LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The approach of the Toronto Blue Jays front office, from Mark Shapiro on down, tends to be measured and systematic. The objective: make the best decision rather than the one that’s quickest, easiest or most emotionally gratifying.
In many instances, that plays in their favour. For example, the diversity of middle infield and relief options could allow them to wait for the best deals instead of rushing into something. Rather than pay 37-year-old Pat Neshek $16.25 million, they can wait a little longer before addressing their bullpen. But if there’s one segment of free agency that simply doesn’t offer that same depth, it’s the starting pitching market.
This year’s starting class, a group led by Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta and also featuring Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, was characterized as light by executives at the Winter Meetings Monday. It’s perhaps the weakest part of a free agent market stocked with first base types and setup relievers.
“In our opinion, there’s more depth to the relief market, the outfield market, than there is the starting pitching market,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said. “That’s because it’s harder to find … It’d be rare for it not to be the case.”
Yet when addressing the media Monday, Atkins didn’t sound like someone who was going to react to the lack of starting pitching by rushing to sign an arm. The GM acknowledged that the Blue Jays are ‘likely’ to add a starter of some description, but when asked about the free agent class, he praised the player currently penciled in as Toronto’s fifth starter.
“I’m a huge fan of Joe Biagini’s,” Atkins said. “It’s remarkable what he’s accomplished in the two years he’s been here and we’re confident he’s going to continue to make a significant impact. If we have to start the year with him as our fifth starter … that’s not the worst-case scenario for us. (It means) we will have added (at another position), in a significant way. He’s a hard guy to upgrade.”
Atkins pointed to potential triple-A starters such as Ryan Borucki, Thomas Pannone, Taylor Guerreri, Luis Santos, Deck McGuire and Chris Rowley as evidence that the club’s organizational depth has improved in the last 12 months. “We’re going to have some good stories out of those pieces,” he said.
Plus, the Blue Jays started their off-season work early when they signed Marco Estrada to a one-year, $13 million extension in September. “That allowed us to be more measured now,” Atkins said. Which is all fair enough, and also what you’d expect a GM to say as a way to maintain leverage in trade and free agent talks.
The markets for Arrieta and Darvish are still developing, with Arrieta perhaps the harder of the two to pin down. “No clue what he will get,” said one experienced executive. Regardless, the Blue Jays aren’t expected to be players for those two. Cobb and Lynn sit atop the next tier of arms, and while both have undergone a Tommy John surgery, it’s worth noting that Atkins said “there’s a lot more risk in and around” pitchers who have had their elbows reconstructed twice.
Plenty of competition exists in the starting pitching market at a time that the Cubs, Orioles, Angels, Rangers, Mariners, Dodgers, Twins, Brewers and Yankees could also bid for rotation pieces. The few teams that have enough internal options to sit this market out are undoubtedly happy to spend elsewhere.
“Free agency (for) starting pitching is a tough place to be,” Atkins said. “To me it just comes down to durability. That is a secret weapon in baseball. If you can help starting pitchers stay healthy or identify and develop starting pitchers that will haul 200 innings year-in and year-out, that’s a competitive advantage.”
Long term that’d be ideal. For now, the Blue Jays are stuck shopping in a market that’s not all that favourable, willing to wait for the right deal instead of rushing a decision.