Using past trade deadlines to predict Blue Jays' summer 2021 targets

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Dylan Bundy throws to the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

As the Toronto Blue Jays approach the trade deadline with potent strengths, clear weaknesses, and playoff chances that hang in the balance, it seems fair to assume that they won’t be standing pat.

The quantity and magnitude of their additions is difficult to predict, though. The front office may perceive 2021 as a singular opportunity worth splurging on given the performance of pending free agents Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray, Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s MVP-calibre season, as well as an underperforming New York Yankees team that makes the AL a little less intimidating than usual. Alternatively, this brain trust could determine that the quality of the young players on the Blue Jays — and in the farm system — makes prioritizing the present at the expense of a promising future a foolish gamble.

Whichever way the team is leaning — something that could change radically depending on how the team plays in the weeks to come — the best guide for determining what they’ll do on the trade market is to look at what they’ve already done. The Blue Jays entered the 2016 and 2020 deadlines in a fairly similar situation to the one they’re likely to face later this month. If anything, they were more likely to make the playoffs, making them theoretically more likely to make aggressive additions.

On the day the Blue Jays made their first significant deadline deal in 2016 (Drew Storen for Joaquin Benoit) FanGraphs pegged them as having a 28.6 perc ent chance of winning the division and 72.7 per cent chance of making the playoffs. Last year, those percentages sat at 11.9 to earn the ‘second division spot’ and 66.2 to win one of the wild cards in the expanded 2020 format the day they traded for Taijuan Walker.

As of Monday, the Blue Jays are in a similar situation with a relatively good chance to play October baseball (44.4 per cent), but a minimal shot of claiming an AL East title (10.8 per cent).

If we accept the premise the Blue Jays are in a similar situation to the ones they faced in 2016 and 2020 (albeit with a superior roster to last year’s) it’s possible they’ll go after similar players to the guys they acquired at those deadlines. With that in mind, here are some possible additions that fit the mold of players the Blue Jays have targeted before:

The Robbie Ray

Definition: A struggling starter on an expiring contract with a track record of success. The idea is that the acquisition cost would be minor, and the Pete Walker-Matt Buschmann combo can get them straightened out. It worked well with Ray.

2021 target: Dylan Bundy, SP, Los Angeles Angels

2021 stats: 8.46 K/9, 2.82 BB/9, 2.01 HR/9, 6.59 ERA, 5.30 FIP, in 67 innings for 0.1 WAR

Why it could work: Considering Bundy has an $8.325 million salary and just got demoted to the bullpen, the Angels would likely be happy to move him despite their own playoff aspirations. Although the right-hander’s numbers are unimpressive, they’re far better than Ray’s were when the Blue Jays acquired him, and Bunday’s xERA (4.69) and xFIP (4.40) indicate he’s had some bad luck this season.

Just a year ago, the former Baltimore Orioles phenom was worth 2.0 WAR in just 65.2 innings thanks to a 2.95 FIP supported by a 3.29 ERA and 3.02 xERA. It was no fluke as he missed bats, avoided walks, and managed contact well.

His stuff hasn’t fallen off measurably since then (he’s actually gained 1.1 m.p.h. on his fastball) and he still has two good breaking balls that can reliably generate whiffs and soft contact.

Bundy is a soft tosser who gets by on a diverse repertoire at this point in his career, but it’s not hard to imagine him finding some of what made him so effective last season — and it wouldn’t be difficult to pry him from the Angels.

The Jonathan Villar

Definition: A versatile position player rental who could fill in at a position of need, but looks better as a bench booster. Villar didn’t produce in a Blue Jays uniform, but acquiring him wasn’t a bad idea.

2021 target: Asdrúbal Cabrera, 1B/3B, Arizona Diamondbacks

2021 stats: .251/.346/.404 with five home runs in 210 PA for 0.7 WAR

Why it could work: Cabrera isn’t an exciting name, but even at the age of 35 he’s ridiculously consistent. In his 15-year career the infielder has never posted a wRC+ below 88 or above 120. This year, his 106 mark is almost identical to his career average of 105. Cabrera has played for seven different teams and he’s given all of them approximately league-average offensive production.

Beyond his clockwork bat, Cabrera is a fit for the Blue Jays for a couple of other reasons. Even in his mid-thirties he’s a solid defensive third baseman, he’d be a more reliable option than Lourdes Gurriel Jr. for spelling Vladdy at first, and he could have extra matchup utility off the bench as a switch hitter. The presence of Semien, Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio makes it unlikely he’d have to provide any middle-infield innings, but he could do so in an emergency.

