TORONTO – Now that the transition is fully on and J.A. Happ, the primary chip for Ross Atkins to leverage before the deadline, has been traded, the overriding question for the Toronto Blue Jays is what kind of roster they’ll manage to put around Vladimir Guerrero Jr. next year.
Baseball’s top prospect will arrive in the big leagues with the expectation he rescues the franchise and quickly bridges the gap from the competitive window of recent years definitively shut in this season of pain, and the next group that will fight for the post-season.
That’s all, right? Like, no biggie.
Ideally Guerrero is surrounded by other players able to carry the load and insulate him while he acclimates to the majors, the way Ronald Acuna Jr. has Freddie Freeman and others in Atlanta, and Juan Soto has Bryce Harper and crew in Washington. As things stand now, it’s no certainty the Blue Jays will return even a three-win offensive player to a lineup that’s never recovered from the departure of Edwin Encarnacion, the decline and exit of Jose Bautista, and will soon lose Josh Donaldson, too.
In the interim the Blue Jays have collected assets, with Brandon Drury, a third baseman by nature forced into a super-utility existence thus far in his career, and triple-A outfielder Billy McKinney, the latest additions to the mix coming from the New York Yankees for Happ.
Drury will join the Blue Jays immediately and with his ability to play third, second and the outfield, gives Atkins the conviction he’ll provide “a significant contribution.” The pedigree says that’s possible, but the question remains, are the Blue Jays now better positioned to integrate and insulate Guerrero and his generational potential?
“That is certainly not my focus today,” Atkins said on a conference call. “Really, our focus today is on helping every player be the best possible player they can be and building as much depth as possible because … having depth is very, very important to us. I’m not implying that it’s not more important to you or fans that we have a very clear trajectory of a baseball diamond that you can write out the names that are going to be there for the next two, three, four, five years.
“Ultimately, with human beings, things will change. That is the one thing we know for sure, that things will change, whether that be position, whether that be performance, whether that be opportunities that come about to move players for other positions or for pitching, we’ll see.”
Atkins is right about that, and a lack of depth has certainly submarined the Blue Jays the past two seasons.
At the same time, right now they’re more a disparate collection of roster pieces than a team, with few defined places where the parts logically fit.
Beyond Justin Smoak at first base, Russell Martin and Luke Maile at catcher, Kevin Pillar in centre field, Randal Grichuk in right field plus Marcus Stroman (whose name keeps popping up in trade speculation) and Aaron Sanchez, what’s really in place for this team in 2019, let alone 2020 and beyond, when Guerrero, Bo Bichette, Anthony Alford and others might start coming into their own?
Drury, 25, is now part of a disjointed infield mix that also includes Yangervis Solarte, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Devon Travis and Aledmys Diaz with Smoak at first base and one more year of Kendrys Morales at DH on the books, at least, if not on the roster. Gurerro and Bichette, the farm system’s other crown jewel, are coming. Cavan Biggio is pushing at double-A to move up depth chart. Kevin Smith, Logan Warmoth, Jordan Groshans and Orelvis Martinez are further down the pike and all that depth is good.
The reality is few are likely to reach the majors, let alone stick, and having a lot of options isn’t the same thing as having a lot of good options.
Playing every day has exposed Solarte’s flaws. Travis is showing progress but is still trying to regain his past form. Diaz is inconsistent in the field and hasn’t compensated for it at the plate. Smoak and Morales are what they are and over time we’ll find out about the kids.
There’s the same lack of clarity in the outfield which means there’s opportunity for McKinney, who’s now been a part of three pre-deadline deals in four years: Oakland to the Cubs as part of the return for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in 2014; Chicago to the Yankees as part of the return for Aroldis Chapman in 2016; and now New York to the Blue Jays.
Atkins described the 23-year-old as the rare player whose tools each rate as major-league average or better.
McKinney adds another layer underneath Pillar – whom the Blue Jays explored moving at last year’s deadline – Grichuk, and Teoscar Hernandez, who is tantalizing with the bat but worrisome with the glove.
Also beneath them are Dwight Smith Jr., a nice player who’s probably a fringe big-leaguer, Alford, who’s battled injury this season and struggled to get steady footing but sure to get a shot next year, and Dalton Pompey, submarined again by injuries this year but who’ll be out of options next season. Forrest Wall, acquired from the Rockies in the Seunghwan Oh deal, starts at double-A and is another step removed.
So again, lots of volume, but enough to properly leverage Guerrero’s controllable years?
Then there’s the starting rotation to consider, which right now projects to include Stroman, Sanchez, Ryan Borucki, Sam Gaviglio and Thomas Pannone next season.
Like Happ, Marco Estrada is a pending free agent and if he’s healthy, could be moved in August if he can’t be showcased and dealt before July 31. Sean Reid-Foley could perhaps progress enough to enter the 2019 mix, while double-A starters T.J. Zeuch and Jordan Romano may start knocking on the door late next year.
That’s alarmingly thin, and only a few of them are likely to survive and thrive in the AL East meat-grinder, which is why Atkins wisely pointed to controllable starting pitching as the next priority for the club while offering no hint at how he might get some.
“We’re at the point now where our position-player talent is very, very strong and will be hard to really upgrade,” he said. “So now, in breaking ties, we will shift our focus to pitching. It doesn’t mean we won’t acquire young position player prospects if there’s a significant difference in the acquisition opportunity but whether it’s this trade deadline or over the course of the next off-season, controllable pitching is very difficult to acquire.”
Perhaps that’s where Stroman, or Roberto Osuna, or Smoak, or Solarte or the club’s pending free agent relievers come in. If the Blue Jays can’t build around Guerrero in time, Stroman, Sanchez and Osuna won’t allign their primes with the emerging core so reallocating their value to future arms might make sense.
While Atkins said, “we’re not aggressively having those discussions,” ahead of the deadline, you can be certain the Blue Jays are taking note of how they’re valued for the off-season, where those talks are sure to pick up.
It’s then the Blue Jays will have their next opportunity to add via free agency, as well, and being aggressive there could better help set things up for Guerrero and the other kids, as the puzzle all these pieces are forming starts resembling a recognizable picture.
“I don’t think you can ever have enough depth as you’re seeing with the better teams in baseball, they have some of their best talent in triple-A, the Houston Astros have one of the best players in triple-A, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago Cubs, the Cleveland Indians, they have depth and they have players that could be playing every day for multiple teams that may be in triple-A or may be not playing every day. That’s what we’re building towards,” said Atkins. “We’re building towards having as much depth as possible and exactly what that looks like in two or three years, I’ve been in professional baseball for 20 years, I’ve seen that exercise done, and it really never works out the way you think it’s going to work out.
“It really ultimately comes down to depth in our opinion.”
As the roster turnover picks up speed, we’ll soon learn just how deep the Blue Jays are, and what sort of team that depth produces.