DUNEDIN, Fla. – By now we can call it a pattern. Every time the Toronto Blue Jays have addressed a need this off-season, they’ve added capable players on deals with manageable long-term risk. In most cases the players can be controlled beyond 2018.
Exciting? Not particularly, especially when compared to the New York Yankees’ winter. But then the Blue Jays don’t seem determined to make splashes, either. What they have done, most recently with the addition of Jaime Garcia on a one-year, $10 million deal, is raise the floor of a team that had many weaknesses exposed in 2017.
The Blue Jays signed Garcia Thursday to a one-year deal that guarantees him $10 million, and includes a club option for 2019 plus performance bonuses based on innings pitched. The addition rounds out the Blue Jays’ starting rotation with a veteran left-hander entering his 10th big-league season.
“Incredible athlete, incredible feel for what it takes to start in the major-leagues,” GM Ross Atkins said. “We’re glad to add him to the organization.”
The 31-year-old posted a 4.41 ERA for the Braves, Twins and Yankees last year, but his peripheral numbers encouraged the Blue Jays. He ranked fifth among starting pitchers in groundball rate thanks to an effective two-seam fastball that was among the hardest to square up in baseball last year, as measured by xwOBA.
From a scouting standpoint, the Blue Jays were also impressed by the way he manipulates multiple offerings depending on the situation.
“He has the ability to adapt and adjust those pitches for different types of hitters in a unique way,” Atkins said.
In the course of the Blue Jays’ due diligence, they also checked on Andrew Cashner and Jason Vargas. Cashner signed a two-year, $16 million deal with Baltimore Thursday, but he looks like a regression candidate, so at least a couple of rival executives were skeptical that he’d justify the expense. Meanwhile, the Garcia signing was well-received.
Like Randal Grichuk, Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz, Garcia can be controlled beyond 2018. If he replicates last year’s performance, the 2019 option provides flexibility for a team that could lose Happ and Estrada to free agency within the year. If not, the Blue Jays will simply exercise a $2 million buyout instead of paying him a $10 million salary.
Garcia joins Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada in the Blue Jays’ projected rotation, which pushes Joe Biagini down the depth chart, but certainly not off of it.
The Blue Jays will continue stretching Biagini out this spring even with Garcia in the mix. An injury would push Biagini back into the rotation, and that possibility can’t be overlooked with Aaron Sanchez still looking to reestablish himself after missing most of 2017 due to finger issues. Even if the entire staff stays healthy, the Blue Jays’ front office would be comfortable optioning Biagini to triple-A.
“Our goal is to build as much starting depth as possible,” Atkins said. “I know that would probably be less than ideal for Joe, but I also think Joe understands that it’s his career and it’s not just about the month of April for the Toronto Blue Jays.”
Soon after adding Garcia, Atkins spoke to Biagini to tell him about an addition who could potentially take his rotation spot. The right-hander’s reaction impressed Atkins.
“It’s always about the team for him,” Atkins said. “That’s about as inspiring as it gets … I think just as we understand the need for more than five major-league starting pitchers, Joe understands that.”
If any doubt remained, Atkins could point to last year’s Blue Jays team. The club eventually asked Mike Bolsinger, Cesar Valdez, Chris Rowley, Mat Latos, Nick Tepesch, Casey Lawrence and Tom Koehler to start games in 2017, even though none opened the season in the rotation.
As for the Blue Jays’ next steps, they’re ‘mostly focused on pitching,’ according to Atkins. While recent minor-league signees such as John Axford and Craig Breslow add depth to the relief mix, the club’s working with three or four open spots, so there’s room to add a big-league reliever.
Atkins said the Blue Jays have financial flexibility remaining to add to the pitching staff before opening day. They won’t necessarily spend right away, though — the front office could also use that money mid-season.
“We feel like we could start the season with a very good team, with a very good triple-A team behind it, a strong system behind it,” Atkins said.
More moves are possible, in other words, just not inevitable. Now that Garcia’s signed, the club’s most glaring issues have been addressed, and it finally seems possible to envision the 2018 edition of the Blue Jays.