ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – No one does big game hunting at the trade deadline quite like A.J. Preller and the San Diego Padres.
Consider for a moment the audacious ambition it takes not just to zero in on Juan Soto and pry him from the Washington Nationals with one of the richest prospect packages ever to change hands, but to add in all-world closer Josh Hader, Josh Bell and Brandon Drury for good measure.
Simply epic. Bold. Daring. Courageous. Maybe even a little reckless. Feel free to dig into your thesaurus for more. Any, and all, of those adjectives, plus more, fit.
The Toronto Blue Jays, in contrast?
The adjective that keeps coming to mind here to describe their trade deadline haul of relievers Anthony Bass and Zach Pop, swingman Mitch White and, in a stunner, utilityman Whit Merrifield is responsible.
Measured and functional both work, too, and there’s certainly room for disappointing and underwhelming when it’s put up against what rivals like the New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins accomplished.
But this feels like a very Blue Jays type of deadline – competent pieces to address various needs, elements for both the present and the future, a comfortable spend of future value, even if their Nos. 3 (Jordan Groshans), 13 (Nick Frasso), 14 (Max Castillo) and 23 (Samad Taylor) prospects, according to Baseball America’s mid-season rankings, were exchanged.
Sensible over sexy. The full anti-Preller.
“It is attractive to us to think about adding to our young core in a way that is sustainable,” GM Ross Atkins said during a Zoom call Tuesday evening before his Blue Jays beat the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1, adding later that, “each of the individuals could be here for extended periods of time and we’ve seen huge benefits in that. The continuity of these guys being together and caring about one another and it being special is important to us. We’ve seen power in that, so exceptionally excited that we were able to line up with the acquisitions that we made.”
All of that is valid, and there is a dose of risk-taking in the intriguing acquisition of Merrifield, who missed the Kansas City Royals’ series in Toronto last month because he isn’t vaccinated and triggered a firestorm when he said, “that might change down the road. (If) something happens and I happen to get on a team that has a chance to go play in Canada and the postseason, maybe that changes.”
Atkins declined to get into specifics, saying since the deal was too fresh and he’d only exchanged pleasantries with Merrifield, “I’m not going to comment more on that process for him and let him work through that with his family.”
The assumption is that the Blue Jays didn’t send Castillo and Taylor to the Royals on a leap of faith, so it’s reasonable to think he will indeed take the shot. But time matters as arriving travellers must be 14 days clear of an accepted vaccine’s second dose, or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Hence, even if Merrifield took J&J on Wednesday, he wouldn’t be eligible to enter Canada before an Aug. 26 homestand that begins with the Los Angeles Angels, although he could play in series at the Twins and Orioles later this week and next, and an Aug. 18-25 road trip to New York and Boston.
The timeframe would run into September if he took a two-dose vaccine and followed the 21-day gap between shots.
Clearly the Blue Jays are willing to live with the short-term disruption for a player also under contract next year and has an $18 million club option in 2024 likely to be bought out for $500,000 instead.
And the package of skills the 33-year-old brings fits the Blue Jays in multiple ways, including the 76 career games he’s played in centre field adding another layer of depth in the event George Springer’s elbow issues necessitate a longer-term absence at some point.
“He’s such a good player, first and foremost, very accomplished with incredible experience,” Atkins, who played down concerns about Springer’s elbow, said of Merrifield. “The versatility, the contact ability, the speed, playing multiple positions, incredible baserunner, feel very good about him at so many different positions and that versatility will help us down the stretch. Between he and Cavan (Biggio), Raimel (Tapia) and others, we feel like we can really protect and keep guys, from time-to-time, off their feet. In the event of an injury, we’re very well covered.”
The principles behind that description apply to White, Bass and Pop, too, providing a collective fortification to the current roster rather than building on a new wing to the current foundation.
White, 27, becomes the No. 6 starter the Blue Jays lacked and won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2027 season, bolstering a starting group lacking supportive triple-A depth. He’s expected to join the big-league club and can also be used to help manage the workload on Alek Manoah, who’s likely to establish a new career-high innings total Thursday, and the other starters.
The right-hander – with a 3.70 ERA and 1.250 WHIP in 56 innings over 15 games, 10 of them starts – is also expected to contribute out of the bullpen, pushing him into a swingman role vacated by Ross Stripling when he replaced Hyun Jin Ryu in the rotation.
“He’s certainly done that and I think that’s a fair assessment,” Atkins said of White. “You see it more and more in the game today. It really comes down to the ability to start that is so attractive, someone that can go five or six innings, throw 100 pitches, had the ability to get right-handers and left-handers out. The arsenal to do that and the athleticism to hold up and the durability are all things that aren’t easy to acquire.”
Neither are elite relievers, and the Blue Jays navigated a difficult bullpen market by adding Bass, part of the 2020 Blue Jays bullpen, and Pop, the Brampton, Ont., native.
While they are believed to have explored deals with the Tigers for some of their controllable arms and examined, to some degree, the out-of-character high-end bullpen add of Raisel Iglesias, who’s due $48 million over the next three seasons and instead went to Atlanta, they instead took far less risk.
Bass, 34, is a different pitcher now than he was back in 2020, throwing a slider with a nearly 41 per cent whiff rate nearly 57 per cent of the time, complemented by his mid-90s fastball. He’ll slot into a set-up role alongside Yimi Garcia, Adam Cimber and Tim Mayza and adds another layer of protection in the event something happens to closer Jordan Romano.
That Bass also comes with a $3-million club option only makes him more of a fit.
Pop, 25, is under contractual control for another four seasons after this one, and his strike-throwing, power-sinker profile screams mid-game, get-out-of-a-jam reliever with the potential for more if he can better weaponize a slider to complement a heater that sits 96.5.
That both, along with a player to be named later, were acquired for Groshans prompted one rival scout to text incredulously, “did they really only give up Groshans for those two arms?”
The Blue Jays could very much have used another dominant relief arm and there were other deals they are believed to have just missed on. One industry source said they were “neck-and-neck” with the Yankees for Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino. They had some interest in David Robertson, who went to the Philadelphia Phillies, and were involved on multiple other fronts.
But in a market where supply was skimmed by the addition of two new wildcard spots, doing so while not stripping down the farm system isn’t nothing.
As Rays GM Erik Neander put it, “teams that don’t feel great about their chances, with that extra wild-card spot, you don’t want to take a season for granted either. It seems like you might see a few pieces move, but you might see some players on free-agent contracts that if that spot didn’t exist you might see go, and maybe the bar to move them is up a little higher. You don’t want to trade them just to trade them. I think that extra spot keeps a few more teams around, but we’ll have a better sense over the next few days.”
In that environment, the Blue Jays went slow and steady instead of shock-and-awe. They’re better and deeper. Whether it’s enough will play out over the next two months, and if things go to their plan, beyond.