Today is an interesting date for Blue Jays fans. On the eve of the 2016 non-waiver trade deadline, it was a year ago yesterday that then-general manager Alex Anthopoulos sent shockwaves through the baseball world by trading for ace David Price, a move that – along with the trade for Troy Tulowitzki a few days beforehand – definitively stated “we’re all in” and helped to lead the Jays to their first playoff appearance in twenty-two years.
That was then. This is now.
Though the Jays are no doubt a superior team than they were at this – or frankly, any – point last season, they still have the same glaring need: starting pitching. It is impossible to predict what this management team might be able to pull off this trade deadline. Certainly, if they are able to make a move, it will not be of the blockbuster variety. Those do not happen very often, and when they do, they often involve trading pieces of the future for a one-time shot at the prize. No one should expect Atkins to be able to trade for a bonafide ace. Quite simply, he did not inherit the assets to do so. However, what the front office lacks in terms of trade chips they appear to be making up for in creativity. I believe that their two newest acquisitions, Melvin Upton Jr. and Joaquin Benoit, provide insight into the direction in which this management team is headed.
The deal for Upton provides the Jays with upside on two fronts: it provides roster flexibility as the Jays chase down a championship while also hedging against an uncertain future. In the short-term, as noted by Jeff Simmons of Sportsnet, Upton is a good defensive outfielder who can play all three outfield positions, providing manager John Gibbons with the option of using either Jose Bautista or Michael Saunders more often in the DH role. And although he is unlikely to be in the starting lineup often against right-handed pitchers (this season he is batting .247/.292/.392 against RHP compared to .279/.333/.570 versus lefties) he is a good option off the bench to be a late-inning defensive replacement. Upton also provides some much needed speed on the base paths, having stolen 20 bases thus far this season (the Jays as a team have just 32). Though he certainly won’t light this team on fire, his acquisition is what Jerry Crasnick of ESPN refers to as “tinkering around the edges”.
What Upton does is make this lineup better – modestly so, perhaps, but depth is critical during a playoff run. However, his acquisition does more than strengthen this team as it chases down another pennant. It hedges against the uncertain future of Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders, both of whom are free agents at the end of this season (Upton is under contract through the end of 2017) and the unlikelihood of re-signing both of them. Leaving the Padres on the hook for all but $5 million remaining on Upton’s contract also provides payroll relief into 2017 that could be spent on other areas of need.
The trade of Drew Storen to the Seattle Mariners for Joaquin Benoit is indicative of another trend we have seen from this front office, that of their willingness to take a chance on buy-low reclamation candidates. Storen himself was one such project. When the Jays traded for him in the offseason, Storen had just come off a poor second half after having lost the closers’ role in Washington, a period of time which saw his ERA spike from 1.89 to 5.82 while his strike out to walk ratio dropped from 4.75 to 3.63. The Jays, in need of options in the bullpen, took a shot, hoping that Storen could provide value. Instead, he had a 6.21 ERA in 38 appearances during which he gave up 23 earned runs over 33.1 innings pitched. Simply put, he was no longer an option out of the pen.
The Jays cut bait when they designated Storen for assignment, demonstrating a willingness to essentially admit that the deal was a wash and that it was time to move forward. Enter Benoit, who had a 5.18 ERA in 26 appearances with Seattle this season, one which has been mared by a shoulder injury that caused Benoit to spend some time on the disabled list. As Melissa Couto of the Canadian Press reports, he is eager to prove himself with the Jays as they head towards the playoffs. Whether or not Benoit works out is nearly irrelevant given that the Jays gave up nothing to get him. He’s simply a guy who, if he performs well enough, will provide one more option out of the pen. If he is unable to contribute down the stretch, given the cost to get him, it was worth the shot.
Melvin Upton Jr. shares Benoit’s desire to make the most of this opportunity. A five-tool player out of high school, Upton’s major league career hasn’t exactly followed the trajectory one might have predicted. Though productive, he was difficult to work with during his years in Tampa Bay (TSN’s Dirk Hayhurst relays an interesting story to that effect), while his time in Atlanta was downright abysmal (Craig Edwards takes a close look at Upton’s stats through various eras of his career). Now, despite being on downside of his career, Upton hopes to put it all together. As with Benoit, the cost to acquire Upton was so low that any upside he brings outweighs the risk.
None of this changes the fact that the Jays still need to acquire at least one starting pitcher who is a better option than Drew Hutchison and, if possible, one more reliever, specifically a lefty specialist. It’s not that they can’t win as currently constructed, but once again, depth is key, and such acquisitions would provide insurance in case of injuries. Whether or not Ross Atkins can pull it off is an entirely different matter. And, while it has been confirmed by the likes of Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman that the Jays are indeed chasing down teams that are looking to sell assets at the trade deadline (Richard Griffin offers a list of potential trade targets), there is a portion of this fan base that will undoubtedly use the inability to make deal (should it come to that) to fuel the narrative that this management team is more concerned with restocking the farm system (an area of weakness with which they should be concerned) than winning a championship. The perception, to some, will be that Atkins didn’t try hard enough to make a trade.
The reality, of course, is that this is business, and if you lack the currency of the market (namely high-level prospects), you will likely walk away empty-handed. The Jays are not going to trade for the likes of Chris Sale. Not this trade deadline. But, what Atkins has demonstrated not only this past week but in his entire, albeit short, tenure with the Blue Jays is a willingness to be creative while taking a flier on low-risk, high-reward candidates (see Grilli, Jason and Biagini, Joe). If the Blue Jays do make a move before the deadline (and I believe they will), it won’t be jaw-dropper like the Price deal. But, that won’t mean it isn’t a solid move. And, with a little luck, it will be just enough.
- As the trade deadline looms large, so too does the decision regarding Aaron Sanchez. The topic has been debated and discussed, pondered and prodded, with no definitive “right” answer. His transition to the bullpen – which appears inevitable – will be unprecedented within the MLB. Some have wondered how such a move will be perceived by the team. While few are offering much of anything aside from the traditional stock answer, Josh Donaldson provided some interesting thoughts on the pending move. Like Marco Estrada two weeks ago, Donaldson seems want Sanchez to remain in the rotation. And, who can blame him? I will readily admit to being on Team Start Sanchez, and believe that science can be used to argue both sides of the debate. And, while I do understand the Jays’ position on this – really, it should be considered a good thing that they want to be cautious with their young star – it’s going to be an incredibly tough sell to both this team and this fan base when management finally pulls the trigger.
- If you are looking forward to the future of this team, or if you are simply a Vladimir Guerrero Jr. enthusiast like I am, you’ll enjoy this Rick Westhead profile of the seventeen year old phenom.
- And, finally. Meet Nigel Batson, the Blue Jays’ Executive Chef, as he shares some secrets about a few of the player’s favourite foods. And while the idea of eating crumbled milk and cookies with a spoon isn’t exactly my cup of tea, if it keeps the MVP happy, I’m all for it.
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