Quick, name one of the five players the Toronto Blue Jays traded away in four deadline deals last August. Literally anyone. Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Ross Stripling, and Jonathan Villar were all acquired. Surely you can remember one of the guys who went the other way.
Only the truest Blue Jays prospect diehards could. Whether it’s Griffin Conine and his all-or-nothing power approach, who went to Miami for Villar; teenaged Dominican outfielder Alberto Rodriguez, who Seattle acquired for Walker; left-handed reliever Travis Bergen, who was shipped to Arizona for Ray before rejoining the organization months later; or second-round pick Kendall Williams and the uber-disciplined Ryan Noda, who comprised the package sent to the Dodgers in exchange for Stripling.
That those names are so forgettable, and that the Blue Jays were able to supplement an eventual post-season team so thoroughly without breaking the prospect bank — not to mention greatly impacting the 2021 club by re-signing Ray and fixing up Stripling — demonstrates the needle Toronto’s front office could thread prior to Friday’s 4 p.m. ET trade deadline, provided it’s again able to identify the right low-cost, under-the-radar players to pursue.
Players like Ray, whose 2021 contributions have been indispensable. Or like Stripling, who emerged nicely from a two-start rut Sunday to throw five innings of one-run ball in a 5-4 loss to the New York Mets. Mixing efficiently with fastballs up in the zone, sliders away from right-handed batters, and changeups away from lefties, Stripling racked up six strikeouts and didn’t walk any, throwing 51 of his 79 pitches for strikes, 10 of them swinging.
"I was just sharper all the way around," Stripling said. "Everything was a little bit more crisp. Was able to flip in some curveballs for strikes, get ahead with that. I feel l like my last couple of outings, that hasn't been a weapon for me at all. Changeup and slider were both good; fastball was solid. It was all kind of working for me today.
"I feel like over my six years I've proven that if I'm healthy and my stuff is where it should be, that I can go out there and get outs at this level. So, I really didn't want to panic after that last one. Just choose to believe that that one was an anomaly and that I've been throwing the ball well over the last eight to 10 weeks — and look forward."
Stripling’s resurgence — he allowed 10 runs over four innings between his prior two starts — was a welcome showing for a Blue Jays club that will need all the pitching it can get over the next month. The club is already planning to stretch its rotation to six this week as Thomas Hatch steps in to make his first big-league start of the season on Monday in place of Alek Manoah, who will instead throw 60-75 pitches in a simulated game as he continues to recover from a back contusion. And it might not be the last time we see it.
"We're trying to do what we can to make sure guys are fresh," said Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker. "It's that part of the season where it's getting a little long for some guys."
The Blue Jays are already three games in to an 18-games-in-17-days stretch that will include the uncertainty of this week’s trade deadline, the frenzy and stress for both players and staff of Friday’s move back to Toronto for the first game at Rogers Centre in 22 months, four games against a Cleveland club running neck-and-neck with Toronto in the wild-card race, and eight against the AL East-leading Red Sox, including an August 7 doubleheader.
And thanks to another doubleheader in Anaheim against the Angels immediately following Toronto’s first off day in two-and-a-half weeks on August 9, it becomes a 25-games-in-24-days stretch that will see the club play more than 35 per cent of its remaining schedule.
It’s a lot. More than 215 scheduled innings over a little more than three weeks. That’s why Hatch is starting Monday to buy each starter an extra day’s rest, which will produce an upcoming pitching schedule that tentatively looks like this:
July 26 at Boston — Thomas Hatch
July 27 at Boston — Robbie Ray
July 28 at Boston — Steven Matz
July 29 at Boston — Hyun Jin Ryu
July 30 vs. Kansas City — Ross Stripling
July 31 vs. Kansas City — Alek Manoah
Whether Hatch gets another start in the majors after Monday’s outing remains to be seen, depending largely on his own performance, that of everyone else in the rotation, player health, potential deadline acquisitions, and the million other predicaments and circumstances that persistently arise throughout an MLB season. The biggest priority with Hatch is simply keeping him stretched out, because as Toronto’s sixth starter, he’s providing a critical and necessary insurance policy.
