TORONTO – As the Toronto Blue Jays pursue the top position players available, they’re also staying active on other fronts, including an area they’ve typically sidestepped in recent years: Top-level relief pitching.
Liam Hendriks, widely considered the top reliever available, and left-handed closer Brad Hand are believed to be among their targets, according to industry sources. Signing an elite back-end-of-the-bullpen arm would not prevent the Blue Jays from pursuing top position players, which multiple sources indicate is the club’s current focus.
Other top relievers available in free agency include right-handers Trevor Rosenthal, Blake Treinen (who the Blue Jays tried to sign last winter) and Kirby Yates. Trevor May might have established a baseline when he signed a $15.5-million, two-year deal with the Mets.
The Blue Jays’ relief corps has been thinned out by the departures of Ken Giles, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Anthony Bass, leaving Rafael Dolis and Canadian Jordan Romano as their primary late-game options.
With the stated goal of improving their run prevention, the Blue Jays are sure to add multiple arms to their pitching staff in the coming months.
The Blue Jays have plenty of familiarity with Hendriks, having acquired him twice only to trade him away each time. A valuable member of the Blue Jays’ 2015 bullpen, the 31-year-old has since transformed himself into an even better pitcher who now touches triple digits on the radar gun while striking out 12 times as many hitters as he walks.
Given his familiarity with the city and that his wife Kristi is a Montreal native, the Blue Jays aren’t likely to need to sell him on the situation, just be competitive financially in what’s expected to be a robust market for the 2019 all-star.
Hand, 30, was cut loose by Cleveland in a surprising move after the season, but that likely says more about the club's finances than Hand's ability. With a 2.05 ERA, 11.9 K/9 and 1.6 BB/9 he was as effective as ever in 2020, and would fit nicely on a Blue Jays team hoping to throw more strikes.
Whether that desire leads to deals is another question, but the club’s interest in the top of the relief market marks a shift of sorts. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins acquired Drew Storen for Ben Revere before the 2016 season and acquired Giles in the 2018 trade that sent Roberto Osuna to Houston. Otherwise, this front office has preferred short-term relief deals at relatively modest guarantees.
Their relief expenditures to date include Shun Yamaguchi (two years, $6.35 million), Dolis (one year plus option, $1 million), David Phelps (one year, $2.5 million), Seung-hwan Oh (one year, $2 million), Daniel Hudson (one year, $1.5 million), J.P. Howell (one year, $3 million), Joe Smith (one year, $3 million) and Gavin Floyd (one year, $1 million). Along with those guaranteed contracts they’ve reached minor-league deals with the likes of John Axford, Craig Breslow, Tyler Clippard, Jake Petricka, Bud Norris and A.J. Cole.
That reserved approach made sense when the Blue Jays were rebuilding, but now that they’re looking to build on a playoff appearance, they’re shopping in a different part of the market.
“Once your team gets to the point where we are now, where we have gone from a team that has shown the ability to compete to being a very competitive team, to get over the hump and be a sustainable winning team, you have to be in every market,” Atkins said back in November. “It's a matter of building the most efficient roster possible so that you can complement in several ways. And as you look across the industry and look at different teams, those are oftentimes the finishing touches when you see larger investments in the bullpen.”