TORONTO -- The pre-trade deadline jockeying in the American League East kicked off with the Tampa Bay Rays acquiring slugger Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins and sending lefty Rich Hill to the New York Mets, and yeah, the Toronto Blue Jays noticed.
“During this time of year, it’s, ‘Well, that team just got better,’ or ‘This team is not as good anymore,’” manager Charlie Montoyo said Friday before his club dropped a third straight, 3-0 to the Mets. “This is the time when people say stuff like that. Cruz is going to add to that team, for sure.”
Beyond the talent and impact clubhouse presence, Cruz’s pickup also provides a win-now boost for a Rays team that typically doesn’t make this type of bold rental. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins, who has repeatedly said his team has earned further augmentation, won’t suddenly adjust his plans in direct response to that deal, but the AL East landscape is certainly shifting on him.
More pertinent to his approach ahead of July 30, perhaps, is the club’s suddenly less certain catching situation, with Danny Jansen returning to the injured list after straining his right hamstring again, and the club expecting him to be out “for a while,” according to Montoyo.
Alejandro Kirk is back and he lined a base hit in three trips to the plate, and the plan is for him to split duties with Reese McGuire, who’ll be tasked with the critical job of calling ace Hyun Jin Ryu’s starts beginning Saturday. Inexperience behind the plate was a concern even before Jansen went down but it’s even more of an issue right now as crunch time dawns.
McGuire is 4-for-31 in his last 12 games and compounding matters, his receiving hasn’t been especially consistent. Pair that with a talented but still green 22-year-old Kirk who appeared in only his 41st game above A-ball on Friday, and the idea of adding behind the plate has some organizational traction.
Whether it happens is another matter, but the Blue Jays have some interesting options.
Jonathan Lucroy, recently released by Atlanta, is a free agent, while Jacob Stallings of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Willson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs and Tucker Barnhart of the Cincinnati Reds are -- to varying degrees -- available and offer up-market options with club control beyond this year.
Stallings, who’ll be arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter, will need to be valued as an everyday catcher to be pried away from the Pirates, who also have some other notable players of interest to the Blue Jays, reliever Richard Rodriguez among them.
Contreras won’t be eligible for free agency until after next year and with the Cubs seemingly not planning to extend him, the Blue Jays could target him along with a number of other fits on the soon-to-be-stripped roster such as Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Tepera and Kris Bryant.
Barnhart, meanwhile, is a left-handed bat who comes with a reasonable $7.5 million option for next year. With the Reds stuck in no man's land and Tyler Stephenson emerging, this might be the time to get him.
While adding any of the three would to some extent block the current young trio behind the plate, top prospect Gabriel Moreno increasingly seems like the Blue Jays’ catcher of the future and one of the veterans would help bridge the gap to his arrival and ease his transition.
Any such trade would be far pricier than the in-season addition deals the Blue Jays have made thus far, but would also put a piece in place beyond this season. It would also restore some of the club’s lost depth at catcher, creating a surplus that could be used in other deals.
The club’s view of Kirk, clearly, is another factor and if they maintain the status quo, it will clearly show that the Blue Jays are ready to ride-or-die with him. He’s talented and intriguing, without doubt, but given that he didn’t play more than two consecutive games behind the plate during his rehab at triple-A Buffalo, it’s a pretty big bet to make without much of a safety net.
“He learned me really quick, he learned what I was trying to do out there and we were able to get into a good rhythm,” Steven Matz said after allowing two runs in 5.2 innings in his first start with Kirk behind the plate. “I really enjoyed throwing to him. He called a great game and received really well back there.”
Kirk had just been rounding into form when he was hurt on May 1 and the Blue Jays definitely need him to hit the ground running.
"I was feeling very good catching and hitting before the injury,” he said through interpreter Hector Lebron. “Right now, I'm feeling excellent. I want to say that if it's not 100 per cent the same as I felt before the injury, I'm right there, 90 per cent, but I'm feeling great right now. So it's got to be very close.”
The Blue Jays, of course, need to stop their current slide and keep things close in the standings.
Matz, struggling to find his preferred stoicism early while facing his former team for the first time, walked leadoff man Brandon Nimmo and then served up a two-run homer to Pete Alonso before settling to deliver 5.2 solid innings that deserved a better fate.
Combined with his five shutout innings against Texas last time out, Matz is on a bit of a roll after a rough stretch that included a stint on the COVID-19 IL.
“I feel like there are still a lot of things that I would like to improve on, (like) command,” he said. “But fastball/changeup was good the past two outings and just keep building off that. I've got to get the curveball going a little bit, but definitely I'm in a good spot and I feel like I definitely could continue to fine-tune some things.”
Tylor Megill one-upped him, allowing only two hits in six shutout innings and the Blue Jays never really threatened to put up a big inning. Alonso’s second homer of the game, a massive solo shot off Ryan Borucki in the eighth, extended the lead before Edwin Diaz locked it down in the ninth.
The Blue Jays have now scored eight times in their past three games after walloping Texas for 25 in a three-game sweep last weekend. They’ve obviously faced better pitching, but they’ll need more offence to improve on their 25-34 record against teams above .500.
“We have been facing pretty good pitching and the guy today was really good, actually,” said Montoyo. "I don't care what kind of offence you got, pitching is the name of the game, we always talk about that and their guy was really tough, for sure.”
Regardless, as the deadline closes in, the Blue Jays suddenly look like a team that not only could use the type of boost the Rays just got, but maybe even a bit of a lift, too.
“That's a really good move, just because of the person that Cruz is. He's not only going to add offensively for them, but he's going to add in the clubhouse,” said Montoyo. “Talking to Rocco Baldelli about Nelson Cruz the whole time, he was outstanding with the Twins in the clubhouse and of course we all know he's a good hitter. But he's going to add that to the Rays, for sure.”
Your move, Blue Jays.