Say Stripling can’t maintain the under-appreciated effectiveness he contributed from late May through early July and rediscovered on Sunday. Say Ryu’s glute starts acting up again. Say a starter gets hurt falling down a flight of stairs, which has already happened twice this season. Now you’re scrambling for innings and the triple-A options aren’t necessarily thrilling.
Hatch is already in the majors; Nate Pearson’s hurt and working to return to the mound as a reliever; Trent Thornton’s in Toronto’s bullpen pitching long, low-leverage relief; Anthony Kay’s worked to a 5.61 ERA over 11 big-league appearances this season; T.J. Zeuch was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday for cash after being designated for assignment last week, while Nick Allgeyer passed through waivers following his own DFA; Rule 5 eligible 25-year-olds Zach Logue and Bowden Francis possess neither prospect pedigree nor major-league experience.
So, if you’re the Blue Jays, you’re going to want to investigate acquiring some pitching help sooner, when legitimate big-leaguers are on offer via trade this week, rather than later, when you’re left trawling the waiver wire for some other organization’s flotsam in August. The bullpen is an obvious and glaring area of need for this club, reinforced again Sunday as Ryan Borucki and Jacob Barnes collaborated to cough-up a two-run, sixth-inning lead. But that doesn’t mean the Blue Jays shouldn’t be looking to add rotation depth, too.
Entering Sunday with 31.3 per cent playoff odds per FanGraphs, Toronto may not want to cough up the prospect capital necessary to come away with a premium rental such as Max Scherzer. But there’s a middle tier of pending free-agent starters below that who ought to be acquirable without a significant price paid, a la Walker and Ray at last year’s deadline.
Colorado’s Jon Gray is having a strong, bounce back season supported by underlying numbers (3.68 ERA vs. 3.57 xERA). Pittsburgh’s Tyler Anderson makes up for what he lacks in premium velocity with 80th percentile fastball spin and exceptional command (5.8 per cent walk rate). Kansas City’s Mike Minor brings a similar profile (low-90’s heater; 96th percentile fastball spin rate; 7.1 per cent walk rate) and a 4.51 xERA that stands in stark contrast to his actual 5.45 ERA. Arizona’s Merrill Kelly — who comes with a $5.25-million 2022 club option — made his MLB debut at 30 after a four-year stint in Korea and has been a perfectly serviceable back-end starter ever since.
Then there’s Kyle Gibson, who the Blue Jays tried to sign as a free agent in 2019. The 33-year-old right-hander presents a higher-upside alternative and is under contract next season at an extremely reasonable $7.6-million. He could impact the Blue Jays today and tomorrow, helping the club get ahead on its winter shopping to replace the production of pending free agents such as Ray and Matz.
Of course, that raises the acquisition cost. And considering Gibson’s spotty track record, below-average velocity and spin, and the glaring differences in his expected outcomes based on the quality of contact he allows (3.68 xERA) and the actual results he’s produced this season (2.87 ERA), the Blue Jays may be wary of paying an up-market price for Gibson’s regression to the mean. One might even suggest that regression has already begun, considering Gibson allowed 13 runs across two outings earlier this month before walking eight — yes, eight — on Saturday against the Houston Astros.
So, maybe whatever Toronto’s front office ends up doing this week — and expect them to do something — won’t be flashy. Maybe it won’t win the deadline, which is worth exactly as much as winning the off-season. But there will be opportunity to augment the big-league roster and address the constant need for pitching without coughing up anything too precious. Maybe even opportunity to begin putting pieces in place for next season, as well.
The Blue Jays thread that needle well a year ago with a flurry of below-the-radar moves in which fringe prospects were used to acquire near-term, big-league help. With a roster deserving of reinforcement, yet possessing only middling odds of postseason qualification, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them try to thread it again this week.