Blue Jays Confidential: Who should Atkins pursue in free agency?


New York Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler (45) winds up during the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in New York. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Each week Blue Jays Confidential will ask a panel of Sportsnet Blue Jays Insiders and personalities to weigh in on issues big and small with the team, and around Major League Baseball.

1. The Blue Jays won’t be in on elite free agents like Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon, but who’s one free agent they should target?

Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi):
Let’s aim high here and say Mike Moustakas. An impact left-handed bat who can play first, second and third with leadership qualities makes a ton of sense for a young lineup and young clubhouse, someone who could potentially have some of the same effects Nelson Cruz had on the Twins this season. Now, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one, but it would be the type of move that would have wider-scale benefits than just the production.

Arden Zwelling (@ArdenZwelling):
Beyond the top tier, Zack Wheeler stands out as a durable starter on the right side of 30 with good stuff and room to potentially improve on his strong 2019. But there will be plenty of competition for him and he’ll likely be tied to a qualifying offer, so I’m not betting on the Blue Jays winning that bidding. Dallas Keuchel and his high groundball rate seems a worthwhile investment in this homer-happy era. While far from the most exciting arm, Tanner Roark is durable and reliably league average, which is an undervalued profile. Michael Pineda has tantalizing upside and the Blue Jays can stomach not having him available for the first 39 games of the season while he finishes serving a PED suspension. And Michael Wacha still throws reasonably hard and could be an interesting bounce back bet.

Jeff Blair (@SNJeffBlair):
I’d go after a couple of starters like Jake Odorizzi and I’d at least sniff around Zack Wheeler but they need to add an impactful bat such as Jose Abreu or – what the hell? – J.D. Martinez if he becomes available. I’m not worried about the position they play; other than Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Bo Bichette, and possibly the catchers, there are no position players who should be untouchable or guaranteed a job.

Mike Wilner (@Wilnerness590):
Gerrit Cole. Also Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg, should he opt out. Not that any of them would necessarily come to Toronto, but the Blue Jays are in the unique position of being on the cusp of being really good and having almost zero money on the books for the next two or three years. It would be bold, it would upset the apple cart across the game, it would be transformative, and it would make them instant contenders. But it’s not going to happen.

Yoshitomo Tsutsugo would be a fun add, if he gets posted by the Bay Stars (and not just because his name will be a lot of fun to say on the radio), but as far as guys who we know will be available, I’ll say one the Blue Jays should target is Nicholas Castellanos. I know they need starting pitching, but the Wheelers, Odorizzis and Porcellos of the world, while fine, aren’t huge needle-movers for me. Castellanos is a horse, has hit 36, 46 and 58 doubles the last three years with an OPS that’s increased every season and turns 28 in spring training. Drop him in the middle of what’s becoming a potent batting order and then work on mid-rotation options.

Chicago Cubs’ Nicholas Castellanos watches his 3-RBI double during the second inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Chicago. (Paul Beaty/AP)

Ben Nicholson-Smith (@bnicholsonsmith):
If you’re not going after the elite free agents (and the Blue Jays surely won’t) then you probably want to avoid having tunnel vision for any one player. With that said, I like Jake Odorizzi, whose velocity jumped last year and contributed to his career best strikeout rate (10.1 K/9). If he’s available on a two- or three-year deal he’d be a nice fit for the Blue Jays, but that shouldn’t stop them from exploring fits with the likes of Rich Hill, Rick Porcello and Zack Wheeler to see what’s out there. One way or another, this team needs multiple arms.

2. The Blue Jays will clearly look to add starting pitching. How aggressive do they need to be in the relief market?

Shi Davidi
This depends on how you’re defining aggressive. If you mean sign a bunch of value-play options to minor-league deals, see who sticks and then proceed from there, then very. The Blue Jays have done well bottom-feeding on that front in recent years, with guys like John Axford, Seungwhan Oh, David Phelps and, of course, Daniel Hudson all delivering. If you mean aggressive as in spending big money, well that wouldn’t make much sense right now. Get dudes who can start.

Arden Zwelling
Not particularly. Quality relievers are reliably available at remarkably low prices. David Phelps cost Toronto only a $2.5-million guarantee last winter and was turned into Thomas Hatch. Daniel Hudson was plucked off waivers at the end of spring training and just pitched in the World Series. Wilmer Font was acquired for cash in-season and pitched to a 125 ERA+ for Toronto. If the Blue Jays see someone they like, they should go get him — but there’s zero reason to be aggressive and overpay. I’d also like to see the Blue Jays award bullpen opportunities to some homegrown arms this season such as Jordan Romano, Justin Shafer, Travis Bergen and Jackson McClelland.

Jeff Blair
Meh. Depends what they do with Ken Giles.

