Evaluating the Toronto Blue Jays’ off-season

The radio voice of the Blue Jays, Ben Wagner joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to discuss why Troy Tulowitzki got so jacked up after hitting a home run against Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays.

DUNEDIN, Fla. – The way Ross Atkins looks at it, the Toronto Blue Jays can’t stop seeking upgrades when spring training begins.

Being a major-league general manager means looking for talent 12 months a year, not just at the trade deadline or during the winter meetings. In that sense, the search continues for Atkins, especially when it comes to pitching. But with spring training games now well underway and even Bryce Harper seemingly nearing a decision, a long and slow-moving baseball off-season has ended.

Back in October, as teams were still finalizing their winter plans, I outlined 10 steps that would result in a successful off-season for the Blue Jays. Nearly five months later, the Blue Jays have made many changes without making any splashy additions (they discussed Harper internally but never appeared to get serious on that front).

At the same time, they have done much of what I proposed. By comparing those suggestions to the moves they made, we can answer that initial question: did the Blue Jays have a successful winter?

1.) Decline Yangervis Solarte’s option, exercise Justin Smoak’s option

Did they do it? Yes

Two easy calls. Solarte didn’t play well enough to justify his $5.5 million option, while $8 million for Smoak is reasonable considering he has consecutive seasons with at least 25 homers and a .350 on-base percentage.

2.) DFA Dalton Pompey

Did they do it? No

For now, Pompey remains on the roster. By the end of spring training the Blue Jays will have to make a call on whether to keep him or try to pass him through waivers.

3.) Trade Russell Martin and $16 of his $20 million to a contender for a C prospect

Did they do it? Yes

The Blue Jays sent Martin and $16.4 million to the Dodgers for prospects Andrew Sopko and Ronny Brito. The deal makes sense because it creates playing time for Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire while also freeing up cash and adding a couple of potentially useful prospects.

4.) Trade Kendrys Morales and $10 of $12 million for a D prospect

Did they do it? No

In theory, this move would have opened up designated hitter at-bats for players in need of a rest and made it easier to roster someone like Rowdy Tellez. Instead, Morales is still a Blue Jay after another tough off-season for older sluggers. If Nelson Cruz gets just $14.3 million after a fifth consecutive 35-homer season, you can imagine that teams weren’t lining up for Morales at $12 million.

5.) Listen to trade offers for Kevin Pillar, Randal Grichuk, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Ken Giles

Did they do it? Yes

It’s no secret that the Blue Jays listened to offers on this group, and though nothing has come to fruition just yet, those off-season conversations could inform moves this summer. The Blue Jays talked to every team in the starting pitching market about Stroman and Sanchez, who could both be moved at the trade deadline if they rebound from tough 2018 seasons.

6.) Trade Aledmys Diaz to a contender for pitching

Did they do it? Yes

Once Marwin Gonzalez hit free agency, the Astros emerged as a suitor for Diaz and the Blue Jays made a deal for right-hander Trent Thornton. This looks like a win-win trade since the Astros are exceptionally deep in pitching and the Blue Jays need arms like Thornton, a 25-year-old who’s nearly big-league ready.

7.) Sign a starting pitcher to a short-term deal

Did they do it? Yes

Matt Shoemaker’s one-year, $3.5-million deal is exactly the kind of contract a rebuilding team needs. He was a valuable pitcher from 2014-16, but injuries limited him to just 21 starts over the last two seasons. If Shoemaker rebounds, the Blue Jays will have a useful summer trade chip or someone they can hold onto for 2020. Otherwise, there’s little downside here.

But even though there’s nothing wrong with the Shoemaker deal, I thought the Blue Jays should have done more here. Garrett Richards, who ended up in San Diego on a two-year, $15.5-million deal, would have been a perfect complement to Shoemaker, his longtime teammate with the Angels. Granted, just about any pitcher would choose the Padres over the AL East if the offers are similar, so why not bid more aggressively? Twenty million over two years would still have been worth it, even if that’s double what Tommy John veterans Michael Pineda and Drew Smyly got under comparable circumstances.

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8.) Tender all arbitration-eligible players except Solarte and Jake Petricka

Did they do it? Yes

The Blue Jays removed Petricka from the 40-man roster early in the off-season instead of tendering him a contract.

9.) Add more starting pitching

Did they do it? Yes

Soon after adding Shoemaker, the Blue Jays acquired Clayton Richard for prospect Connor Panas. The left-hander has been an effective starter before, but he’s a back-end option at this stage of his career, and it’s hard to envision him as a significant deadline piece at age 35 given that he doesn’t have overwhelming stuff.

Someone has to pitch the innings, so there’s nothing wrong with adding Richard, who has started 59 games over the past two seasons. At the same time, the Blue Jays should have added more upside here in my view. They were in on Yusei Kikuchi before he landed a $56-million guarantee from the Mariners, yet it doesn’t sound like they were close to landing the 27-year-old. If they had found a way to sign him, that would have added meaningfully to the club’s emerging core.

10.) Slow-play the free agent relief market

Did they do it? Yes

The Blue Jays signed David Phelps on Jan. 12, and added John Axford on Feb. 14. Neither deal costs all that much and both pitchers could be intriguing trade candidates by mid-summer. Case in point: Corey Copping, the right-hander who came back in last summer’s Axford trade.

There’s still room to add given the questions surrounding projected bullpen arms such as Joe Biagini, who had a 6.00 ERA last year, and Elvis Luciano, a Rule 5 pick who just turned 19. That said, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the club continue slow-play the market, as it did with Seung-hwan Oh and Tyler Clippard last spring.

Otherwise, the biggest move the Blue Jays made was at shortstop, where Freddy Galvis replaces the now-released Troy Tulowitzki. Defensively speaking, the Blue Jays likely upgraded here and while Tulowitzki has more power, he wasn’t nearly as reliable as Galvis, who owns baseball’s active consecutive games played streak. To me, that swap makes sense.

So, back to the original question: did the Blue Jays have a successful off-season? They’ve delivered on eight of my 10 suggestions, so it would be completely contradictory to criticize them now. The front office definitely earns a passing grade here.

That said, I do think they should have spent to add more starting pitching with upside for 2020 and beyond. The question of who starts for this team when it’s contending again still looms large after these off-season moves. Adding someone like Richards or Kikuchi would have helped answer it.

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