Tanner Roark gives Blue Jays the innings-eater they desperately needed

SAN DIEGO – The background work goes two ways at this time of year, with the Toronto Blue Jays sometimes facing as many questions from free agents as they’re asking about the players.

“How are you going to add to the group that you have? What’s you plan to add to it beyond me?” general manager Ross Atkins said of the types of things he’s been asked. “And they want to know about the young core, how mature they are, asking questions about their confidence and where we see them. Asking questions about our system and depth. Asking questions about our ability to continue to trade for talent. Understanding our plan, and asking questions about our vision for how we see it going forward, the opportunity versus the cost.”

That back-and-forth finally broke the Blue Jays’ way Wednesday at the winter meetings, when they agreed with Tanner Roark on a $24-million, two-year deal. Gerrit Cole to the New York Yankees for roughly the 2017 GDP of Micronesia it’s not, but the right-hander is precisely the type of rotation-stabilizing innings-eater that their starter-deficient staff desperately needed.

As a second step, following the acquisition of Chase Anderson from the Milwaukee Brewers last month, Roark serves as a springboard to other opportunities for the Blue Jays in a couple of ways.

First, he buys them some time to wait out a couple of additional pursuits – they continue to push on right-hander Rick Porcello and left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu on the free-agent front. Second, he gives them another answer to free agents asking, who else are you getting?

Certainly the Los Angeles Angels, who locked down Anthony Rendon with a $245-million, seven-year agreement that pushed super-agent Scott Boras within range of a billion dollars in negotiated contracts ($878 million with Ryu, Dallas Keuchel and Nicolas Castellanos still to come) can tell a better story right now.

Other teams can, too, and “where we are in the competitive cycle,” as Atkins put it, certainly works against the Blue Jays.

Money talks, though, and it did with Roark, who didn’t start locking in on the Blue Jays until Tuesday. The deal is yet to be finalized which meant Atkins couldn’t address it, but in some of his careful comments, he made clear the Blue Jays are pushing for more.

“We’re thinking about adding to our pitching, adding to our depth – we’ll continue to do that,” he said. “There seems to be opportunity at different areas of the market there. There are trade opportunities, there are free agent opportunities. Obviously, there are some reports of players that have identified organizations. We still feel good about making our team better. There is some value in guys who provide stability to rotations and there are different kinds of opportunities that still exist in the market.”

There are dozens of scenarios under consideration for the Blue Jays – “there’s not a potential avenue we could not go down,” said Atkins – and we’ll get to that a bit later.

What’s interesting right now is that industry sources in discussions with the Blue Jays report that the club’s approach changed drastically Tuesday.

Up until Roark, the Blue Jays had been spurned time and again this winter, declining to meet Jake Odorizzi’s price, getting turned down by Kyle Gibson despite having the money right, being outbid for Zack Wheeler, Mike Moustakas (whom Atkins and Charlie Montoyo visited at home) and Kevin Gausman, and not having enough shortstop reps for Didi Gregorius.

In combination with what turned out to be a bull market, the Blue Jays pivoted, reconciling that in order to get some business done, they were going to have to extend beyond their comfort zone to land players. That’s when they began to engage more aggressively with Roark, Porcello and, as Sportsnet colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith reported, Josh Lindblom.

Discussions went back and forth Tuesday and by Wednesday morning the sides were headed towards an agreement. The deal was settled early in the afternoon, when the Blue Jays beat out other contenders, including the Cincinnati Reds, per Jon Heyman of the MLB Network, and the Milwaukee Brewers, per Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The steep price represents the cost of stable innings, which is precisely what Roark offers. He’s thrown at least 165 innings and made 30 starts in five of the past six seasons, providing the type of foundation that will help the Blue Jays avoid overexposing their young arms the way they were forced to last summer.

“You always want to be in a situation where your hand is being forced by the player,” said Atkins, which is in large part why the Blue Jays will pay Roark and Anderson an estimated $20.5 million in 2020.

As for what’s next, Ryu may very well be the next shoe to drop in the winter of Boras, offering the Blue Jays upside with volatility, while Porcello, a beacon of reliability with a Cy Young resume, mulls his options.

Landing another starter will allow the Blue Jays to begin more forcefully focusing on other areas of need, with lengthening the bullpen one area where they may move next. They met with the agent for reliever Blake Treinen earlier this week before the non-tendered right-hander reached agreement on a $10-million, one-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and have sniffed around on Hector Rondon. They continue to tell the representatives for position players that pitching remains their immediate priority.

On the trade front, they’ve explored taking on David Price and Jackie Bradley Jr., from the Boston Red Sox and J.A. Happ from the New York Yankees, but the cost in both dollars and prospect capital remains too high. They’ve also looked at airlifting Chris Archer and Joe Musgrove out of Pittsburgh but Atkins’ former vice-president baseball operations, new Pirates GM Ben Cherington, may think too similarly to his former colleagues for a deal to be struck.

The array of options isn’t unusual as clubs kick around dozens upon dozens of different proposals this time of the year, the vast majority of them never advancing beyond the spit-balling stage. One way or another, there’s more to come from the Blue Jays, who realized they were lagging the market, adjusted, and spent some money without drastically altering their long-term financial flexibility.