Trade deadline returns leave Blue Jays betting surprise stars emerge

Arash Madani spoke with Ross Atkins one-on-one to talk about the Blue Jays’ deadline moves, including fans’ negative reaction to the return for Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman.

KANSAS CITY – Still scratching your heads? Maybe throwing stuff against the wall, vowing that you’re done with the Toronto Blue Jays until the front office changes? Struggling to understand how Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Joe Biagini, Daniel Hudson, David Phelps and Eric Sogard didn’t yield more?

You’re not alone. As one player, mulling the return of outfielder Derek Fisher from the Houston Astros for Sanchez, Biagini and prospect Cal Stevenson, a deal snuck in just before the 4 p.m. ET deadline Wednesday, put it: “Really? That’s it?”

Yes, that’s it, and in some ways, that bet by the Blue Jays is even riskier than the leap they took in jumping the market and sending Stroman to the New York Mets for triple-A lefty Anthony Kay and low-A righty Simeon Woods Richardson. Or in holding onto Ken Giles, who was in potential deals with the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians right up until the cut-off arrived.

In moving Sanchez, something they could only do by bundling him with Biagini and Stevenson, the Blue Jays surrendered the potential he regains his 2016 form, something the analytically gifted Astros may certainly push forward, and perhaps returns more value down the road.

They did that to get Fisher, a former top-100 prospect who plays all three outfield positions, projects as a better defender in centre than Teoscar Hernandez, bats left-handed and walks, but who also has a .649 OPS in 312 plate appearances and will be out of options next year.

There isn’t much runway for him, and if you’re thinking he’s a left-handed version of Hernandez, or a taller version of Billy McKinney, well, you’re not totally wrong.

Given that, what compelled the Blue Jays to make this deal? Why would they not keep Sanchez for 2020, his final year before free agency, let him rebuild himself properly after consecutive winters of recovery and then see what you have then?

“Absolutely, of course we considered that,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “It really comes down to how much we valued Derek Fisher and how excited we are about him.”

The Blue Jays and Astros have been discussing Fisher for a long time. His name has come up multiple time in talks between two teams that have now made five deals since the 2016 deadline. Even as the 37th overall pick in 2014 started trending toward a four-A trajectory, the interest never waned.

Packaging Sanchez and Biagini together created an opportunity. The market for Biagini was limited and even more so for Sanchez, who still has that electric stuff from 2016 in him, but apparently not the faith from front offices that he’s going to consistently harness it as a starter again. Some teams valued him as a bounce-back starter, while others as a conversion-project reliever.

Had the Blue Jays kept him, they would have had to pay him a hefty salary in arbitration – he’s making $3.9 million this year – to potentially be the ERA-champion-calibre starter again, or a reliever who might fetch no more than 2020 Thomas Hatch at next year’s deadline.

Toronto opted to play it safe. Welcome to the Blue Jays’ outfield, Derek Fisher.

“Sanchez, because of the control and where we are with him, we felt that we had to at least consider that opportunity,” said Atkins.

“He’s been an incredible pitcher, certainly for 2015 and ’16, for the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s had a tough run over the last several years. I hope that he is bouncing back and gets back to the best player that he can possibly be. I’ll be pulling for him. We had other opportunities, as we do with any other player, and a lot of teams to consider. This was the best deal that presented itself.”

They took it, and it’s going to look really bad if Sanchez regains his form with the Astros and Fisher keeps spinning his wheels. Both are very real possibilities. As is Fisher taking off – the Blue Jays’ internal projections suggest he has the chance to be a productive hitter at the big-league level – while Sanchez flops and Biagini continues to throw 28-pitch, 17-minute half-innings.

You have to wonder if there had been better trust between Sanchez and the Blue Jays, their relationship mangled by his finger troubles the past two seasons, if the bet would have been different. The next year and a half will settle that.

Still, in zooming out and assessing the week’s work in the aggregate, you’re again left wondering where the Blue Jays are going to find the high-end pitching they need to get over the hump.

Atkins and company have done a nice job of making incremental gains in the trades that added Randal Grichuk, Trent Thornton, Hernandez and Jacob Waguespack, among others, but squandered a chance to leverage J.A. Happ last year on Brandon Drury and McKinney.

This was their last major sell-off of the rebuild, although Giles will be in play during the off-season when the Blue Jays are betting they’ll do better on him than they would have now. What’s in house at this point is their base to build on into the future, the opportunities to fast track the project are gone.

Fisher, who turns 26 on Aug. 21, was a somewhat out-of-character, high-risk, high-upside play, but on the pitching side, they didn’t acquire the type of arm “that gets you excited,” in the words of one scout. They’re going to have to be bold in a way they haven’t yet been to build a staff that can win the American League East, and solely counting on the kids to do it almost always ends in heartache.

Depth is great, but so too is a consolidation of talent into a few game-changing performers.

“We won’t have game-changing talent in our system until it’s doing it in the major leagues,” said Atkins.

“Oftentimes, I think that the best stories in baseball happen from depth. We work very hard to identify just one player and project when we acquire our first-round pick or when we’re targeting a player for a trade with a magnitude of Marcus Stroman. Those players typically have higher chances to have that game-changing talent, but there are all too often stories across baseball where players are coming into a player development system and making significant strides and becoming players like (Jacob) deGrom, or players like Corey Kluber, or players like Mike Clevinger, who didn’t have quite the pedigree.

“We’re confident we’re going to have a story from that group and sure, is the likelihood that Nate Pearson and Simeon Woods Richardson and Alek Manoah have a higher likelihood of being game-changing? Sure. But we feel as though that Patrick Murphy and Anthony Kay and (others) from that group (of pitchers in the system) are going to have an incredible story that becomes game-changing talent.”

Well, their pool is filled and the Blue Jays are jumping right in. Sink or swim for this group of young players, and the front office that assembled them.

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