TORONTO – The next major add, should the Toronto Blue Jays manage to make another trade before the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline, is going to hurt a lot more. Picking up Melvin Upton Jr., plus $17 million of the roughly $22 million he’s due through next season from the San Diego Padres for rookie-ball lottery ticket Hansel Rodriguez is a bargain, especially in the current inflationary trade market. Right now, there are no similar value plays to be found on the pitching side.
Take for example rental righty Andrew Cashner, who allowed three runs on four hits and three walks with six strikeouts in the Blue Jays’ 7-6, 12-inning comeback win Tuesday night. The Padres are believed to be seeking two quality prospects for him, even as he’s enduring an up-and-down season. Given that scouts from the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals were among several on hand for his outing, the lack of supply to satisfy demand means someone might meet that price. The Blue Jays, and other clubs hunting for pitching, are facing similar steep asks for every other available arm from Rich Hill on down.
So it’s possible Upton is it for significant additions, even though general manager Ross Atkins said he’s been in touch multiple times with all 29 other teams, and is in contact with 5-10 clubs regularly about pitchers.
"We’re not done in any way," he said. "If there’s a way to make our team better, we’re going to continue to do it."
Upton certainly makes the Blue Jays better, providing a strong defender at all three outfield spots with power, base-stealing speed, thump against left-handed pitching and, for good measure, an extra season of control. That part is likely to come in very handy given that both Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders are pending free agents.
The way the money’s structured, a slight majority of the $5 million they’ll pay Upton comes this season, meaning his impact on the 2017 payroll will make barely a ripple. If his performance reverts to the black-hole seasons he delivered with the Atlanta Braves in 2013 and ’14, cutting ties won’t be a problem.
"It got to the point that the acquisition cost was right," is how Atkins put it. "The bulk of the acquisition for us in this was actually finances. You never like to part ways with a player, but we have some financial flexibility and we were able to take on a little bit of money in the deal and now still have some players to deal from in our system. If there’s a way to improve our pitching, we feel as flexible as we were yesterday."
Worth keeping in mind is that this type of deal doesn’t happen when a player has much industry value. Upton clearly didn’t, which is why the Blue Jays were able to buy so low on him. A similar kind of trade earlier this season for set-up man Jason Grilli has worked out brilliantly for them. If Upton can continue to produce the way he has so far in a bounce-back campaign while in a complementary role, and Benoit can straighten himself out, those trades might, as well.
"I’m here to help this team win in whatever capacity that might be in," Upton said of his changing role. "I’ve been around for a little while and I think the main goal, especially at this point in my career, is try to win a ring. I’m happy to be around this group of guys, I’m happy to be on a winning ball club with a chance to win the division and a chance to make it to the post-season. Whatever I can do to help this team get to that point, I’m willing to do it."
The second overall pick in the 2002 draft, the 31-year-old was batting .256/.304/.439 with 16 homers, 45 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 25 attempts. During his two collapse years with the Braves, he struck out 324 times while hitting 21 homers in 910 at-bats, and then mostly sat idle last year in San Diego after Atlanta paired him with closer Craig Kimbrel in an April 2015 swap with the Padres.
"They took a chance on me in that trade and they gave me an opportunity to play," Upton said of the Padres. "When I walked into spring training, (manager Andy Green) said playing time wasn’t automatic, I had to earn it. Obviously I did, got the chance to play every day again and I’m kind of feeling like myself again. …
"I’m definitely in a different place mentally, I was able to clear my mind, start having fun again. Other than that, there’s really no method to the madness, just basically having fun again."
Some more pitching depth could position the Blue Jays to continue the kind of fun they enjoyed last summer en route to their first American League East title since 1993. They’ve checked in on everyone from Cashner and Hill to Jeremy Hellickson on the starting end while monitoring the market for relievers like David Robertson and Will Smith.
Barring another move, Benoit could help bolster the bullpen’s back end if he can regain past form.
"I like it, he can fill a late-inning role, he’s a veteran guy, he’s still got a good arm," said manager John Gibbons. "This time of year, with some of the struggles we’ve had down there, throw a veteran in there that knows what he’s doing and knows how to survive, that kind of thing. Hopefully he’ll end up doing just what Grilli’s done."
The wildcard for the Blue Jays remains Aaron Sanchez and how much his workload can increase from last season to this one. Atkins correctly said "as it stands right now we’re a difficult rotation to upgrade" which is accurate only as long as it includes Sanchez.
The Blue Jays don’t have the premium prospect capital needed for a run at a big-ticket arm like Chris Sale or Jose Quintana, leaving them to pick through the remnants of what’s left. Other arms may yet emerge between now and the deadline as teams decide whether or not to pull the chute, but for now, "a lot of the pieces that are available are not perfect, it’s not like the market of a year ago," according to Atkins.
At minimum, Upton provides some help, Benoit is a roll of the dice, and neither deal cuts the Blue Jays off from other opportunities.