Blue Jays adjusting order of operations as pitching market moves at Winter Meetings

Hazel Mae, Shi Davidi and Ben Nicholson-Smith discuss the Blue Jays strategy in free agency as MLB Winter Meetings begin, saying the team's interest in Justin Verlander shows their financial capacity, and the pursuit of Andrew Heaney is heating up.

SAN DIEGO – The pitching market is moving at the baseball Winter Meetings and the Toronto Blue Jays, still working on their next move of an off-season in which they need to bolster their rotation and add a left-handed outfield bat, are adjusting their order of operations accordingly.

Take this sampling of what they’ve been up to at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego from people who’ve met with them.

“They’re all over the pitching market,” said one agent.

“They’re big on pitching right now,” said another.

“Aggressive” in pursuit of pitching, added a rival executive.

So, a theme then, underlined by another unsuccessful run at AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, who reached agreement Monday morning on a two-year deal with the New York Mets worth a reported $86.66 million, and also includes a vesting option for a third season.

Having lost Jacob deGrom on Friday when the ace righty signed a $185-million, six-year deal with the Texas Rangers, the Mets essentially took everyone else out of the running. Still, it’s telling of what the Blue Jays can do financially this winter that they were involved at all, although more pertinent now is where they go next.

On that front, an interesting prediction from a third agent on what happens next for them is that they use a catcher to acquire a left-handed hitting outfielder and sign Andrew Heaney, whom colleague Ben Nicholson-Smith reported had received an offer from the Blue Jays.

That’s not surprising, since that’s been an available track for GM Ross Atkins to follow all off-season. But given the way the Blue Jays map out various scenarios around their preferences so that if one piece of their plan develops before another, the agent’s belief that they’ve settled on a course and are in the midst of making it happen is intriguing, at minimum.

Now, this is the winter meetings where rumours fly fast and things change quick, so grain of salt, always. But when asked if the Blue Jays were close to anything during his daily media briefing, Atkins said, “there are a lot of things that we could do.”

“We have an understanding of where there are different opportunities that are not quite in the just-say-yes-to mould,” he added, “but not far off.”

Whether that’s in trade or free agency is unclear but Atkins did say there’s traction on both fronts.

The Blue Jays have been understandably patient in the trade market as they don’t have to deal one of their three catchers, but to really optimize the roster, reallocating some of that depth into a left-handed outfielder, a clear need, probably makes for a better whole.

Danny Jansen, important to the team’s pitchers beyond his numbers, probably best fits the Cardinals, with both centre-fielder Dylan Carlson and right-fielder Lars Nootbar making sense for the Blue Jays. One rival executive suggested that Carlson may be more available than Nootbar, whom the NL Central champions value highly, but with options in free agency and Sean Murphy of the Oakland Athletics still in play, that market is still playing out.

Bryan Reynolds, who requested a trade over the weekend, is another strong fit but the Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates, who don’t really need catching, don’t match up exceptionally well. Jon Morosi of the MLB Network described the Blue Jays as a team to watch on the switch-hitting centre-fielder and suggested they would need to include one of left-hander Ricky Tiedemann or infielder Orelvis Martinez in a package to get the player, and the former, at least, is surely off the table as he could very well be pitching in the big-leagues next year.

Another impediment there is that Pirates GM Ben Cherington and assistant GM Steve Sanders both went to Pittsburgh from Toronto, and value players similarly to the Blue Jays, making it difficult for them to line up packages with the surplus variances usually needed for deals.

Having already created additional wiggle room in the Hernandez deal and with a plan to carry three catchers if that’s how things turn out, the Blue Jays can certainly afford to wait for a deal on their terms.

And given that the Blue Jays were willing to spend in the neighbourhood of $40 million a season on Verlander, they certainly can spend on a free-agent outfielder like Cody Bellinger and still sign a starter like Heaney, with money left over for more, too.

Heaney has other suitors, as well, but the Blue Jays pursued him hard last off-season, too, and he’d help fortify a rotation that already includes Cy Young Award finalist Alek Manoah, Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios, who should be much better after a down season in 2022.

He’ll likely come in at a middle-of-the-starter-market dollar figure, beneath a top tier led by Carlos Rodon, with Jameson Taillon, Nate Eovaldi and Chris Bassitt just beneath him. The Blue Jays have some degree of interest in the first three, but they remain in contact with Ross Stripling and have for years tracked Japanese righty Kodai Senga, who has a strong market that may push him from upper-middle-tier to lower-top-tier money.

Notably, much as Atkins did during the GM Meetings in Las Vegas last month, manager John Schneider said the Blue Jays have interest in Senga, an atypical move from the usually more buttoned up club. Whether that’s to help curry favour with the electric-armed righty or some type of smokescreen is up for debate, but he’s clearly on their radar and they don’t mind sharing.

“In free agency a lot of good teams who want to win are really, really interested in him,” said Schneider. “We’re one of those teams that have done our homework on him and paid a lot of attention to him over the past couple of years.”

Schneider, at his first winter meetings as Blue Jays manager, has been involved both in some of the club’s recruiting of free agents and in sharing his “opinion on players and how they would fit into your roster and how you would try to deploy them to win.”

Asked for his elevator pitch to players on moving north, he quipped that, “there’s no more COVID and customs are easier to get through.” But turning a bit more serious, he said, “you all know, the city itself is absolutely beautiful. Team is fun. Team is young. Team is on the verge of being able to do something really special. I think everyone who comes to play us, they see the same thing.”

Pretty good pitch.

Right now, though, in the midst of the off-season frenzy, the two currencies that play are dollar signs and trade values, the Blue Jays at the ready with both in a moving market of opportunity.

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