Anticipating which free agent starters are likely Blue Jays targets

Mark Shapiro spoke about the Blue Jays' potential interest in free agent starting pitcher Gerrit Cole and what challenges and advantages will affect their plans.

In all likelihood, we already know how this winter ends for the Toronto Blue Jays. They need rotation help and have money to spend. Rather conveniently, the free agent market features plenty of starting pitching. So, by the time the Blue Jays report to Dunedin Fla., for spring training, they’ll likely have added at least two more starters to strengthen their now-suspect rotation.

With that in mind, the real intrigue revolves around who the Blue Jays target. The last five weeks have given the front office plenty of time to rank the 2019-20 free agent class. But assessing their skill is just part of the challenge.

Draft pick compensation, character and age will all contribute to the Blue Jays’ interest level. At the same time, some free agents will have little interest in joining a 95-loss Blue Jays team in a powerhouse division. So which arms are most realistic? As the GM Meetings approach, the Blue Jays are surely contemplating that question themselves.

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Where better to begin but the top. On Thursday, team president and CEO Mark Shapiro said “we’re going to have to be aggressive on every level of the free agent starting pitcher landscape.” Later in the interview on Sportsnet 590 The FAN, Shapiro even acknowledged interest in Gerrit Cole, the Cy Young candidate whose next contract might set a record for pitchers.

While initially eyebrow-raising, those comments don’t mean the Blue Jays are even fringe suitors for Cole. Consider the context in which they were made: just last week, the MLBPA responded combatively to a seemingly innocuous quote from Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos. Regardless of where that investigation leads, it offers a reminder to other executives: the union’s watching everything you say. In that context, Shapiro’s better off exaggerating the Blue Jays’ interest than stating the truth: that Cole will cost more than they intend to spend.

All of which to say the Blue Jays shouldn’t be considered players for Cole or Stephen Strasburg, the top two pitchers available in free agency. Moving beyond that pair of Scott Boras clients, we reach a tier of veteran pitchers more likely to land with playoff teams.

Cole Hamels would take a one-year deal, but only with a contender. He’s not coming to Toronto. Neither is Madison Bumgarner, who’s reportedly a priority for the Braves. It’s nearly as hard to imagine Dallas Keuchel pitching for the Blue Jays.

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Two others, Rich Hill and Rick Porcello, pitched in Boston for Ben Cherington, the Blue Jays VP who’s now a candidate for the Pirates’ baseball operations job. On paper, Hill would be an intriguing fit on a one-year deal, but has said he hopes to re-sign with the Dodgers. As for Porcello, he can likely find better places to rebuild his value than Toronto, where about a quarter of his starts would come against the Yankees and Red Sox.

Now, we’re getting to the segment of the free agent market where the Blue Jays are legitimate players. On the high end, Zack Wheeler and Jake Odorizzi would represent significant upgrades. Both are coming off seasons in which they made 30-plus starts with sub-4.00 ERAs and at least one strikeout per inning pitched. At 29 years old, they’re still in their primes. The Blue Jays will of course be in on both. The only question is how aggressive they’ll be.

Assuming both Wheeler and Odorizzi decline qualifying offers by Thursday’s deadline, they’ll be linked to draft pick compensation. As such, the Blue Jays would have to surrender their second-highest 2020 draft pick – likely 45th overall, give or take – plus $500,000 from their international bonus pool to complete a deal.

Despite those penalties, GM Ross Atkins sounds open to the possibility of signing a qualifying offer free agent. Draft pick compensation “is not something that is going to deter us or keep us away from acquiring a player,” he said on Sportsnet 590 The Fan last month.

Still, for a front office intent on building a sustained winner, draft picks are prized commodities. The Blue Jays will surely price the loss of the pick into any offers they make. To an extent, it’s the cost of doing business. A deal with Wheeler or Odorizzi would give the Blue Jays their opening day starter. At the same time, it would mark a shift in approach for a Blue Jays front office that has spent conservatively in free agency.

Just beyond Wheeler and Odorizzi, there’s a group of starting pitchers likely to be available on one- or two-year deals – Michael Pineda, Tanner Roark, Julio Teheran, Wade Miley, Alex Wood and Jordan Lyles, for example. Kyle Gibson might also fit into this category, though the bidding could exceed that for a durable projections darling whose fastball velocity’s on the rise.

When compared to Cole and Strasburg, those arms seems rather ordinary. But on many days last summer, even ordinary was out of reach for the Blue Jays. The group above consists of established big-leaguers who would bring stability to a rotation in need of help. Some of them – Pineda, Lyles and Gibson, for instance – even offer upside. On paper, they’re fits in Toronto.

In the weeks leading up to free agency, it stands to reason that the Blue Jays did plenty of background work on this group. Now, as the GM Meetings begin in Arizona, it’s time for the Blue Jays to narrow their sights further.

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