TORONTO — As they enter the offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays aren’t in a position to telegraph their free agent targets and trade possibilities. That’s why when Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins met the media on Tuesday, their comments remained on the vague side, although — to be fair — that’s nothing new for the pair.
However, Shapiro and Atkins dropped enough clues about the shape of their vision that barring something totally unforeseen, it’s not hard to suss out its outline. The primary objective is the acquisition of starting pitching.
“On a global level it’s moving from competing to winning,” Shapiro said. “When you look at where the needs are on our team, it doesn’t take a whole lot (of) in-depth analysis to know that starting pitching is our greatest opportunity to make those leaps.”
That makes sense considering the team has a young core of position players and Atkins wasn’t able to identify a single pitcher who is currently pencilled into the team’s 2020 rotation.
“Trent Thornton has probably put the best foot forward, but his offseason will be very important. A lot of guys could make huge strides,” he said. “Jacob Waguespack, Ryan Borucki, hopefully Sean Red-Foley is the Sean Reid-Foley of 2018. T.J. Zeuch’s transition has been extremely encouraging. Anthony Kay has done everything we’ve asked of him and more.”
It was somewhat reminiscent of Shapiro breaking out his list of 17 pitchers at a State of the Union he held in August. The Blue Jays are long on possibilities and short on certainties when it comes to starters. They know they need more.
Atkins was unusually blunt on that point Tuesday saying, “We need to acquire pitching we can count on.”
So if the what is “adding reliable pieces to their MLB rotation” then what’s the how? Aside from opening the season with Nate Pearson in the rotation — a move which seems unlikely considering the workload management he’ll require in 2020 — that means signing free agents or making trades. On the free agent front, Shapiro wants it to be known the budget is there to make moves.
“We’ve got flexibility in both term and the amount of money we can offer,” he said. “We still have to be cognizant of trying to make sure we don’t make moves that would limit our flexibility going forward to build a championship team.”
To say the Blue Jays have budget flexibility is a little bit of an understatement considering they have just over $43 million on the books for 2020 (a number that rises significantly when they agree to terms with arbitration-eligible players). Yet, Shapiro still felt the need to add words of caution.
“Looking at other teams, even in recent history like San Diego and Philadelphia, that added big-name free agents, it’s kind of thinking about are we looking at winning the offseason or are we looking to take that leap,” he said. “That next leap for this team.”
In summary, the Blue Jays have quite a bit of money to spend, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be going wild. Atkins was more forthright about what that could look like.
“Our offseason’s going to look much more like the offseason following ‘15 and ‘16 than it would be following ‘17 and ‘18 with the overall commitment and the openness to different structures and terms,” he said. “The overall outlay will be more significant than it certainly was last year.”
If you don’t find that description particularly exciting, that would be a reasonable position. Following the 2015 season the Blue Jays’ signature moves were signing J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada to deals worth $36 and $26 million respectively. Both signings were shrewd, but neither were flashy.
After 2016, the club also made two significant free agent signings. The first was the disastrous three-year $33 million pact they awarded to Kendrys Morales. The second was a one-year $20 million deal for Jose Bautista which was also a flop.
Based on this front office’s history — and the comparison Atkins is drawing — it sounds like they are setting their sights in the middle of the market, looking for starters that are reliable, but not necessarily stars. That probably puts names like Wade Miley, Jake Odorizzi, and Tanner Roark in their wheelhouse. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that strategy, it’s just worth being aware that a Gerrit Cole signing is awfully unlikely.
It’s also possible that the Blue Jays explore filling their rotation holes through the trade market. With the possible exception of Ken Giles, the team has exited its selling phase, and now they can consider moving some of their young talent for more established arms.
“I think if you look at the way winning organizations are built, that’s a big part of it,” Atkins said. “You have to have talent to trade from. We will continue to build that talent to ensure that we have the depth to not only acquire (through) free agency but via trade. We feel that we have the talent to do that, it just has to make sense for us and line up the right way.”
However the Blue Jays attack their biggest weakness, based on their current rhetoric it would be a surprise if the 2019-2020 offseason was particularly dramatic. Even when Atkins was expressing his most excitement about the possibilities, he couldn’t help but throw a qualifier on the end.
“When we are in the middle of a sustained period of winning we’re going to look back at this offseason as a very important starting point to that. In addition to the core that’s transitioned already, this will be a big moment in time, this offseason for us where we’ve made another step forward to building around that depth - it’s just hard to do everything in one offseason.”
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