Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins still has work to do in low-spending free agency

Ross Atkins joins The Jeff Blair show and believes his team has plenty of pitching depth but still thinks the Jays have to focus on acquiring pitching to strengthen the team.

TORONTO – Ridiculous as it sounds less than two weeks away from spring training, plenty of off-season business remains across baseball, with franchise-altering superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still among the roughly 130 free agents lingering on the market.

The rebuilding and relatively quiet Toronto Blue Jays certainly rank among the many clubs with work to do, even after this week’s free-agent signing of Freddy Galvis to a $4 million, one-year deal that includes a $5.5 million club option on 2020 or $1 million buyout.

The veteran shortstop with the slick glove is the club’s most lavish winter spend thus far, joining fellow free agents Matt Shoemaker ($3.5 million) and David Phelps ($2.5 million, with a club option for 2020), plus trade-acquisition Clayton Richard (taking on $1.5 million of his $3 million salary) as the only external seven-figure pickups to help sandbag the shores.

A move or two remains – think along the lines of last year’s training-camp signings of Jamie Garcia and Seunghwan Oh to big-league deals, and John Axford and Tyler Clippard to minor-league pacts – as the Blue Jays continue to prepare for the 2019 deluge ahead.

“Yeah, I think we can still add on the pitching side, on the roster, non-roster,” general manager Ross Atkins, just back from a visit to the team’s complex in the Dominican Republic with new manager Charlie Montoyo, says in an interview. “We will look to add to our pitching. After that, it’s going to take subtraction to make an additional add. We would have to potentially move an outfielder, or an infielder or someone else in order to be aggressive on another free agent. The bulk of our focus, almost all of it, will be on acquiring pitching at this point.”

As things stand, the Blue Jays project to have a rotation of Marcus Stroman (whom at least one rival executive believes may yet be moved), Aaron Sanchez, Shoemaker, Richard and sophomore Ryan Borucki. Closer Ken Giles, Phelps and Ryan Tepera are set to anchor a bullpen that could also include Tim Mayza, Joe Biagini, David Paulino and Rule 5 pick Elvis Luciano.

Atkins insisted there’s no preference between adding starters and relievers at this point, saying “it’s really just about depth and outs and acquisition cost, but we would consider both.”

Creating depth – particularly on the pitching side – has been a Blue Jays mantra all winter and after adding Galvis to handle the bulk of work at shortstop, the team believes it’s well-stocked on the position-player front.

How it all shakes out in the infield beyond Galvis is uncertain right now, but adding a strong defender up the middle was necessary “because of our need to improve our defence and our need to make sure that we are not rushing or overexposing players,” said Atkins.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who was the likeliest candidate to take over as the everyday shortstop until the signing of Galvis, “could potentially win a position – it could be shortstop, it could be second base, it could be another position – but he also has the potential to play multiple spots,” insisted Atkins. “We don’t feel like we have to make that decision today. When it came down to the Freddy Galvis acquisition, it was the dual challenge of trying to improve our defence and not wanting to overexpose any one, two or three individuals.”

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Galvis has appeared in 633 of a possible 648 games over the past four seasons, including 162 in each of the past two campaigns, adding a layer of durability and consistency the Blue Jays lacked. And while Atkins said both he and Montoyo talked to Galvis “about understanding that he’s not going to play 162 games,” the plan is to “look to play him as frequently as possible.”

Barring injuries or major surprise, that sets the defence up as Galvis at short, Brandon Drury at third and Gurriel or Devon Travis at second, at least until Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrives once his free agency has been pushed back a year. When Guerrero is in the mix, the access to at-bats tightens up for Drury, Gurriel and Travis, who may also face some heat from Richard Urena to make the team in the first place.

“We need to have options,” says Atkins. “We need to make sure we’re not rushing a young player from triple-A to the major-leagues before they’re ready, or just relying on someone in the major-leagues that hasn’t proven they are absolutely the next person to get that opportunity at every day at-bats. Patience is as important in development as any aspect of it. (Galvis) will allow us to be more patient and more disciplined to not overexpose. And it’s going to massively help the outcome of us preventing runs.”

Some pitching adds would also help on that last front. In a nearly finished off-season that barely feels like it started, the Blue Jays still have more to come.

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