While the Toronto Blue Jays are most likely to address the holes in their rotation through free agency, the trade market is another place they can find the help they need.
The problem for seeking starters via trade is that very few teams have enough starters of their own. With few surpluses around the league, most deals are rebuilding teams shipping expiring, or near-expiring contracts, to clubs competing in the immediate term.
For the Blue Jays, that setup isn’t particularly appealing because starters on one-year terms generally aren’t ideal for their window. That said, there are a couple of players that could fit the club’s direction in one way or another.
The Trade-and-Extend (or Qualify): Robbie Ray
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Two-seam Fastball, Curveball, Slider
Fastball Velocity: 92.4 mph
2019 stats: 12.13 K/9, 4.34 BB/9, 1.55 HR/9, 4.34 ERA and 4.29 FIP in 174.1 IP
Contract Status: Arbitration-eligible through 2020 (projected salary $10.8 million)
How it works: It’s fairly rare for MLB teams to trade for players and immediately extend them, but considering the Arizona Diamondbacks are a fringe contender at best and the Blue Jays have plenty of payroll flexibility it could make sense in this case. Ray’s ability to miss bats is truly elite, and although his velocity has dipped a little bit in the last two years, he still brings impressive stuff from the left side.
If you really wanted Ray, theoretically you could wait until the offseason following 2020 to sign him, but bringing him aboard early means you can use his relatively low 2019 salary as a bargaining chip to bring down the total cost of an extension by a touch. There’d also be the option of grabbing him, seeing how his 2020 pans out and offering him a qualifying offer if he performs. The possibility of a qualifying offer is interesting here because it raises the floor for a transaction like this. As long as Ray doesn’t fall off dramatically you either get a quality starter on a one-year deal for 2020 or a little draft pick compensation.
This scenario is a bit of an odd one, but there aren’t many traditional options available to the Blue Jays.
The Trent Thornton Redux: Tony Gonsolin
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Curveball, Slider, Splitter
Fastball Velocity: 93.7 mph
2019 stats: 8.33 K/9, 3.38 BB/9, 0.90 HR/9, 2.93 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 40 IP
Contract Status: Arbitration-eligible in 2023
How it works: The Blue Jays found success targeting an organization brimming with pitching depth when they acquired Trent Thornton from the Houston Astros prior to the 2019 season. Thornton was having a hard time finding a spot on the competitive Astros, who were ultimately willing to part ways with him for Aledmys Diaz.
Toronto could try a similar move by tapping into the Los Angeles Dodgers’ depth and scooping on Gonsolin. The 25-year-old’s opportunity with the Dodgers will depend to some degree on what they chose to do with Hyun-Jin Ryu and Rich Hill and how they evaluate Julio Urias and Ross Stripling — but there’s a good chance he wouldn’t open the 2020 season in that starting five. While Los Angeles would undoubtedly value him as depth, there’s a chance he could be pried away at the right price.
Gonsolin is appealing because he brings plus fastball velocity (with a plus, plus, spin rate) and three secondary pitches, all of which can elicit swings and misses. He showed well in his first taste of MLB action in 2019 and has the look of a mid-rotation starter.
The 2020 Punt: Jordan Zimmermann
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Curveball, Slider, Sinker, Changeup
Fastball Velocity: 90.5 mph
2019 stats: 6.59 K/9, 2.01 BB/9, 1.53 HR/9, 6.91 ERA and 4.79 FIP in 112 IP
Contract Status: Signed through 2020 with a salary of $25 million
How it works: This is an outside-the-box idea in the sense that Zimmermann is a very bad starter who’s wildly overpriced. The premise here is that if you don’t believe the Blue Jays are going to compete in 2020, they could essentially pay for a prospect or two from the Detroit Tigers in exchange for taking the 33-year-old’s contract off their hands.
Typically Zimmermann is fairly durable and he could soak up innings for the Blue Jays, even if those innings were of an incredibly suspect quality. Toronto gets a one-year patch for a season where it’s not quite there yet, and a little bit more young talent in exchange for taking on salary it can afford to pay —without any long-term commitments.
It’s not an exciting idea, and it certainly wouldn’t send a positive sign about the club’s 2020 trajectory, but it’s not too dissimilar in structure to the deal they swung for Francisco Liriano that allowed them to score Reese McGuire due to Liriano’s oversized price tag. The Tigers wouldn’t be willing to give up their top prospects to clear Zimmermann, but the Blue Jays could essentially buy themselves an intriguing young talent or two.
The Trent Thornton Redux Redux: Rogelio Armenteros
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Curveball, Slider, Changeup
Fastball Velocity: 90.9 mph
2019 stats: 9.00 K/9, 2.50 BB/9, 0.50 HR/9, 4.00 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 18 IP
Contract Status: Arbitration-eligible in 2023
How it works: Scooping up Armentaros would be almost the exact same move as grabbing Thornton, but just because it’s been done before doesn’t mean it isn’t worth considering again. Armentaros is a fully-developed prospect who simply doesn’t have an obvious road to a spot in the Astros rotation — especially with the emergence of Jose Urquidy this season. His ceiling isn’t enormous, but the floor is significant and he’d probably be an upgrade over the Jacob Waguespack and T.J. Zeuch types that are hanging around on the periphery of the team’s rotation now.
Unlike Thornton, Armentaros isn’t a typical Astros pitcher who fills the top of the zone with high-spin fastballs and wields a hammer of a breaking ball. The right-hander’s fastball isn’t particularly impressive, and neither are his two breaking balls, but he features an excellent changeup that is his best swing-and-miss pitch and keeps hitters off his mediocre heater. That profile may not sound exciting, but plenty of pitchers have made a good living off it in the past and Marco Estrada showed it can work even in the treacherous AL East.
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