With deadline acquisitions on display, Blue Jays and Twins play postseason-like series

Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Tyler Mahle throws to a Toronto Blue Jays batter during the first inning of a baseball game Friday, Aug. 5, 2022, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — No team made as significant of an improvement at MLB’s trade deadline as the San Diego Padres. It’s not even close. When you acquire a player like Juan Soto — a preposterous, generational, on-a-hall-of-fame-track-at-23 talent — you haven’t only won the deadline, you’ve won the entire transactional year.

But then, as he does, Padres GM AJ Preller had to include a second superstar in the Soto trade (Josh Bell), engineer a separate blockbuster with the Milwaukee Brewers to acquire one of the most dominant relievers of the last half-decade (Josh Hader), and make a quick stop for a useful utility player carrying a 133 wRC+ (Brandon Drury) because, well, he was in the neighbourhood anyway.

But the team that made the second­ most significant improvement to its roster may have been the Minnesota Twins. Not because of the name brand value of their acquisitions, mind you. But because the guys they got so perfectly addressed their deficiencies.

Michael Fulmer and his turbo slider represents a much-needed source of reliable relief innings for a bullpen rocked by injuries to key contributors. Jorge Lopez provides not only reliable relief innings, but dominant ones, having pitched to a 1.64 ERA with a 27.6 per cent strikeout rate as the Baltimore Orioles closer this season. Even Sandy Leon, the veteran journeyman catcher, gives the Twins a necessary stopgap behind the plate until Ryan Jeffers recovers from a broken thumb.

And then there’s Tyler Mahle, one of the best starting pitchers moved at the deadline, who immediately becomes Minnesota’s best option to start a playoff game. The Twins — the American League Central leading Twins — entered the deadline without a starter that qualifies for the ERA title on their roster and, in the weeks preceding, were regularly giving outings to Names You Might Remember From 2015 such as Chris Archer, Aaron Sanchez, and Dylan Bundy. The Twins needed a frontline starter more than perhaps any other deadline buyer this season.

And they got one with an excess year of club control, strengthening 2023’s team in the process.

Not to mention a nearly 50 per cent flyball rate, making Mahle a much better match for Minnesota’s Target Field, a bottom-10 home run environment since 2020 according to StatCast’s park factors, than Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, MLB’s homer-friendliest by a mile over the same span. And it doesn’t hurt that the Twins roster Max Kepler and Byron Buxton, who both rank within the game’s five best outfield defenders by outs above average.

Mahle, of course, would have been an intriguing deadline option for the Toronto Blue Jays as they trawled the trade market for a starter themselves last week. Just one problem — he went on the restricted list when the Reds visited Rogers Centre in May. Toronto’s surprising Whit Merrifield acquisition did teach us to expect the unexpected. But there’s been no indication that a similar change of heart with regards to vaccination was on the table in Mahle’s case. So, the Blue Jays had to cross that name off their list and move on.

Now, was it a little strange to see the Twins go shopping for a starter like Mahle only a year after trading away a very similar, homegrown one in Jose Berrios? Perhaps. But Mahle has one more year of club control than Berrios did prior to signing his seven-year, $131-million extension with the Blue Jays. And the two young players the Twins acquired from Toronto last season help off-set the prospect cost paid to add Mahle now.

And you have to consider the context, too. The Twins weren’t a playoff team at this time last year. They were nearly 20 games under .500. Now? They’re positioned to host a wild card series with less than two months to play, and they just watched their two direct competitors for the AL Central crown — the Cleveland Guardians and Chicago White Sox — stand pat at the deadline. There would be an opportunity cost to not seizing this moment. And so, they went out and addressed their biggest needs in a targeted, impactful way.

Can you make a case that the Blue Jays did something similar last week? In some ways, yes. Anthony Bass is a top-10 reliever this season in both ERA and FIP; sinkerballer Zach Pop brings big velocity to a bullpen short of it; swingman Mitch White has upside, control, and versatility; and Merrifield raises the club’s floor at multiple positions, while adding contact and speed to an oft homogenous lineup.

