What to expect from Blue Jays at Winter Meetings

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith joins the Starting Lineup to discuss what it would take for the Blue Jays to trade Russell Martin, and how much cash they'd have to eat to get a significant prospect in return.

The temptations of Las Vegas can test even the most disciplined of visitors, which makes Sin City an especially interesting setting for baseball’s winter meetings. Amid this period of free-agent austerity, putting baseball’s annual swapfest in a place built around the stripping away of regulation and restraint will add a dash of intrigue to the week ahead.

Will the self control of recent off-seasons still reign? Or will some teams get lured into letting it ride and blowing past budget?

The Toronto Blue Jays have certainly been among baseball’s more disciplined clubs in recent seasons, spending methodically and carefully on free agents. Consider that since Mark Shapiro took over as president and CEO in November 2015, the club’s largest financial commitment in free agency was the $36-million, three-year deal given to J.A. Happ that year.

Second on the list is the $33-million, three-year deal for Kendrys Morales handed out in November 2016, with Marco Estrada’s $26-million, two-year contract and the $12.5-million, two-year agreement with Steve Pearce the only other multi-year commitments handed out on his watch.

There have been sizeable one-year outlays for Jose Bautista ($18 million), Estrada ($13 million) and Jaime Garcia ($10 million), plus a number of smaller deals, mostly for relievers.

Little long-term exposure, minimal risk – a front office mantra for the times.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

All of which is worth keeping in mind as GM Ross Atkins continues to hunt for the pitching upgrades his badly exposed staff desperately needs. Ideally, the Blue Jays want to add arms under extended periods of control to time with their emerging position player core, but “it’s too hard to add Trent Thorntons and Marcus Stromans and Aaron Sanchezes for sure,” he says.

“Young, controllable pitching is very difficult to acquire so we’re not going to easily and readily acquire more Ryan Borucki/Sean Reid-Foley types,” Atkins continues. “Adding at the free agent level is more realistic and something we’ll be looking to do.”

Given the Blue Jays’ recent spending habits, that suggests a future with more placeholder types that, if they perform, can be traded at the non-waiver trade deadline rather than longer-term pieces.

The $140-million, six-year deal Patrick Corbin landed from the Washington Nationals is the type of reach the team doesn’t believe makes sense for the roster right now, given that 2019 will be spent sifting through sand, and convincing such a player to join a rebuild requires an overpay.

Maybe – maybe – if someone like a Dallas Keuchel finds himself in the same spot Jake Arrieta was in last spring, without a contract well into spring training, the Blue Jays could try to be opportunistic. But the far likelier scenario is that they’re waiting out the market on a Garcia-type, just hoping for a better outcome this time around.

The only way to get the kind of young arm they want outside of the draft is to pay a hefty price in trade, and there’s some irony in their desire to acquire controllable pitching while also being willing to trade Stroman and Sanchez for the right return.

To this point, Atkins has worked to make deals using only the periphery of his prospect base, so a larger reallocation would mark a shift in approach.

Far simpler is to spend in free agency and with a projected $100 million or so in contractual guarantees, arbitration salaries and 0-3 service-time players, they have money to work with.

All of which points to placeholder additions rather than core acquisitions.

“We’re so fortunate to have the option to do either,” says Atkins. “We have a lot of flexibility. The young core we have coming, we could not be more excited about. Having flexibility, we certainly have it now and even more so moving forward, we’re in a great position to be … taking advantage of opportunities. We will be able to do both. We’ll be able to be aggressive and we’ll be able to be opportunistic.”

Vegas, baby, indeed.

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