Pitching likely to be focus at deadline, with Blue Jays looking to add

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Ross Atkins, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO – Considering the 2020 season is just four weeks old, the Toronto Blue Jays have already experienced their share of disappointment. Between the lines, they’ve seen winnable games slip away too often and injuries to Ken Giles, Bo Bichette and Nate Pearson have weakened their roster. This is not the way the Blue Jays drew it up.

And yet, they’re undeniably a contender as the midpoint of the season approaches. In a year that eight teams per league make the playoffs, a team that hovers around .500 is absolutely in the mix – and potentially in the post-season. After two wins over the Phillies Thursday, the 12-11 Blue Jays took possession of the last playoff berth in the American League.

Jarring though it may be, that reality will inform the Blue Jays’ decision making in the 11 days remaining before the Aug. 31 trade deadline. They’re looking to add, according to general manager Ross Atkins, and have already started conversations with all 29 other teams. While deal-making will certainly be more difficult than usual this summer, Atkins expects to see plenty of trades before the end of the month.

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“We’re going to be thinking about how do we make this group better? How do we add to it? How do we complement it?” Atkins said Thursday morning. “That doesn’t mean we won’t consider some level of subtraction. But if it is something, we’re thinking about making this foundation stronger for 2020 and 2021 and 2022.”

The Blue Jays will be open-minded to any player who makes the team better. But pitching, rather than hitting, will likely be the club’s focus. And, to be a little more precise, the Blue Jays would like to upgrade a rotation that’s now without Pearson.

“If I had to say just one (area), it would be starting pitching. If there’s ways to continue to build upon that depth, we will look to do that,” Atkins said. “Thinking about pitching and preventing runs is where the focus will be.”

Of course finding capable starting pitching will be easier said than done. Expanded playoffs means fewer teams than usual are clear sellers, which might limit the number of starters on the market. Those that are available may then become more expensive, forcing contenders to weigh the benefit of four or five starts against the cost in prospect capital.

Plus, assessing the value of prospects is especially difficult at a time that teams are isolated from one another. To some extent, teams are bridging that information gap by sharing video and data from their alternate training sites, but it doesn’t compare to the quality of scouting and statistical information available during a typical season. As such, Atkins believes we may see more “baseball deals” where clubs exchange players from their major-league rosters.

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Regardless, the Blue Jays could certainly use some steady starting pitching at a time that their bullpen is being taxed heavily. Marco Gonzales, Alex Cobb and Nathan Eovaldi all figure to draw interest from contenders, the Blue Jays included. Perhaps more intriguing is Kevin Gausman, who has a 4.21 ERA with a ratio of 34 strikeouts to five walks through four starts with the Giants. The Blue Jays showed serious interest in Gausman over the winter before he signed in San Francisco, and his strong start only makes him more appealing.

Internally, the Blue Jays still have a full rotation even with Pearson sidelined. Still, more depth is always a good thing, especially in a year in which much of the projected triple-A rotation is pitching out of the big-league bullpen. Julian Merryweather, who touched 98 mph and struck out three of the five hitters he faced in his big-league debut Thursday, will keep pitching in relief all year. The same goes for Ryan Borucki, whose impressive work in relief will probably make him a reliever for 2021 and beyond.

“The more likely scenario is that he’s a versatile reliever that could be pitching in bulkier scenarios and could end up with a higher workload than your traditional reliever,” Atkins said. “But not closing the door and saying he can’t start for us in the future.”

While pitching may be the biggest key for run prevention, improved defence can certainly help, too. On that front, Atkins expressed optimism that improvement is coming. In particular, he pointed to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has been learning first base on the fly, and the catching tandem of Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, which has yet to throw out an opposing runner.

“Overall, we don’t feel as though our defence is killing us,” Atkins said. “We see opportunities to be a lot better.”

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.

Despite two costly misplays by Teoscar Hernandez, Atkins praised the right fielder’s arm and said, “We think he can be one of the best right fielders in baseball with more aggression.” Hernandez is not there yet, but either way it’s clear the Blue Jays are looking within for defensive improvement.

On offence, the Blue Jays are open to acquiring a hitter, according to Atkins. While most positions are spoken for, adding a bench bat who can grind out tough at-bats and provide some power would certainly help, and expanded rosters allow for a little more creativity on the bench.

Whether the Blue Jays are looking at pitchers or hitters, they appear to have the flexibility to add payroll despite the fact that no fans are in attendance this year. If an intriguing deal requires taking on 2020 payroll, Atkins would approach team president Mark Shapiro about the possibility.

“It’s not something that we can unilaterally do and decide, but we do feel confident that we can take that information and those opportunities to Mark to present to ownership,” Atkins said. “We’re excited to be in that position.”

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