Future of Blue Jays aces Stroman, Sanchez up in the air in rebuild

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Aaron Sanchez. (Fred Thornhill/CP)

TORONTO – There is precious little permanence when it comes to baseball rosters in this data-driven age and that holds all the more true for teams in the gem-hunting-through-the-mine phase of a rebuild like the Toronto Blue Jays. Rarely does all that glitters in the minor-leagues turn into big-league gold and the only way to find out what’s what is to sift through the dirt, which is why the futures of Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are the subject of intrigue right now.

Acquiring more pitching remains the club’s primary focus, a point GM Ross Atkins reiterated Wednesday during the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s annual meeting. It has to be, given that Stroman and Sanchez, ace-calibre talents coming off injury-marred seasons, are holding together a worryingly threadbare starting rotation with little set behind them.

Yet with both right-handers eligible for free agency after the 2020 season, the likelihood is that their contractual control will expire before the Blue Jays are ready for their next competitive window.

So how do they best maximize the assets, a task further complicated by injury-marred seasons depressing their value?

Allowing them to pitch in the hopes of a rebound that will fetch a better return at next year’s trade deadline, or during the following off-season, also risks the possibility of further depreciation. Riding them through two rebuild years only to watch them walk for nothing afterwards is an even worse outcome.

The ugly exit and negligible return for Josh Donaldson offers good reason to take a bird-in-hand approach.

At the same time, rushing to trade them rather than waiting things out, maybe even exploring the possibility of an extension down the road, means the Blue Jays could very well end up spending the next three or four years trying to recreate ace pitchers just like the ones Stroman and Sanchez are now.

Barring a can’t-say-no trade offer that isn’t likely to come, it’s a dilemma with no easy answer.

“That’s a great question,” Atkins replied when asked how to weigh the different factors. “First, (it’s) having a process for that, and being systematic and collaborative in doing so, weighing objective, subjective, medical, all the information you have. But, you’re constantly, not with Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez alone, you’re constantly understanding how the industry values players that you have and that are comparable. We’ll continue to do both of those things simultaneously.”

The lack of commitment in Atkins’ reply is an interesting contrast to the can’t-make-the-team-better-without-Josh stance he took last winter as Donaldson’s walk-year loomed. It’s also a departure from the GM meetings last month, when he said, “No one likes Marcus more than we do. We value him the most.”

A further change in tone came when Atkins was asked directly whether he could envision a realistic scenario in which he gets an offer that would really make him think of trading Stroman and Sanchez. “Absolutely,” he answered. “I think there are a lot of teams that would love to have either guy.”

Even in which the value aligns?

“Yes. absolutely.”

Given that the winter meetings open Monday in Las Vegas, this is certainly the right time for posturing. But, there’s no doubt about just how changeable everything is at this moment, all across the roster.

Take shortstop, for instance.

After the trade of Aledmys Diaz to the Houston Astros, the Blue Jays have two options at shortstop: Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who before a left hamstring injury prematurely ended his season was the everyday guy, and Richard Urena. Troy Tulowitzki remains on the roster, but Atkins was surprisingly candid when he said the five-time all-star contributing as an above average player “would be unlikely based on what has occurred in the last two and a half years.”

So, Gurriel is the guy?

“Not 100 per cent but if we were playing tomorrow, he’d likely be playing shortstop,” replied Atkins. “We’re going to spend a lot of time with Charlie (Montoyo)… getting to know (Gurriel) and thinking about what our alternatives are at that point and stay open-minded. If we were playing tomorrow he’d be playing short, but we’ll see where we are.”

At third base, “the most likely scenario would Brandon Drury, today,” said Atkins, which, theoretically, sets up Devon Travis at second base and Urena as the utilityman.

But, at second, Travis “has got to come in and be the best guy for second base for us.”

Then there’s the logjam behind the plate with the entrenched Russell Martin and Luke Maile plus rookies Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, whose presence in September prompted the Blue Jays to banish Martin to the bench for the month.

Is it a goal to make room for one of them on the roster?

“Not necessarily,” said Atkins. “Our goal is to make the organization better. I think that would put us in a position to potentially make a bad decision.”

In the outfield, Teoscar Hernandez and Billy McKinney will need to slot in alongside Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk, who, like Stroman and Sanchez, both have only two years of club control remaining.

Even in the tattered-rag remnants of the rotation, rookie Ryan Borucki, a rare 2018 bright spot who was sixth in innings pitched for the club at 97.2 despite only making 17 starts, isn’t a lock.

“Ryan is an easy guy to bet on and pull for,” said Atkins, “but he’s got a lot to prove and there’s a lot at stake for him every day that he takes the field.”

The same goes for several others, too, making the main takeaway this: Beyond third base belonging to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., once he’s called up after his free agency has been pushed back a season, take nothing for granted about the 2019 Blue Jays.

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