NASHVILLE – If Jeff Samardzija’s worth $90 million, surely Drew Hutchison’s worth a phone call.
At first, the revelation from Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro might seem unexpected: Hutchison, who posted an unsightly 5.57 ERA in 2015, has drawn trade interest from multiple teams around baseball.
But realistically it’s not all that surprising that Hutchison would draw interest. Teams evaluate players based on scouting reports and advanced metrics, not just ERA. That’s how Samardzija ended up earning $18 million for five seasons even after leading the AL in hits, earned runs and home runs.
Hutchison’s 5.57 ERA was even worse than Samardzija’s 4.96 mark. The Blue Jays right-hander ranked second-last in ERA among all pitchers to log 150 innings. But he struck out three times as many batters as he walked and kept taking the ball, so the Blue Jays consider him a bounce-back candidate.
“We know it’s in there,” assistant GM Tony LaCava said last month. “If you look at his peripherals, his walk rate’s good, his strikeout rate is solid, he’s had success in the past and for some reason it just didn’t manifest itself in ERA.”
While the Blue Jays are open to the possibility of trades, that doesn’t mean they want to deal Hutchison, who’s projected by MLB Trade Rumors to earn $2.6 million in arbitration. In fact, he represents a key player for the Blue Jays, who continue pursuing pitching via trade and free agency.
When the off-season began and Shapiro started looking at the Blue Jays’ pitching depth, he soon realized the club needed considerable depth, particularly in the triple-A rotation.
“There were five guys named blank,” Shapiro said. “The guys named blank don’t contribute many innings. We had to deal with that challenge and we’re creatively trying to address it.”
At the big league level the Blue Jays have re-signed Marco Estrada, traded for Jesse Chavez and signed J.A. Happ. Those arms reinforce the big-league rotation and push others down the depth chart, but the Blue Jays continue looking for more.
“It could be trades — we could add some guys to the Buffalo rotation in trades — it could be non-roster invites, it could be guys that slide in the free agent market and end up going for a period of time to Buffalo, or it could be guys that have been big league starters before that we decide to option out,” Shapiro said. "We’ve got to solve that.”
Not all of the arms the Blue Jays acquire for Buffalo will be expected to pitch at the MLB level in 2016, though some of them inevitably will. Since Hutchison doesn’t have a guaranteed rotation spot, he’s conceivably the kind of pitcher who could provide meaningful rotation depth beyond the starting five.
Another way of supplementing the starting rotation is the bullpen, an area of focus for the Blue Jays in recent days. They’ve touched base with representatives for a wide range of free agents including Joe Blanton and Craig Stammen.
The Blue Jays were also among the leading suitors for Yusmeiro Petit, though the right-hander has made considerable progress on a deal with the Washington Nationals, according to an industry source. Their interest in Petit reflects a desire to add pitchers capable of handling multiple innings at once. Considering that R.A. Dickey’s the lone starter with a 200-inning season on his resume, the bullpen must compensate with plenty of length.
Shapiro sounds comfortable showing a little patience on the relief market. The Blue Jays have already moved aggressively to add starters, lessening the urgency to add for the time being.
“You can’t (wait) across the board or you could end up without a chair, but I think strategically you can do that if you’ve done some of the heavy lifting already,” he said.
The Blue Jays are focused on mid-range pitchers rather than high-end free agent targets, Shapiro said. Given the unpredictability of relievers, the front office will approach the free agent bullpen market cautiously.
“It’s such a tough market to wade into and allocate so many of your resources to, but we know we’ve got to find some alternatives and we know we’ve got to play in that market,” Shapiro said. “To play in the upper ends of that market it’s a dangerous place to play. You’d better have a lot of flexibility and your threshold for risk had better be very high.”
Whether it’s Hutchison, minor league starting depth or big league relief, the Blue Jays want and need all the pitching they can get.