Mike Wilner
Not very. The Blue Jays have done very well by waiting out the relief market and making late-spring moves to grab a few guys who are still twisting in the wind. Heck, they signed Daniel Hudson with less than a week to go before opening day and he wound up being their best in the bullpen not named Ken Giles. Relievers are a volatile bunch, and there will always be guys like Hudson, Seung-hwan Oh and John Axford still standing when the music stops at the end of February. The relief market is the easiest one to slow play, and very effectively.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
I don’t see enough left-handed relief on this roster, especially now that Tim Mayza’s sidelined while he recovers from Tommy John surgery. Adding a lefty reliever should be on the club’s to-do list. As for right-handers, they’re in better shape, especially after claiming Anthony Bass from the Seattle Mariners. Still, the front office should add at least a few more big-league calibre arms before the season begins.


3. Who on this team stands out as an off-season trade candidate?

Shi Davidi
Ken Giles is the obvious pick here but word is the Blue Jays have gotten interest in their catchers in recent weeks. Keeping both Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire would certainly be ideal, but maybe you flip one of them for a 0-3 service time young starter and that’s a way to reallocate some surplus to fill a need.

Arden Zwelling
Ken Giles is the obvious one but I’ll go off the board and say someone from the crowded outfield mix. Teoscar Hernandez probably has the most value considering his elite speed, plus power, and torrid hot streaks. You could imagine a team betting on him putting it all together and finding consistency, which is essentially what the Blue Jays have done for the last two seasons. Anthony Alford is 25 and toolsy as hell, so he could potentially be part of a trade package. But he doesn’t have much standalone value as he’s out of options and teams know the Blue Jays are facing a decision with him this spring.

Jeff Blair
Presuming the two juniors and Bichette are off-limits? Nobody other than Giles would bring anything of value. I’d trade anybody in the minors not named Nate Pearson in a package to get a young, major league-ready pitcher or hitter.

Mike Wilner
Ken Giles. I’ll be stunned if he’s still a Blue Jay come spring training, and they should get a solid return.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
Ken Giles will be available, but I don’t get the sense the Blue Jays were thrilled with the offers they got for him last summer (they were close to dealing Giles to the Yankees only to see the deal fall through at the last minute). Maybe better offers will be out there this winter after a strong finish from Giles, but teams will still have questions about a pitcher who rarely pitched back-to-back days without issue.

Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Ken Giles works against the Colorado Rockies in the eighth inning on Saturday, June 1, 2019, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

4. If the Blue Jays look at centre-field upgrades, what kind of skillset should they should prioritize (feel free to name specific players)?

Shi Davidi
The ideal is a plus defender who can contribute something with the bat but those are hard to get. Keon Broxton is an intriguing reclamation project, a really strong defender with power, speed and a major hole in his swing and could be had for free after electing free agency after rejecting an outright assignment from the Mariners. Billy Hamilton is a more upmarket potential stop-gap and they could always give Anthony Alford a look, something that to this point, they’ve steadfastly declined to do.

Arden Zwelling
Centre fielders who excel both offensively and defensively are extremely rare and coveted, making this one of the toughest positions to upgrade externally without paying an exorbitant price. Ultimately, the Blue Jays ought to be developing their own star centre fielder like Minnesota, Houston, and Atlanta have with Byron Buxton, George Springer, and Ronald Acuna Jr. Barring that, just get someone who can put up a high OPS and play passable defence. In today’s three true outcome era, I’d rather have that than a flashy defender who can’t hit.

Jeff Blair
Somebody who can actually catch a ball. Anybody.

Mike Wilner
You need, clearly, someone to catch the ball. Especially if they’re using the September-October 2019 deader version next season, with which there will be a lot more fly balls to track down that stay in play. For years, Kevin Pillar was a terrific glove-first CF, though he was mighty frustrating at the plate. But if there’s offence coming from Bichette, Guerrero, Gurriel, Castellanos (see above), Biggio and whoever they bring in to play first or DH, then you can afford to have a real flyhawk out there. If not, though, Randal Grichuk is a perfectly cromulent defender in centre (though he’s better in right), and if he shows in 2020 that this past season was less the real for him than the preceding four years of a combined .799 OPS were, that combination of good-enough-glove and good-enough-bat is just fine. If he’s flanked by Gurriel and Castellanos, that is.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
This is a tough one. Ideal world, you want defence and on-base percentage in centre with long-term upside. You’re not finding that in free agency. On the trade market you have Starling Marte of the Pirates, but two affordable club options for 2020 and 2021 should make Pittsburgh’s price extremely high. To acquire him, the Blue Jays would have to part with something legit.

If you’re looking for a post-hype sleeper, Dustin Fowler of the A’s is interesting after a strong year at triple-A but then again 25 homers aren’t even that impressive considering he played in the PCL with a juiced ball. He also struck out 145 times, which calls to mind Derek Fisher (and not in a good way). So, honest answer: it’s a lot easier to identify what they need than where they’re going to find it.

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