NEW YORK – The first notable deals ahead of the July 31 trade deadline are in and rather than big-game hunting, a couple of contending clubs have gone fishing for value instead.
First, it was the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox trying to bolster their rotation with the addition of righty Andrew Cashner from the Baltimore Orioles, who also kicked in cash to get a pair of 17-year-olds in the Dominican Summer League. Next up, the Oakland Athletics added Homer Bailey from the Kansas City Royals for infielder Kevin Merrell, a 2017 first-round pick with a .631 OPS at double-A Midland.
Tepid, low-risk, low-ceiling stuff from two clubs with October aspirations, which is very much of note for the Blue Jays now that they can accelerate the peddling of Marcus Stroman. The right-hander returned from the left pectoral cramp that kept him from pitching in the All-Star Game to throw six innings of three-run ball with seven strikeouts Sunday in a 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees, an outing about showcasing his health as much as anything else.
Stroman looked like his usual self in working through the AL East leaders’ fearsome lineup three times, using his array of pitches and varied leg kicks to regularly induce weak contact. While some in New York framed the performance around the low-hanging-fruit narrative of an audition for the Yankees, he delivered more of a forceful statement about where he’s at physically, throwing 97 pitches, striking out seven and generating 13 whiffs, nine via a wipeout slider, before a handful of rival scouts and a crowd of 42,303.
“Not at all,” Stroman said when asked if he felt like he was auditioning. “I have 800 innings in the A.L. East, I would never consider one start an audition. …
“I’m used to (being in the spotlight),” he added later. “I feel like I’m pretty good in those moments, being able to zone in and do what I need to. This lineup one through nine is incredible, it’s pretty much an all-star lineup, you can’t give in at any point … so you have to do an unbelievable job of being able to limit their damage and I feel like I was able to do that.”
Still, pitching against a known suitor for his services, Stroman’s emotions were running high, too, venting his frustration when a poor Eric Sogard relay to Freddy Galvis at second base prevented an inning-ending double play in the fifth with a yell, angrily demanding the ball back from first baseman Justin Smoak and then spiking the ball into the ground while throwing it out of play.
Moments later, Gio Urshela scored the go-ahead run when he charged home on a wild pitch and cleverly slid around Danny Jansen, who left too much of the plate exposed while dropping the tag. Stroman escaped the fifth and then struck out the side around a Brett Gardner single in the sixth to cap his first outing since exiting a June 29 start against the Royals with a cramp.
“He looked really good, he was sharp and he kept us in the game like he always does,” said manager Charlie Montoyo.
Now, it’s certainly possible a buyer may want to watch Stroman again, but that the Red Sox and Athletics moved early to make deals reflects how time is of the essence given the clustered standings. At the same time, their judicious shopping underlines how carefully teams manage prospect capital, with both using only fringe assets to get lower tier big-league help.
According to rival clubs, the Blue Jays are said to be expecting a big haul for Stroman, and they should be given how he can potentially impact an acquiring team’s chances. Less certain is whether a team will ante up, especially with how young players and prospects are being valued and hoarded these days, and this is an opportunity GM Ross Atkins must leverage.
To that end, the work of their revamped scouting department will be essential in identifying options with the ability to significantly impact the rebuild. One of the things the Blue Jays did was set up roles in which Jon Lalonde, Nick Manno, Carson Cistulli and Brent Urcheck help curate running rankings of the players in each organization so that the front office has current information to draw from during trade talks.
Along with the work of major-league scouts like Sal Butera, Jim Skaalen, Russ Bove and Dean Decillis, the Blue Jays also are essentially cross-checking those rankings “and how that compares across organizations,” said assistant general manager Joe Sheehan.
“In the past, it was almost like a series of fire drills where a team calls and has interest in this player or we’d call this team and we’re trying to acquire this player, it was like, we need to do this tonight, or we need to do this by tomorrow night,” said Sheehan. “Generally, the pro scouts are experts on their organizations. The goal with these guys was to have them be more expert on a wider look, as opposed to necessarily all the way down to the DSL.”
That doesn’t mean the Blue Jays are going to simply work off a list in each negotiation, matching names to values in order to strike a deal. “You’re still going to do more work on it,” said Sheehan.
But the goal is to be better prepared to more quickly understand how different options from different clubs stack up against each other, with information pulled from scouting, analytics and video synthesized and cross-referenced.
“Starting from where we were last year, it wasn’t like going 0-60 at the time, but the hope is we’re starting from a better baseline whenever a team calls or whenever we call a team,” said Sheehan. “That we’re now starting from a baseline that’s got more baked into the mind.”
In quieting any possible doubts about his health, Stroman better positioned the Blue Jays to leverage their revamped process. And while the 28-year-old is bullish about where he’s at – “I think I’m going to have a pretty special second half,” he said – he’s also working to tune out thoughts about where the rest of that second half may come.
“It’s hard to think about the future like that,” said Stroman. “If I start to think about it like that, it’s going to throw me off my game, throw me out of the loop mentally, physically, so I’m doing my best to just focus on the moment and do everything I can to be at my best to face Detroit on Friday.”
The questions from rival clubs now shift to closer Ken Giles, who was again unavailable due to some soreness in his elbow from an all-star break massage. Even if he returns to pitch in Boston on Monday, the entire episode will make any potential trade more complicated, perhaps necessitating that the risk of injury be factored into the acquisition cost.
That’s far from ideal when prying away impactful young talent in trades is already tougher than ever. Stroman and Giles, each under club control through 2020, represent the Blue Jays’ best opportunity to make that happen, and the countdown to July 31 is on.