Blue Jays prioritizing improved starting pitching in free agency

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith joins Hazel Mae from the Winter Meetings in Vegas to discuss the possibility of the Blue Jays bringing back J.A. Happ, and to discuss the Mike Fiers and Kendall Graveman rumours.

LAS VEGAS — Compare the Blue Jays to the best pitching staffs in the game and it’s immediately apparent that there’s work to do in Toronto.

The likes of the Astros and Dodgers have more high-end talent and more depth, creating a standard for other teams to match. The challenge facing the Blue Jays has never been in question, so general manager Ross Atkins has acknowledged all off-season that pitching sits atop his off-season shopping list.

That pursuit began last month with the acquisition of Trent Thornton from Houston for Aledmys Diaz. As the Winter Meetings began in earnest at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino Monday, Atkins explained where his search will turn next. While the Blue Jays will undoubtedly sign some relievers this winter, they expect to shop for free-agent starters first.

“We would rather have more flexibility, or complete flexibility to know what our opportunities will be on the starting pitching front before we’re aggressive with relievers,” Atkins told Toronto-based media in the Blue Jays’ suite Monday afternoon.

The top free-agent starter remaining appears to be Dallas Keuchel, but he’s not holding up the market in Atkins’ view. Case in point: the Tigers agreed to sign Tyson Ross for a one-year, $5.75-million deal.

The Blue Jays are believed to have expressed some interest in Ross, and will do similar diligence on other starters in that price range. Mike Fiers, recently non-tendered by the Athletics, will be among them, though the Blue Jays will surely have some reservations about the right-hander’s ability to sustain the 3.56 ERA he posted in 2018 given his more pedestrian peripherals.

Moving up the free-agent list, the Blue Jays would arrive at Lance Lynn, a potential bounce-back candidate whose market appears to be developing here in Las Vegas. He might require a multi-year commitment, and so would J.A. Happ, whose effectiveness and professionalism make for an appealing combination.

The last time the Blue Jays signed Happ, they ended up trading him for Billy McKinney and Brandon Drury in a win-win deadline trade with the Yankees. But Atkins says the Blue Jays aren’t thinking about future deals as they explore the free-agent starting market this year.

“I don’t expect us to be acquiring someone to trade them,” Atkins said. “We’re looking to acquire guys that can help make the organization better and if we are (later) in a position where it makes sense to move them, then we would consider that. Looking for free-agent pieces with the goal of trading them is not where we are today.”

The Blue Jays also say that they’re not looking to trade Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez despite what Atkins described as “significant” interest. Still, the Blue Jays are evidently contemplating what it would take to trade the right-handers, who are both under team control through 2020.

Given that the Blue Jays aren’t likely to contend before 2020, 27-year-old Yusei Kikuchi looks like a particularly intriguing potential target. The Seibu Lions recently posted the left-hander, meaning he and agent Scott Boras now have 30 days to reach a deal with an MLB team.

The Blue Jays have been doing their background work on Kikuchi, who’s regarded as a potential No. 3 starter in the majors. He missed some time with a shoulder injury in 2018, but the Blue Jays are likely to stay in touch with Boras to see if there’s a fit.

One way or another, the Blue Jays are intent on inching their pitching staff closer to the game’s best. This winter, their shopping begins in the rotation.

“We can piece together a major-league rotation and a triple-A rotation without going into free agency,” Atkins said. “We need to make it much better than the one that exists and we will. We’ll work very hard to do that and improve upon it and create more depth there, but it is a good starting point to have.”

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