Blue Jays focus on 2018 after partial sell-off at trade deadline

Ross Atkins talks with Sportsnet's Arash Madani about the moves the Toronto Blue Jays made at the trade deadline and the interest in Marco Estrada and Jose Bautista.

CHICAGO – Nori Aoki doesn’t really count. The Japanese outfielder is a nice player who puts up a pesky at-bat and runs a little bit with some control, but is most likely a candidate to be non-tendered when arbitration time comes next fall, sure to be expensive for what he is. It’s Teoscar Hernandez who is the first substantial piece of the Toronto Blue Jays’ retooling for 2018, a 24-year-old outfielder with an array of tools and the ability, GM Ross Atkins believes, to contribute as an everyday player relatively soon.

The two other players acquired ahead of the non-waiver trade deadline – double-A left-hander Thomas Pannone and short-season rookie ball infielder Taylor Samad – are much further away on the horizon, for now nothing more than organizational assets with upside.

Against the framework of a buyers’ market for rental relievers, that’s a pretty solid return for lefty swingman Francisco Liriano, sent to the Houston Astros with cash for Hernandez and Aoki, and Joe Smith, the set-up man sent to Cleveland for the two minor-leaguers.

Still, the heavy lifting in refreshing a roster decimated by injury and plagued by underperformance is to come, aided somewhat by a partial sell-off of their few expendable assets able to fetch a reasonable return.

"It’s always about, first and foremost, what’s the best asset-value for this organization. If that’s in future, or if that’s in now, or if that’s somewhere in between, in a vacuum it’s always going to be about what makes us better," Atkins said on a conference call Monday evening. "In executing these two deals today, we feel we’ve accomplished both.

“More and more, teams are able to assess the difference in value of, in this case, an A-ball middle infielder and a double-A pitcher versus a triple-A outfielder to determine which one is more valuable. We’re glad that we got all of those today."

Notable is that the Blue Jays weren’t able to move Marco Estrada – a two-month slide eroding his value in a market thin on starting pitchers – and Jose Bautista, who owned veto power over any deal by virtue of having 10 years of service time, the last five of them with the same team. Atkins said he kept the right-fielder "in the loop," on inquiries from other clubs "but nothing came to fruition where we had to say to Jose is this something you would do or would not do."

The Blue Jays’ asking prices were high on everyone, according to rival executives, and given the number of alternatives available, buying clubs were reluctant to discuss their better prospects for rental relievers, offering no "sexy front-line guys," according to one, without extended control.

That led to some volume-oriented transactions, like Boston’s acquisition of Addison Reed from the Mets for three minor-league relievers, one of whom, Jamie Callahan, is at triple-A; and Colorado’s pick up of Pat Neshek from Philadelphia last week for two A-ball pitchers and an A-ball shortstop.

The Chicago White Sox took a different route, sending right-hander Anthony Swarzak to Milwaukee for one triple-A player of debatable upside, infielder/outfielder Ryan Cordell, while the Los Angeles Angels sent David Hernandez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a rookie-ball right-hander.

With that context Hernandez, his path to the big-leagues blocked by a stacked Astros outfield, appears to be an excellent return for Liriano, who most teams valued as a reliever, according to rival executives. The market for him was cut when the Cubs, who had a scout in Toronto all weekend, acquired Justin Wilson from the Detroit Tigers, giving them the lefty they sought.

Getting Pannone – who Atkins said projects as a starter with a "low-90s fastball, good breaking ball and the feel for a changeup" – and Samad – a projectable 19-year-old with speed – for Smith is in line with the return for similar relievers, with the Blue Jays’ evaluations making or breaking that deal.

Aoki is expected meet the Blue Jays in Chicago on Tuesday and manager John Gibbons wasn’t sure how he’s going to make five outfielders work on a roster that needs eight relievers, but did note "there will still be three regulars out there for the most part, you can guess on those." That would be Bautista in right, Kevin Pillar in centre and Steve Pearce in left, with Aoki and Ezequiel Carrera being worked in.

Covering for Liriano in the rotation will be far more complicated and, likely, hard to watch over the next two months. Mike Bolsinger, already with five starts under his belt, is one candidate and the Blue Jays have been watching Luis Santos at triple-A Buffalo, although he’s dealing with a minor blister issue.

Aaron Sanchez, his season ruined by blister problems, played some catch Monday but there’s no timeline for his return, while there’s some debate over whether to stretch out Joe Biagini again, opinion split with some wanting to leave him in the bullpen, where he’s flourished.

They have some time to work with – thanks to a pair of off-days they won’t need a fifth starter until Aug. 12 versus Pittsburgh. While that gets sorted out, Atkins points to the additions of Aoki and utility man Rob Refsnyder last week when he says, "we feel we did accomplish the goal of maintaining a team that we feel can remain a relevant team in 2017 and we made our 2018 team better. Those were the buying opportunities we were looking for – it just meant subtraction."

Asked if the Blue Jays sought established players with control at least through next year, Atkins replied, "we did entertain some of those," noting that the front office ranked out 600 major- and minor-league players in tiers and had substantive discussions with 15 of the 29 other clubs.

Among the names the Blue Jays are believed to have discussed in some form in recent weeks are Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis, Oakland Athletics infielder Jed Lowrie and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Randall Grichuk.

More pressing will be filling in the starting rotation behind Stroman, Sanchez and J.A. Happ next year, with bringing back Estrada a possibility.

"We’re in the business of making this organization better and if a deal doesn’t present itself to do so, then we’re happy to keep Marco Estrada a Toronto Blue Jay," said Atkins, "and we’ll start thinking about not only how he impacts us now, but how he can potentially impact us beyond 2017."

Two months remain for him to impact the Blue Jays now, but the focus on impacting 2018 is well underway.

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