Blue Jays GM Atkins on off-season trades: ‘We have to be open’

Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins outlines the three characteristics that the club's next manager must display, as being tough, smart and passion.

TORONTO – Two losing seasons later, the Toronto Blue Jays have “weathered some of the storm,” according to general manager Ross Atkins. All of it? Not likely, as the Blue Jays aren’t expecting to contend in 2019, but Atkins hopes that decisions made this winter will set up the next winning editions of this team.

“Timelines are so difficult,” he said. “I don’t expect us next year to be jumping up and down on mounds. If that starts to look more realistic in the following year or the year after that, then that’s what we’re shooting for.”

To get there, the Blue Jays will need better pitching, better defence and better base-running. More immediately, they need a manager, too. Atkins spent most of Tuesday’s year-end media availability discussing the club’s ongoing manager search, but he also touched on a number of other topics ahead of the off-season. Here are some of the highlights…

TRADES LIKELY COMING FOR JAYS

The 2018 season saw the likes of Danny Jansen, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Rowdy Tellez arrive at the major-league level. Soon enough, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette could join them, fortifying an already-strong group of position players.

The Blue Jays aren’t as deep in controllable pitching, however, and that discrepancy will shape trade talks in the coming year.

“We need to turn some of our position player depth into pitching,” Atkins said. “That doesn’t mean that we won’t trade from our young core or guys that haven’t even gotten to the major-leagues. We have to be open.”

One consideration in trades will be the November deadline for protecting eligible players from the Rule 5 Draft. Now that the likes of Hector Perez, Patrick Murphy, Jacob Waguespack and Max Pentecost are all Rule 5-eligible, the Blue Jays have a lot of prospects to protect on the 40-man roster. At this point, Atkins expects to lose a player or two in the draft.

“And that’s a very good feeling to have to have that amount of talent and not enough spots to protect it,” he said.

Alternatively, the Blue Jays could trade a Rule 5-eligible player to a team with more room on its roster.

COULD MARTIN PLAY REGULARLY?

Russell Martin didn’t play after Sept. 3 this year, but Atkins said there are scenarios where the veteran catcher plays regularly in 2019. That decision will depend on what Martin wants along with his spring performance and conditioning.

“He makes such a difference for pitchers with his receiving, with his leadership, with his instincts, with his confidence,” Atkins said. “If he’s near his best, he’s playing. How regularly? We’ll see. It’ll depend on Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire, Luke Maile, Max Pentecost. There’s other pieces to that equation.”

It’s also possible the Blue Jays could trade Martin, who earns $20 million in 2019. They’d likely have to absorb half or three quarters of his salary in trade, but teams like Milwaukee and Houston look like potential trade partners on paper.

MODEST FREE AGENT SPENDING LIKELY

The Blue Jays will start their off-season by pursuing trades, and it sounds as though their free-agent pursuits will be relatively modest.

“We’d be looking for complementary pieces, and I think the focus would be slightly more short-term,” Atkins said.

The starting rotation and bullpen both look like needs with Marco Estrada and Tyler Clippard hitting free agency. Atkins said the Blue Jays are open to reuniting with Estrada and J.A. Happ, both of whom are free agents after the season.

TULO’S HEALTH A KEY VARIABLE

Troy Tulowitzki has said he welcomes competition at shortstop, but also that he’ll “pack (his) bags and go home” if he’s expected to play elsewhere. With shortstops Aledmys Diaz, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Bo Bichette in the organization, can Tulowitzki get everyday at-bats on the Blue Jays?

“We’ll see,” Atkins said. “If Tulo’s healthy and performing at a very high rate, then yes. If he’s healthy and his performance isn’t to the calibre that major-league environments demand, then no. It starts with health”

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Atkins said the 33-year-old will have the opportunity to play shortstop. If healthy, does he have a guaranteed job?

“There aren’t many guarantees in baseball,” Atkins replied.

UPSIDE REMAINS FOR SANCHEZ & STROMAN

Aaron Sanchez had a procedure to repair the ulnar collateral ligament on the side of his right index finger, but the Blue Jays expect him to be ready for spring training. Despite the injury, Atkins still sees front-of-the-rotation upside for the right-hander.

“It’s still there,” Atkins said. “I’ve still got (hope). Obviously, as time passes and they pitch less, that impacts that, but we still have hope that he can be that.”

Like Sanchez, Marcus Stroman missed extended stretches in 2018 due to finger issues. That said, the Blue Jays believe both can rebound in 2019.

“Because Marcus has hauled more innings, it’s probably a little bit more realistic that he’ll be more durable over the course of 162,” Atkins said. “At the same time, there’s more upside in Aaron Sanchez having a little more power and having a little more growth opportunity because of the lack of innings.”

DEFENCE MUST IMPROVE

Base-running and defence are “massive opportunities” for improvement, Atkins said. The Blue Jays were one of the worst defensive teams in baseball this year, and some metrics suggest they were just as bad on the bases.

“We need to be better at identifying that, we need to be better at developing it and we need to be better at coaching it across the major-league side,” Atkins said. “We can do that with the people that we have and need to improve in those areas.”

Part of that improvement happens in the minor leagues, where the Blue Jays say they’re implementing “extremely creative” ways of developing players.

“It’s not throwing the bats and balls out there and hoping they become better defenders,” Atkins said.

The Blue Jays haven’t decided whether they’ll exercise their $5.5-million club option on Yangervis Solarte, who struggled with both defence and base-running this past season.

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