Blue Jays patient in relief market as starting search continues

Jays GM LaCava signed Marco Estrada and is now looking to add to the starting rotation.

The Toronto Blue Jays continue prioritizing their starting rotation even after adding Marco Estrada.

“We’ve got to keep going. We’re going to stay focused on that,” interim GM Tony LaCava said Tuesday. “We’re talking to other free agents and we’re also engaged with some teams in terms of trying to see if there’s any trades out there that can help us.”

The Blue Jays officially signed Estrada to a two-year, $26-million contract Friday, solidifying one vacant rotation spot. There’s still at least one more opening in a rotation that also features R.A. Dickey and Marcus Stroman.

But like all general managers, LaCava must juggle many pursuits at once. For the Blue Jays that means monitoring the market for relievers, backup catchers and minor league free agents while chasing starting pitching. At this point there’s not yet a sense of urgency on the relief market.

“It’s not on the back burner, but it’s secondary, the primary being starters,” LaCava said. “We may let the bullpen come to us a little bit.”

If the Blue Jays end up adding starting pitching first, they’ll know how much cash they have to address remaining needs in the bullpen and on the bench.

After losing Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins to free agency it would make sense for the Blue Jays to seek multiple relievers this off-season. The relief trade market picked up early with the Padres trading Craig Kimbrel and Joaquin Benoit, though the free agent market has been quiet in comparison, with more reliever rumours than deals.

There are typically relief bargains to be had late in the winter, even if many of the most coveted players will have signed by then. Last year top relievers such as Francisco Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano remained on the market late and bounce-back candidates Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales and Carlos Villanueva were all available on minor league deals in January.

There’s also the option of pursuing converted starting pitchers such as Trevor Cahill and Joe Blanton as relievers, or trying to unearth the next successful conversion project. Add it up and the Blue Jays could theoretically address their bullpen in a wide variety of ways.

Depending on who the Blue Jays acquire this off-season, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna could be candidates to start in 2016. LaCava says both have the ability to start long-term, but he stressed that no decision has been made just yet.

“We’re going to keep our options open on both guys,” LaCava said. “The fact that Sanchie’s done more (starting) in the past probably makes it easier transitioning to starting compared to O who hasn’t really pitched a five-month season (as a starter) yet. Sanchez would be further along as a starter, but both of them are capable.”

Realistically that decision’s still a ways off. In the meantime, the Blue Jays will evaluate all of their options, even pitchers linked to draft pick compensation.

“Certainly you don’t want to give up a draft pick and you have to factor that in to the value you put on the player that you’re getting,” LaCava said. “Ideally you don’t give the draft pick up, but sometimes it’s worth doing.”

Starters Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann, Wei-Yin Chen, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo, Hisashi Iwakuma, John Lackey and Jeff Samardzija each declined qualifying offers, meaning teams must surrender a top 2016 pick to sign them before the amateur draft. It’s an additional cost all teams hope to avoid, but one the Blue Jays accepted last winter to add Russell Martin.

Now that the Blue Jays have signed Estrada they have approximately $115.5 committed to their 2016 payroll (not counting league-minimum players and using MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections). While LaCava declines to offer specifics on payroll, it doesn’t appear that the Blue Jays are done adding yet.

“We think we have plenty to allocate the rest of the way,” he said.

And plenty of needs too, none bigger than the starting rotation.

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