TORONTO – Amid their ongoing search for further rotation help, the Toronto Blue Jays face an interesting question: Should they target upside, even if it comes with more risk, or are they better off prioritizing stability instead?
At the moment, the Blue Jays continue examining options in both categories, with Canadian James Paxton and Taijuan Walker among their current considerations, according to multiple industry sources. Intriguingly, they appear to be focused on a shorter-term acquisition, a stance that would cut them off for free agent arms seeking multi-year commitments.
A bet on upside would be made with an eye toward the post-season, seeking to add a pitcher that can be trusted when the stakes are raised, and there’s a case to be made for taking a risk on that front.
The stability option, on the other hand, strengthens the club every fifth day over the course of 162, when the offence and strong relief work can be leveraged over an extended period without the vagaries of small-sample randomness.
Of all the free agent pitchers remaining outside of Trevor Bauer, it might be Paxton who has the most upside. With a career ERA of 3.58 to go along with 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.7 walks per nine, he has front-of-the-rotation potential. In the 2019 playoffs, the Yankees turned to him three times.
In 2020, however, he posted a 6.64 ERA (4.37 FIP) in just five starts before a forearm flexor strain ended his season in August. His average fastball velocity dipped from its typical 95 m.p.h. range to 92.1 m.p.h., but at a showcase in December he reportedly topped out at 94.
Hence, high risk, high reward. For an objective measure, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections at FanGraphs envision a 2.2 WAR for Paxton in 2021 with a 3.75 FIP over 119.3 innings.
While it’s unclear what Paxton’s asking price is, one point of reference is Corey Kluber, who signed for $11 million with the Yankees despite pitching just one inning in 2020.
With two Cy Young Awards, Kluber is more accomplished than Paxton, but he's also two years older than the 32-year-old from Ladner, B.C., and one more year removed from elite results on the mound.
If the Blue Jays are seeking more stability, they could turn to Walker, Paxton’s former rotation mate in Seattle.
In 11 starts for the Mariners and Blue Jays last summer, the 28-year-old posted a 2.70 ERA with 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.2 walks per nine. His first full season back from Tommy John surgery was impressive enough that the Blue Jays would have turned to him if their playoff series with the Rays had gone to a third game.
At 28, he's younger than most free agents and with that in mind his case for a multi-year deal is strong. Plus, Walker’s among those who believe his impressive raw stuff could lead to even better results as he incorporates more analytics into his preparation and decision making.
In October, he expressed interest in coming back to the Blue Jays and working more with pitching coach Pete Walker.
Meanwhile, Bauer seems unlikely to land in Toronto considering team president and CEO Mark Shapiro said the bulk of the team’s heavy lifting is done. As for Jake Odorizzi, he was an off-season target for the Blue Jays a year ago and has remained on their radar this winter, but their current level of interest in the right-hander is unclear.
Other notable options on the free agent market include Matt Shoemaker, Rick Porcello, Mike Fiers and Mike Foltynewicz.
Of course at a certain point, the Blue Jays would have to think about subtracting from their roster, too. Not only is their 40-man roster full, the front office is hesitant to block developing pitchers like Julian Merryweather and Anthony Kay.
Under those circumstances, some in the industry view Tanner Roark as a possible trade chip.
The 34-year-old's first season in Toronto fell short of expectations, as he posted a 6.80 ERA (6.86 FIP) in 11 starts. The numbers aren’t good, but it should be noted that Roark’s best skill – the ability to soak up innings week after week – simply wasn’t as useful when heavy reliever usage could be leveraged over a 60-game season.
Now that teams are planning for the grind of 162 again, there’s more value in pitchers like Roark, so the Blue Jays could realistically expect some interest as long as they're willing to pay down his $12 million contract or take on another contract of their own.
Considering Jon Lester and Martin Perez signed for just $5 million each after better 2020 seasons than Roark, it's conceivable that the Blue Jays would have to pay more than half of Roark's deal to generate traction with other clubs. Still, the possibility can’t be ruled out, even if the middle class of player is being squeezed by the logjam of talent in free agency and the push for financial efficiency.
Money, as always, is pivotal. At the moment, the Blue Jays have $130 million committed to 14 players. Factor in another roughly $10 million for pre-arbitration players, and they’re already well beyond the payroll levels of the past two seasons, with the likelihood of no ticket revenue again this year.