The Toronto Blue Jays seem poised to thread the needle this off-season by trying to improve their major-league roster without trading key prospects or paying for top-end free agents. It’s a thin hole to manoeuvre through, but the task could be made easier if the club were to trade from an area of surplus — the bullpen.
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins hinted at the possibility during the winter meetings.
“We’re really excited about Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Dominic Leone, Danny Barnes,” Atkins said of his relievers last week. “That’s a difference-making aspect of our year and continues to provide us depth. Also, that market, there’s some depth to it, so we’ll be able to be opportunistic there later in the off-season.”
As of Tuesday, 10 free agent relievers had signed multi-year contracts with average annual values over $6.5 million this off-season, indicating there’s an appetite for quality middle relief even if it’s expensive.
Tepera, Leone and Barnes each enjoyed breakout campaigns in 2017 and as a result presented the Blue Jays with a treasure trove of sorts. Because the trio is extremely cost-effective — Tepera and Barnes aren’t even arbitration eligible, while Leone projects to make around $1.2 million through the process — those pitchers could be coveted by several teams.
Tepera and Leone each have four years of team control remaining, while Barnes has five.
There’s a recent blueprint for trading young, controllable relievers to address other needs. Here’s a look at what such players brought back in deals over the past few seasons.
(Traded with 3 years of team control remaining)
The Brewers traded the right-handed reliever in December 2016 for prospects Mauricio Dubon, Josh Pennington and Yeison Coca, along with major-league third baseman Travis Shaw. It was quite the haul for Milwaukee, considering Dubon is now the team’s No. 9 prospect and Pennington ranks No. 22, according to MLB Pipeline. However, Shaw was the major piece.
A crowded Red Sox infield that included Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez facilitated the trade, and Shaw had an immediate impact with the Brewers, slashing .273/.349/.513 with 31 homers in 2017. Meanwhile, Thornburg, who enjoyed a career year in 2016, didn’t throw a pitch for Boston this past season due to right shoulder impingement.
(Traded with 3 years of team control remaining)
The Cubs were trying to shed salary and clear space on the infield in December 2015, while the Yankees needed a second baseman. That made the clubs a strong match for the swap of Starlin Castro to New York for right-hander Warren and infielder Brendan Ryan.
Castro was heading into the fourth season of a seven-year, $60-million deal, while Warren was a versatile, cost-effective option out of the pen. Even though Warren didn’t work out in Chicago — and was eventually dealt back to the Yankees in the Aroldis Chapman deal — it’s an example of a controllable player from an area of surplus used to address a clear need. Castro manned second base for two seasons in New York, before he was dealt this month to Miami in the Giancarlo Stanton trade.
(Traded with 5 years of team control remaining)
Among the high-end examples on this list, Giles posted a 1.56 ERA and 16 saves across his first two seasons in the majors (115.2 innings) and was then traded to the Astros following the 2015 campaign.
Philadelphia was in the middle of a rebuild at the time, which made their closer expendable despite his low cost. Houston gave up a bevy of prospects in the deal, most notably Vince Velasquez, a high-strikeout right-hander who’s had mixed success in the majors but currently occupies a spot in the middle of the Phillies rotation.
(Traded with 3.5 years of team control remaining)
Smith provided an immediate boost to the Giants’ playoff pursuit following his acquisition in August 2016. The team parted with catcher Andrew Susac and pitching prospect Phil Bickford to acquire the lefty, who was on the heels of two-and-a-half strong seasons with the Brewers.
Milwaukee was in reset mode and its return in the deal hasn’t yet impacted the major-league roster. Susac provides insurance at triple-A, but Bickford is an intriguing right-hander who’s currently the organization’s No. 24 prospect. The trade deepened what is already a strong minor-league system for the Brewers, while also saving the club some money as Smith advanced through his arbitration years.
He missed all of 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, but will still be under Giants control through the 2019 season.
(Traded with 4 years of team control remaining)
One of the first transactions of the current Blue Jays front office was the trade of Hendriks to Oakland in exchange for right-hander Jesse Chavez in November 2015. Hendriks’s appeal was easy to see: He was a pre-arbitration player, coming off an excellent season that saw him post a 2.92 ERA and 1.082 WHIP over 64.2 innings in Toronto.
Chavez was acquired to add depth to the Blue Jays pitching staff, with the hope that he would be a swingman who could eat innings from the bullpen and handle the odd spot start. The trade didn’t quite work out as envisioned by Toronto brass, but Hendriks may represent the closest comparable for Toronto’s current crop of relievers as far as value.