Blue Jays about to be tested on the fly in fast-moving pitching market

Hazel Mae spoke with Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith about how the Blue Jays will have to be more aggressive in regards to signing some of the top free agent pitchers on the market

SAN DIEGO – The first six weeks of the off-season have tested the Toronto Blue Jays’ patience. The next six will tell us a lot about their ability to adjust.

As day one of the 2019 Winter Meetings concluded at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego, the Blue Jays’ roster remained unchanged. But the pitching landscape continues shifting around them, as Stephen Strasburg signed a seven-year, $245 million deal with the Washington Nationals on Monday.

Some executives in San Diego said Strasburg’s deal – a record for pitchers – speaks to a broader pattern: after two winters of free agent stagnation, pitching is more expensive than anticipated this year. When asked Monday whether the market’s been more expensive than the Blue Jays anticipated, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said “recent deals would suggest that the market is moving up.”

If that’s indeed the case, then the Blue Jays now have to adjust to the changing market. That doesn’t mean bidding against themselves or resetting expectations completely. As one executive said, “desperation leads to bad deals.” But as the off-season landscape evolves, so must the Blue Jays.

“You have to react either way to a market, for sure,” Atkins said. “It’s not going to be big reactions and we’ve thought about the market a great deal – not just this one but the history of them – and this market is not done. There’s more information coming into this one still, so you definitely have to have some agility.”

Already, the Blue Jays have come up short in the pursuit of some starters. They had varying degrees of interest in the likes of Jake Odorizzi, Zack Wheeler, Jordan Lyles and Michael Pineda before they signed. They also wanted Kyle Gibson enough to make him an offer before he signed a three-year, $28 million deal with the Texas Rangers

“You hate to lose guys like Gibson,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “I was there when we made the offers and they were pretty good offers, just somebody else made a better offer.”

The overall tone Montoyo struck was far more optimistic, and on that front he’s far from alone within the organization. The Blue Jays are of course engaged on every remaining starting pitcher, with Hyun-jin Ryu emerging as a priority, according to colleague Shi Davidi. Beyond Ryu, the Blue Jays are also interested in Dallas Keuchel, Rick Porcello, Tanner Roark, Josh Lindblom, Wade Miley and Alex Wood to varying degrees.

“There’s certainly time left, there’s opportunities left on the trade front and in the free agent side,” Atkins said. “We feel very, very good about the work that’s being done to be prepared to not only make offers on the trade and free agent side, but be in good position for them to be accepted.”

Along with the offers themselves, the Blue Jays have made video presentations for prospective additions and enlisted the help of some current players. While the Blue Jays don’t have anyone with Roy Halladay’s gravitas to recruit this generation’s version of A.J. Burnett, those recruitment efforts can’t hurt.

Still, years and dollars are an even better way of telling a player you like him and within the industry, there’s plenty of skepticism from agents and executives that the Blue Jays really will spend. There are other outside observers who believe the Blue Jays are ready to be players in free agency, but clearly doubts will remain until talk turns to action.

With a projected payroll of just $64 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Blue Jays have considerable financial flexibility. Squandering that with a reactive overpay or two would be foolish at this point in the rebuilding process. The Blue Jays are in all likelihood a .500 team next year with visions of contention in 2021.

But on the other hand, what’s the point of having financial flexibility if you don’t actually use it? The Blue Jays’ need for pitching remains as clear as ever. Now’s the time to read the market, and adjust course a little if needed. At some point, those offers the Blue Jays are making will need to turn into deals.

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