TORONTO – These are transformational times for the Toronto Blue Jays, well beyond word of a one-year extension general manager Ross Atkins seeping out. Both in the short and medium term, change is coming to the roster with the trade deadline a driving force, Marcus Stroman, Ken Giles and perhaps Aaron Sanchez as the prime protagonists, and a host of players set to play some type of role to cover the demands of baseball’s insatiable schedule.
In that vein, Stroman’s 5.2-inning, six-run outing in an 8-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks was the main event Friday, even if Atkins’ extension is what really got tongues wagging.
On the surface, adding another year to the four-year contract Atkins received when first hired in December 2015 is curious since it serves as only a tepid vote of confidence. But it makes more sense when you consider that his tenure now dovetails with that of president and CEO Mark Shapiro, whose original five-year deal expires after the 2020 season.
Unless Shapiro was quietly extended – given the club’s intentional opaqueness on Atkins, it’s possible, although the sense is that hasn’t happened – their futures may very well be tied together. What the Blue Jays do in the coming weeks to advance a rebuild that’s so far been much more painful than expected could be critical on that front, because if Stroman, Giles and Sanchez don’t bring back some near-term young pitching, their current construction will be nothing more than the random setting of bricks in the mud.
Three teams likely to target Stroman – the Minnesota Twins, San Diego Padres and Houston Astros – have the type of arms that make sense for the Blue Jays. Whether they can find common ground on the value changing hands is another matter, but a start like Friday’s, in which Stroman gave up six runs on seven hits and two walks, isn’t going to deter an interested party.
As one rival scout said this week, everybody knows what Stroman is. He fits into the middle part of the rotation on a contending club and doesn’t shy away from the big moment. That plays this time of year. His suggestion was that the Blue Jays and New York Yankees hook up on some type of Clint Frazier-Stroman swap, but another outfielder isn’t what’s needed in Toronto, even if the productive bat would certainly help.
Regardless, the time of year is forcing the Blue Jays to be particularly judicious with their assets at the moment, which is why for the time being the struggling Edwin Jackson will remain with the team. He’s likely to miss his next start as he tries to find some consistency with his slider, a key to his success, with Thomas Pannone the leading option to parachute into a start in Baltimore, and perhaps another in Houston during next week’s road trip.
While the Blue Jays could use the off-day Monday to take a turn with a four-man rotation, there’s a desire to manage the workload on the current group, while also being prepared in case a Stroman trade comes suddenly.
Should that happen, Jackson may be needed to help cover until Ryan Borucki is ready to return sometime in July, with the Blue Jays preferring to not bring up double-A starters Patrick Murphy or Yennsy Diaz on a stop-gap basis. Jacob Waguespack, due off injured reserved soon, is a likelier option under such circumstances.
In the interim, Jackson could work out of the bullpen, essentially flipping roles with Pannone. Either way, the Blue Jays are on the hook for a pro-rated portion of the $2-million salary called for in the minor-league deal he signed with Oakland, since the right-hander didn’t sign a consent form which keeps his money from becoming guaranteed.
So, he’ll get some more opportunity, as you can’t have enough pitching, something this season has already reinforced to the Blue Jays, who right now aren’t even close on that front.
Stroman has been among the few bright spots, and looked to be on track to another gem until the fourth, when Ketel Marte singled, Eduardo Escobar walked, David Peralta singled, Christian Walker doubled and Kevin Cron ripped his first big-league homer. Three of those four hits came off sinkers, with the Walker double, falling between Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in left centre, coming off a pretty well-placed cutter.
“I think they hit some good pitches, to be honest,” said Stroman. “Cron put a really good swing on an inside sinker that was probably four inches off the plate and Walker hit a cutter down pretty good. I think they just beat me in that inning.”
A five-run deficit was far too much ground to make up for the Blue Jays, who managed only three hits, including a Hernandez solo shot in the fifth, through the first eight innings. They tacked on two more hits and another run in the ninth, capping another forgettable night on the rebuild trail, awaiting the looming change to come.