But again, consider the context. The New York Yankees had a 12-game AL East lead heading into the deadline and still added a frontline starter (Frankie Montas), a high on-base outfielder (Andrew Benintendi), plus multiple relief arms (Scott Effross, Lou Tivino); the Seattle Mariners, competing directly with the Blue Jays for the AL’s first wild card spot, obtained a frontline starter of their own (Luis Castillo); the Houston Astros intelligently bolstered what already looked like the league’s most talented team with serviceable veterans (Christian Vazquez, Trey Mancini, Will Smith).

Just as it’s fair to say each trade the Blue Jays executed made perfect, logical sense in a vacuum, making the team better this year and beyond, it’s also fair to say that Toronto’s floor-raising maneuvers weren’t quite as impactful as the ceiling-raising ones the teams around them in the AL postseason field made.

And it’s more than fair to say the Blue Jays didn’t thoroughly address their biggest need — high leverage relief. Toronto’s bullpen is still thin at its back end and lacks the layers of bat-missing punch clubs rely on to shorten games in the postseason. Fans would likely feel much better about Toronto’s deadline if it acquired just one more leverage arm (particularly after Tim Mayza was lost to a dislocated right shoulder over the weekend). Just one more option for interim manager John Schneider to call upon when he needs a strikeout against an imposing pocket of the opposition’s order come October.

And, look, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Ahead of the deadline, the Blue Jays prepped out a list of over 80 relievers they believed could move, diving deep into their performance, backgrounds, and pitch characteristics in order to assign them values and build out a preferential list. And as the deadline approached, they had discussions with clubs about upwards of 70 of them. But in the end, only a handful of those relievers moved.

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Pitching discussions went nowhere with both the Guardians and Boston Red Sox; the Colorado Rockies inexplicably extended Daniel Bard rather than trading him; non-contending clubs rostering effective, controllable relievers such as the Washington Nationals (Kyle Finnegan), Arizona Diamondbacks (Joe Mantiply), and Kansas City Royals (Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont) opted to hang on to their arms.

Same goes for the Detroit Tigers. The Blue Jays had Joe Jimenez and Gregory Soto high on that reliever list. But in exchange for those high octane, controllable arms, Detroit sought current MLB talent that could help them return to contention next season, a commodity Toronto was reticent to deal out of concern for how it would impact the continuity the club’s created over time.

Meanwhile, Toronto was heavily involved in the Montas and Trivino sweepstakes, as colleague Shi Davidi reported earlier, but finished second to the Yankees. The Blue Jays felt they made a strong offer for David Robertson, but the Cubs ultimately preferred the prospect the Philadelphia Phillies were offering. And the Orioles made it abundantly clear that the price to trade Lopez within the division was different than it ultimately became to ship him to Minnesota.

And so, the Blue Jays came away with what they came away with. And they got to encounter the Twins immediately following the deadline in an intense, tightly-contested, back-and-forth weekend set that felt a lot like the first four games of a postseason series.

Bass pitched in three of the four games, immediately inheriting leverage situations the Blue Jays would have asked a less effective reliever to get them through only a week ago. Lopez, pumping 99-m.p.h. sinkers and curveballs that bent like Messi free kicks, appeared twice and blew a save.

Pop, leaning more heavily on a slider the Blue Jays believe has bat-missing upside, pitched a pair of scoreless outings. Fulmer, chucking bullet sliders that come in harder than a lot of guy’s fastballs, threw two scoreless of his own.

Mahle started opposite Berrios on Friday, with neither pitcher coming away pleased by their results. Merrifield was everywhere doing everything, going 5-for-14 with three runs and a stolen base, switching defensively between innings from centre field to second base and back, and changing multiple games with his speed, most notably at the end of Sunday’s when he was right in the middle of the series’ thrilling, controversial conclusion.

The series was a 2-2 split in the end, with the Blue Jays scoring more runs cumulatively, 20-18. But even after all that happened, who could confidently say which team’s better? All we know is they both have the same goals; both loaded up last week in different ways. And they might just meet again somewhere down the line.

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