TORONTO – Until the agreements the Toronto Blue Jays have reached on deals with Clay Buchholz and Bud Norris are finalized after physicals for both pitchers, we’re not going to get the club’s rationale behind their pending additions.
Since that might not come until early next week, let’s play think-along with the front office in trying to assess a pair of low-risk moves that are, at least from this vantage point, somewhat curious, if not a bit confusing.
To start, pitching depth is good, especially for a club that’s as exposed as the Blue Jays. Going into a season strictly relying on kids is a recipe for disaster, so they really needed another layer of arms to protect themselves.
Buchholz and Norris should help accomplish that.
But, for different reasons, they also complicate an already murky roster picture, which is why there was some, well, let’s call it head-scratching when word broke Thursday.
First, Buchholz, who is well known to Blue Jays vice-president, baseball operations Ben Cherington from their days with the Red Sox, and was the ask by Toronto when Boston first sought to rehire manager John Farrell following the 2011 season.
A two-time all-star, the 34-year-old’s promising career has been repeatedly hampered by injury, most notably a torn flexor tendon in his right forearm that limited him to just two starts in 2017.
While he rebounded last year with the Arizona Diamondbacks, posting a 2.01 ERA (his FIP was 3.47) and 1.037 WHIP with 81 strikeouts in 98.1 innings over 16 starts, he still missed time with an oblique injury and a flexor strain in his right forearm that ended his campaign prematurely. Still Buchholz, who’s getting a major-league deal according to a source, is a guy worth rolling the dice on.
Given that then, how does he fit the Blue Jays rotation, which GM Ross Atkins has already said will include Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Matt Shoemaker and Clayton Richard, barring injury? That’s a good question, given the uncertainty over his health, too, but the better question is why would the Blue Jays potentially block off Ryan Borucki’s place on the staff?
Atkins notably didn’t include Borucki as a lock when discussing the rotation earlier this spring. Granted, you never want to just hand a young player a job, but you’d think a rebuilding team looking to transition its youth would naturally open an opportunity for a 24-year-old who’s dominated every level, and posted a 3.87 ERA (and FIP of 3.80) in 97.2 innings over 17 strong big-league starts.
After all, in a groundwork for the future kind of season, if you’re not giving the ball to someone like Borucki, who’s won over coaches and player development people at each step through his determination and character, then what are you punting on 2019 for?
Now, all four locks for the rotation are coming off injury, and it’s entirely possible one of them doesn’t survive the spring. And maybe the Blue Jays want to be ready in case someone makes them an offer for Stroman or Sanchez they can’t refuse.
That’s fair. But starting Borucki in the minors just because he has an option would be a terrible message to send the club’s young players, especially since Vladimir Guerrero Jr., will start the year off at triple-A Buffalo so his free agency can be pushed back a year.
Of the club’s young players, they are clearly the most deserving of a roster spot, and if neither opens the season in the big-leagues, any talk of a meritocracy, and carrying the best 25 players will ring absolutely hollow. Certainly, Atkins’ comments on Guerrero to MLB Network Radio earlier this week, when he said that "I just don’t see him as a major-league player," began laying the groundwork for the 19-year-old’s eventual demotion, ruffling feathers in the process.
Financial arguments aside, there’s something corrosive about repeatedly telling a player that’s clearly ready for the majors that he’s not, and then withholding opportunity from him. And beyond that, every player in the organization sees that the club will use every lever it can to suppress earnings.
In Borucki’s case, service-time manipulation would be far-fetched, as he accumulated 88 days last year, and his free agency would only be pushed back if he spent a maximum of 83 days in the majors in 2019. He’s not in range of eventually gaining Super 2 arbitration status, either, so we can rule that out.
The other stuff, though? Confusing, especially since you’d think this year is designed to get Borucki and the likes of Sean Reid-Foley, Trent Thornton and Thomas Pannone, among other prospects, as much experience as possible without being unwatchable.
And then there’s the minor-league deal for Norris, who on the surface comes to the Blue Jays with a decent back-of-the-bullpen track record and after posting a 3.59 ERA in 57.2 innings over 64 games with 67 strikeouts and 28 saves for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Add him to the mix with Ken Giles, Ryan Tepera, David Phelps and Tim Mayza and you’re giving manager Charlie Montoyo a little more help in getting 27 outs every night.
Makes total sense, then?
Well, Norris drew attention last year after Mark Saxon of The Athletic wrote about how he had "been mercilessly riding 21-year old rookie Jordan Hicks since spring training," as part of "an effort to carry on the dying tradition of teaching younger players in the harshest possible ways."
Norris’s actions sound like they came from a good place – "We’re working together," he told Saxon of Hicks, "but he still has a lot to learn on the pitching side, on the professional side of things, how to hold himself accountable for some things and just being a pro."
Yet, is the type of old-school leadership described in the piece what the Blue Jays want in their young clubhouse?
Part of the reason for clearing out the likes of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin was to create the space for the club’s emerging young core to grow its own culture and develop its own chemistry.
Over the winter, Borucki and Danny Jansen were among 11 Blue Jays to attend a four-day teamwork and leadership program with the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning toward that end, as Arden Zwelling recently documented.
Maybe, then, the Blue Jays front office wants a dash of Norris’s approach in the clubhouse. Or maybe they simply want inexpensive outs for the bullpen. Or maybe it’s a straight value-hunt in the hopes of reallocating Norris for future assets at the deadline, intangibles be damned.
Either way, without knowing exactly what the front office is thinking, the impression here is that in bolstering their pitching depth with Norris and Buchholz, the Blue Jays may have gotten away from their more primary goals in the process.