For most of the season, the Blue Jays have lacked a competent offensive option off the bench — especially from the left side — and Cabrera could fill that void at a reasonable cost.

The Joaquin Benoit

Definition: A struggling reliever with high-leverage experience and the ability to thrive with a change of scenery. Benoit had a 5.18 ERA and 4.95 FIP while calling pitcher-friendly Safeco Field his home, he allowed a single run in 23.2 innings for the Blue Jays.

2021 target: Carlos Estévez, SP, Colorado Rockies

2021 stats: 8.54 K/9, 3.42 BB/9, 1.03 HR/9, 5.47 ERA, 4.10 FIP, in 26.1 innings for 0.2 WAR

Why it could work: Nothing about Estévez’s numbers indicates he’s in for a massive turnaround, although his FIP and xERA (4.50) suggest he’s been a bit unlucky this year — beyond the misfortune of having to pitch at Coors Field. What you’d be betting on with the 28-year-old is that his raw stuff would play up in a more favorable situation.

The right-hander averages 96.5 m.p.h. on his fastball and throws a nasty slider with above-average movement both vertically and horizontally. The building blocks are there, and Estévez is no stranger to late-inning looks. He’s entered games with an average leverage index of 1.51 over the past two seasons — second only to Daniel Bard on the Rockies.

Outside of Jordan Romano, the Blue Jays bullpen is a little light on pure velocity and Estévez could provide it. As a bonus, he comes with a year of team control in 2022 if a 2021 audition goes well.

The Taijuan Walker

Definition: A rental starter that another team has taken a chance on despite injury risk who’s performing relatively well. Walker gave the Blue Jays 26.1 innings of 1.37 ERA ball after five solid starts with the Seattle Mariners — who took a flier on him in the 2020 offseason.

2021 target: Michael Pineda, SP, Minnesota Twins

2021 stats: 8.40 K/9, 2.41 BB/9, 1.61 HR/9, 3.70 ERA, 4.46 FIP, in 56 innings for 0.6 WAR

Why it could work: The Minnesota Twins signed Pineda to a two-year $20 million deal after the 2019 season despite an extensive injury history that included lost years in 2012, 2013, and 2018 — plus a 60-game suspension due to a positive hydrochlorothiazide test. They’ve gotten just 16 starts out of that investment, but Pineda is currently on a rehab assignment working his way back from a forearm injury and he’s been solid this year when healthy.

The 32-year-old doesn’t have the overpowering stuff he once possessed, but he commands the ball well, and his slider remains a tried-and-true strikeout pitch, even as his fastball declines. Pineda has only 16 pro relief outings to his name — just one since 2009 — but if there isn’t a spot for him in the rotation he could have success out of the bullpen as a bulk man or long reliever.

Pineda doesn’t have the ceiling that Walker demonstrated last year (and continues to show with the New York Mets this season), but there have been times in 2021 when the Blue Jays have been in desperate need of steady innings, and he could provide them.

The Ross Stripling

Definition: A struggling starter with multiple years of control after the acquiring season with the potential to contribute in the rotation or out of the bullpen. The Stripling trade looked like a dubious one for the Blue Jays until May of this season, but he’s become a rotation staple.

2021 target: Brad Keller, SP, Kansas City Royals

2021 stats: 7.63 K/9, 4.53 BB/9, 1.34 HR/9, 6.39 ERA, 5.11 FIP, in 87.1 innings for 0.2 WAR

Why it could work: Keller exploded onto the scene in 2018 as a Rule 5 pick, and provided quality innings for the Royals in both 2019 and 2020, but he’s fallen apart this season. Although the right-hander has improved his ability to miss bats, his walk rate has spiked, and his previous-elite ability to keep the ball in the park has eluded him.

At this time last year the Royals probably wouldn’t have considered moving him, but the combination of his poor performance, increasing price tag through arbitration, and diminishing years of control could make him available.

While Keller is no ace, he runs solid groundball rates thanks to a sinker with good depth, and wields a slider that has above-average depth and run. His primary breaking ball was worth -10 runs in 2020 according to Statcast — the second-best total in the majors.

He also has potential out of the bullpen, which he demonstrated when he opened his career with 22.1 innings of 2.01 ERA ball as a reliever. Although Keller isn’t thought of as a power pitcher, his fastball spiked as high as 98.6 m.p.h. during that time. He might not be able to reach those heights again, but they show he has a history of having his stuff play up in relief, which increases his potential value.

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