By adding Berrios, Blue Jays make big bet their best has yet to come

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TORONTO – As the American League East got progressively tougher in the days leading up to the July 30 trade deadline, the Toronto Blue Jays knew the challenge in front of them was only going to intensify.

Not only would they have to overcome a 4.5-game deficit in the race for the AL’s second wild-card berth, they’d be attempting to do so in a division now featuring Nelson Cruz on the Tampa Bay Rays, Kyle Schwarber on the Boston Red Sox and Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo on the New York Yankees.

In a division with four legitimate contenders, the Blue Jays needed to make some improvements of their own, so they kept making calls on a wide range of potential targets, some more ambitious than others. As they continued engaging with sellers around baseball, the Blue Jays realized without a doubt they had enough prospects to upgrade the big-league team in a meaningful way.

“We were confident that we had talent that was coveted by the industry and if we wanted to make a decision like this we would be able to,” GM Ross Atkins said after the deadline passed. “So there were enough things presented to us that we felt confident we’d be able to make the team better.”

Many of those trade possibilities advanced, with somewhere between five and 15 deals getting reasonably close in Atkins’ estimation. Eventually most of those discussions stalled out, but by Thursday they had traction with the Minnesota Twins. On Friday morning those talks led to a deal: the Blue Jays agreed to send top prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson to Minnesota for Jose Berrios.

Around baseball, industry observers agreed it’s a significant price, but it’s worth noting both Martin and Woods Richardson have seen their stock dip slightly since beginning the year as consensus top-100 prospects. Plus, sellers did exceptionally well on deadline day with considerable returns across the board.

“Prices were high this year, but I think they should be,” one executive said. “You’re trading established impact major-league talent, you should get legit prospects back.”

A second executive suggested Martin’s overrated within the industry but still believed the Blue Jays paid too much. A third applauded the Blue Jays for improving their team so dramatically.

Regardless, what matters most to the Blue Jays is now Berrios. A two-time all-star, he’s a legitimate frontline starter who should will help the Blue Jays’ chances of reaching the post-season and figure prominently in their playoff rotation if they get that far. Even if they miss the playoffs – still a real possibility despite the flurry of activity that also landed the Blue Jays relievers Brad Hand and Joakim Soria – Berrios will return in 2022.

By then, Martin will likely be on the cusp of the majors for the Twins and if he realizes the potential that made him the fifth overall selection in last year’s draft, the scales will start balancing out. Yet the short-term impact all belongs to the Blue Jays with Berrios set to arrive in Toronto at some point this weekend. Ideally, he’d start Sunday and provide the kind of impact down the stretch that David Price did six years ago.

With a 3.48 ERA, 9.3 strikeouts per nine and 2.4 walks per nine over 121.2 innings, Berrios certainly has that kind of potential. The Blue Jays are even hopeful the right-hander can help ease pressure on the bullpen by consistently logging innings once he joins his new team.

“I feel good about it,” he said via Zoom Friday. “They’re competing and trying to get back to the playoffs. I’m so happy to be part of that. They’ve got a good group of young players.”

At 27, Berrios is one of them. And unlike Price, who was purely a rental, Berrios will impact the Blue Jays’ roster for multiple playoff runs. Not that the front office was opposed to the idea of using the prospect depth they’ve accumulated in recent years on a short-term addition.

“It’s hard to say in a vacuum whether or not we would have moved a top-10 (minor-league) player for someone with only two months of being a Toronto Blue Jay,” Atkins said. “But we considered it for sure and it was in front of us as an opportunity. It wasn’t a hard no. We weren’t saying ‘absolutely not.’ Everything’s just a bit of a balance.”

Because the Blue Jays also get Berrios for 2022, they have multiple chances to make the most of his ability on the mound. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

They paid such a significant price because of the expectation that Berrios will help make the most of the opportunity that exists right now. Vlad Guerrero Jr. might not have an MVP-calibre season every year. Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien might not return in 2022. But adding another star-calibre pitcher to this group gives them a real chance this summer.

On a talented team that’s underperformed its potential so far, that sets up an intriguing couple of months in baseball’s toughest division.

“Being in the middle of that is where you want to be,” Atkins said. “We believe we haven’t played our best baseball yet and hopefully those days are here upon us.”

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