How Kirby Yates' injury creates new opportunities for Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays reliever Jordan Romano joins Lead Off to discuss what it's like for a pitcher during the long rehab from Tommy John Surgery, says your daily routine involves all the boring parts of baseball.

TORONTO – At the same that Kirby Yates’ season-ending surgery left the Toronto Blue Jays with a significant hole on the roster, his loss may have also created new opportunities for them.

The $5.5-million contract signed by the closer in January included performance bonuses of up to $4.5 million for appearances and awards. Yates, obviously, won’t be able to earn any of those incentives now, but the Blue Jays would have had to budget for the possibility that he achieved at least a good chunk of that total.

That means general manager Ross Atkins suddenly has a small windfall of uncommitted payroll he can reallocate, and amid COVID-19’s ongoing economic fallout, money is power in the baseball market more than ever.

The Blue Jays are believed to count all 2021 liabilities, including incentives, against 2021 payroll, so whatever dollar figure number they projected Yates to achieve in his performance bonuses is now back in the kitty.

The $1.85 million the Blue Jays committed to Joe Panik when they told him he’d made the team ahead a Thursday opt-out deadline isn’t likely to eat into that. Since they gave the veteran infielder a minor-league deal before the Yates injury, they would have earmarked money for him so his pending addition to the 40-man roster won’t be drawn from the new pot of cash.

Still, the caution with which the Blue Jays played out the decision – they took it to nearly the 11:59 p.m. cut-off – is an indication of how closely they’re considering every decision.

Veteran starter Tommy Milone also had an out Thursday and it appears the window for that decision has been extended by a day or two. The same may apply to fellow lefty Francisco Liriano, who on Saturday can escape a minor-league deal worth $1.5 million with performance bonuses.

At this point, Liriano appears to be the likelier of the two to have his contract selected, but it’s probably a coin flip for both as things stand.

Right-hander A.J. Cole has a May 15 out on a deal worth $1 million with bonuses of up to $200,000, so the Blue Jays can play that out a bit longer.

A handful of interesting relievers re-entered the market through opt-outs this week, including Tommy Hunter and Steve Cishek, while veteran Shane Greene remains unsigned but likely can help a team.

The Blue Jays are likely considering all options, although Atkins’ frequent statements about the club’s pitching depth suggest they may simply wait things out and see what the market presents in-season.

For players in limbo, the wait can be agonizing, as Panik experienced Thursday.

“You know they're in meetings, in your head you think you have a good chance – everybody does, everybody's confident themselves – but you just never know in this game,” said Panik. “You're going through the whole day, haven't heard anything, get to the game, just kind of waiting around the whole game, just waiting, waiting, waiting. Then finally, because you never want to think worst-case scenario, obviously it does start running through your mind.

“Thankfully, I didn't have to really go too far into depth on what happens if. Right after the game I saw Ross and Ross pulled me aside and basically gave me the good news. So I didn't really have to go too far in depth on what if, but it always crosses your mind.”

The Blue Jays will have to clear a 40-man roster spot for Panik, which shouldn’t be an issue as Yates can be moved onto the 60-day injured list. Breyvic Valera, beaten out for the utilityman role by Panik, is out of option and could be designated for assignment if there’s need for another spot.

A priority for the Blue Jays will be to maintain as many pieces as possible.

The tipping point for Panik is likely the confidence the Blue Jays have in him playing regularly if the need arises versus the potential of needing Valera to take regular turns. Valera went 3-for-30 over 18 games while Panik is 8-for-27 in 13 contests, winning a spot as a minor-league free agent for the second straight season after being a regular for years with the San Francisco Giants.

“It doesn't really change my approach in-game wise, because every time I'm going out there, I'm obviously trying to get a hit and make every play in the field possible,” Panik said of his approach to camp. “But there is a little more sense of urgency. Whereas in my first six years, it would be OK, I come into camp and it's more making sure I build up my legs, make sure I'm ready come April 1. This year and last year was, I've got to come in and I need to win a job. Mentally, it was more focused on the short term of basically taking care of today, whereas in springs past, it's all right, my main focus is the 162 and the long-term outlook.”

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