 ERA he carries today. Estrada got through his first 11 starts of the season with a 3.15 ERA and has a 3.75 ERA over his most recent 10. It’s the 10 starts in the middle that were the issue.

The three thirds of Marco Estrada’s 2017        
         
Dates Starts IP ERA BB/9
April 1 – May 30 11 68.2 3.15 2.2
June 1 – July 30 10 45.2 8.87 6.5
July 31 – Sept. 20 10 62.1 3.75 2.5

But the Blue Jays are confident Estrada has made the necessary adjustments — further tweaks could come this off-season and next spring — to hone in on his fastball command and be more consistent with his change-up. Estrada’s soaring mid-season walk rates were a concern, but he’s improved his command since, and has walked only seven batters over his last 37 innings.

“We never really thought that he was going through something that wouldn’t correct. There was never a point where we started to say, ‘Is this something that we should be overly concerned about?’” Atkins said. “There were things that we could see that we could help him correct and that he was talking about doing. So, I don’t think there was ever a point during this season that we didn’t think he would be a great compliment to us going forward.”

Estrada slots in as one of four starters the Blue Jays hope to rely upon atop their rotation in 2018, alongside Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez. Depending on what the arbitration-eligible Sanchez and Stroman end up earning, the Blue Jays will likely spend no more than $35 million on those four. Obviously, a fifth starter will need to be found — and the Blue Jays would love to have strong starting depth beyond that.

Brett Anderson is one option, and can likely be had this winter for something similar to the one-year, $3.5-million deal he signed with the Chicago Cubs last off-season. But the 29-year-old is far from a sure thing health-wise, throwing only 55.1 major-league innings over the last two seasons. Ideally, the Blue Jays would like to find a more reliable option.

Joe Biagini could be just that if he can find some consistency in his results instead of alternating good and bad outings. But Biagini also has minor-league options remaining, and it will be tempting for the Blue Jays to slot him in as the club’s unofficial sixth starter, beginning his season at triple-A and remaining ready to fill in if someone falters in the majors.

Minor-leaguers Thomas Pannone, Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley and Conner Greene are also being looked at as potential 2018 rotation options, and will likely all begin their seasons at double- or triple-A, a mere call-up away from pitching at Rogers Centre.

Tom Koehler, a longtime starter who earned $5.75 million in 2017 and is eligible for arbitration this winter, is a likely non-tender candidate. But the Blue Jays could be interested in bringing the right-hander back on a major-league deal if he’s amenable to pitching out of the bullpen and spot starting as needed.

And there will be a bevy of alternative starting options available to Atkins on the free agent market, which is a sandbox the Blue Jays could play in if they have some payroll to work with after addressing the club’s most pressing needs: one or two outfielders, as well as middle infield depth, a backup catcher, and bullpen help.

“We’ll consider every avenue,” Atkins said. “There are many more opportunities that will come about for us to continue to think about how we can realistically have eight or nine starting options to get through a major-league season.

“Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ are averaging in the 160-170 [innings] range. Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman are early in their careers and both have pitched 200 innings before. But you can’t just sit back and rely on getting 200 innings out of two of those four guys. … There’s much more work to be done.”