TORONTO – With a month remaining before spring training, the Blue Jays have already done most of their off-season work.
They’ve added meaningfully to a starting rotation that ranked among the worst in baseball last year, acquiring Hyun-Jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson. At his introductory press conference Wednesday, right-hander Shun Yamaguchi said he hopes to win a rotation job, too. The fact he’s not assured of a spot after posting a 2.78 ERA in 181 innings with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Yomiuri Giants speaks to the improvement of Toronto’s staff.
With a new-look rotation now in place, the Blue Jays don’t need a late-winter signing to save their off-season the way the Minnesota Twins did before their deal with Josh Donaldson. If spring training began tomorrow, the Blue Jays would be fine.
Even so, the front office will still be looking to add in the month or so before pitchers and catchers report. The difference: they’re moving from the ‘must-have’ part of their shopping list to the ‘nice-to-have’ section.
When asked about further additions Wednesday, general manager Ross Atkins first pointed to the bullpen before mentioning ‘the possibility of adding some type of utility.’ Trades are still a possibility, too.
“We’re also extremely open to something of significant impact,” Atkins said at Rogers Centre following Yamaguchi’s introduction. “But that’s more than likely only going to occur via trade, but the likelihood of that occurring is still very hard to say. Executing trades of significant impact is very difficult to do.”
Now that Donaldson has signed, the top free agent hitters remaining are Nicholas Castellanos and Marcell Ozuna. Both are on the Blue Jays’ radar, of course – it would be irresponsible not to check in – but neither appears at first glance to be a particularly likely fit.
While Ozuna’s 2017 season was truly impressive, his production has dropped off in the two seasons since. Consider that Teoscar Hernandez (107 OPS+, 48 home runs) and Ozuna (107 OPS+, 52 home runs) have nearly identical offensive numbers for 2018-19 and it’s easy to see why the Blue Jays might decide to stick with their own collection of corner outfielders instead of spending big on a free agent linked to draft pick compensation.
As for Castellanos, his right-handed bat would undoubtedly make a difference but he’s likely limited to first base and right field on defence. That’s not ideal for a Blue Jays team that values defensive versatility. With teams like the Rangers involved on Castellanos, it’s hard to imagine a deal in Toronto.
Plus, Atkins said an addition of ‘significant impact’ would ‘more than likely’ happen via trade, rather than free agency. Earlier in the off-season the Blue Jays did background work on trades for centre fielders since they don’t have an obvious answer at that position for the short- or long-term. But according to Atkins, that’s just one scenario in play as the Blue Jays look to improve their lineup.
“That opening could be anywhere, but centre field is where everyone’s pointing for understandable reasons,” he said.
At this point, the Blue Jays are likely to cycle players through their designated hitter spot depending on health and matchups. While Travis Shaw will play first against right-handed pitching, the team will likely limit Shaw’s exposure to lefties by mixing in others at first. Brandon Drury is one option for that role, but the Blue Jays are months away from having to make any final calls on that front (Hernandez has not been working out at first, though the club considered that possibility earlier in the winter).
“All too often everyone focuses on the opening day roster, including front offices,” Atkins said. “Teams can sometimes make mistakes thinking about that too much as opposed to just thinking, ‘What does our team look like on day 10? What does our team look like on day 15?’”
In some ways, that same thinking applies to the off-season. Maybe there was a time when a general manager could create a checklist, cross every item off and wait for spring, but try that now and you’d lose ground to your rival teams pretty quickly.
With that in mind, the Blue Jays can’t just kick their feet up, set up the out of office reply on their emails and call it a winter. There may be a reliever or utility player worth signing. Who knows, there may even be a bigger trade worth exploring. But with so much of their off-season already complete, they can move ahead from a stronger position.
“We feel very good about where we are as an organization,” Atkins said. “This off-season’s just a snapshot in our progression towards becoming a championship team. We’ve accomplished our goals for the off-season, but it’s just never-ending.”