CARLSBAD, Calif. – The Toronto Blue Jays leave the general managers’ meetings without an immediate cure for what influential agent Scott Boras described as the “Blue Flu,” but with a sense that they’ve started work on enough different tracks to eventually find one.
The annual gathering of clubs and agents wrapped up Thursday with one trade in the books – the Tampa Bay Rays’ acquisition of catcher Mike Zunino in a five-player swap with the Seattle Mariners, who get speedy outfielder Mallex Smith – and a lot of information for front offices to download.
Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said he and his crew had accomplished all they had hoped to this week at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa, and said, “the nature of this business is that we often times have several balls in the air that could get momentum at any moment on the trade and free agency front.”
“We could also have those balls remain in the air for the next month and a half, or two,” Atkins continued. “Clarity is great, love having clarity in certain areas, we feel that we have opportunities to make our team better and the organization better and we’ve made progress there.”
The priority for the Blue Jays is to add pitching both to their rotation and bullpen, even as speculation continues about the futures of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez. Rival executives are skeptical that either will be dealt because of how big a hit they would take in the return selling low, but that hasn’t kept either from being inquired about.
The likelihood is that Atkins will look to turn some of his middle-infield surplus into pitching, which will also create more structure around who’s going to play where in 2019.
Between Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Brandon Drury, Devon Travis, Aledmys Diaz, Richard Urena and Yangervis Solarte (a clear non-tender candidate), there’s a logjam and that’s before Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (who’ll be up once the club has pushed back his free agency by a year), Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are factored into the mix.
And then there’s the Troy Tulowitzki wild card.
The Blue Jays also have four catchers on the 40-man roster in Russell Martin, Luke Maile, Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, and Martin, if the $20 million he’s owed is paid down enough, could be in play given the number of contending clubs that need a backstop.
In combination with outfield depth, the Blue Jays will have to strike a balance between prioritizing playing time for the most deserving players while trading those who may fetch them a reasonable return.
“That would be ideal but it’s just acquisition cost, what’s the return on that trade. We’re in a good position in that we don’t have to make any trades and we can field a major-league team that we feel is young and exciting,” said Atkins. “We do need to add pitching on some level, in some way, so I can see a scenario where we go through the off-season and make no trades and only acquire pitching in free agency. I can also see a scenario where there’s an opportunity to acquire pitching via trade.
“What excites us is to match up more pitching with that young double-A, triple-A and just now transitioning group to the major-leagues,” Atkins continued. “If we can add to Sean Reid-Foley and Ryan Borucki and obviously Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, if there’s a way to add to that group, then that’s really exciting. If that starts to line up, then that competitive window is fun to think about.”
Beyond Borucki, Reid-Foley and Thomas Pannone, the Blue Jays aren’t likely to have any other internal options, at least early in 2019, emerge from their farm system. Hector Perez, T.J. Zeuch, Jordan Romano and Jon Harris are likely to be part of the rotation at triple-A Buffalo, while the power arms of Nate Pearson, Patrick Murphy — the advanced-A Florida State League pitcher of the year — and Yennsy Diaz will be further down the chain.
Either through trade or free agency, the Blue Jays will need to paper over the gap.
“You hate to ever say they’re too far away or that’s not going to happen but i think that’s a fair assumption,” Atkins said of the above group needing more time before they become big-league options. “I believe that on the pitching side, especially starting pitchers, that development opportunity is massive. It’s more significant because you’re factoring in durability. In order to be a starting pitcher that hauls 200-plus innings for more than five and six and hopefully 10 years, that just doesn’t happen unless you’re Chris Sale and you just ride out there and do that. It usually takes a progression of not just getting better, but what that means to your body. Working towards that in a more systematic way makes more sense to us.”
Unless their market completely collapses, the Blue Jays won’t be in on the top-flight arms in free agency like Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Nate Eovaldi but they could get Boras off their backs by bidding on one of his clients, Yusei Kikuchi, the power-armed lefty who will be put up for posting by the Seibu Lions.
The Blue Jays filled the void in their scouting staff left by the firing of Dan Evans by hiring Hideaki Sato to scout Japan for them. He’s previously worked for the Mariners and Nippon Professional Baseball clubs the Yakult Swallows and Nippon Ham Fighters, and served as an interpreter for Yu Darvish, as well.
There’s no direct correlation there between Sato and Kikuchi, but given that the lefty is only 27, if the bidding doesn’t get silly he’s someone who could time with their core on a four or five year deal.
The Boras factor may very well make that pursuit a completely unrealistic one, but for the moment it’s one of many possibilities in the air for the Blue Jays, “Blue Flu” or not.