How Blue Jays could fill biggest trade deadline needs

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The Toronto Blue Jays approach the trade deadline with a set of needs that seems to shift on a daily basis.

While the demand for bullpen help is a constant, the news that Nate Pearson is likely returning to the team as a reliever changes the picture there slightly. Thomas Hatch could also provide an in-house boost that could make the situation less dire.

On the flip side, the rotation looks a little less sturdy than it did a few days ago with Ross Stripling pitching four innings of 10-run ball in his last two starts and Alek Manoah dealing with a minor back injury. When it comes to position players, Corey Dickerson’s injury status could play a role in how the bench is addressed, and the seven games prior to the deadline present the Blue Jays with unknown unknowns.

All of that is to say that when Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins says things like “The market is not clearly defined yet” and “there’s still more to learn on teams and exactly what they will be doing, exactly who will be available and just how available they are”, he isn’t spouting vagaries for the sake of it. Even this close to the deadline, uncertainty abounds.

With that in mind, we can do some responsible speculation — as opposed to the far-more-fun irresponsible speculation — under the understanding that there’s a long way to go before we reach the finish line of trade season. So, looking at the Blue Jays’ most pressing needs at this moment, let’s do some shopping:

Starting Pitcher

Rationale: Between some of Steven Matz’s struggles, the road bump Stripling is dealing with, and any concerns that could persist around Manoah’s back, the team’s starting five looks a little wobblier now than it did a couple of weeks ago.

Luxury Choice: Kyle Gibson, Texas Rangers
2021 stats: 7.57 K/9, 2.78 BB/9, and 0.76 HR/9 with a 2.86 ERA and 3.62 FIP in 107 IP for 1.9 WAR
Team control: Through 2022

For the vast majority of his career, Gibson was about as boring a middle-of-the-rotation option as you could imagine. This season he’s a first-time all-star at the age of 33.

He’s not as good as his 2.86 ERA suggests, but he commands the ball extremely well, limits hard contact, and this season he added a cutter to what’s now a dizzying six-pitch mix. The 3.58 xERA and 3.62 FIP the right-hander has put up are probably more indicative of where he’s at, but those are still excellent numbers. Another appealing aspect of Gibson is the fact he’s under team contract for just $7 million in 2022 — a year where the Blue Jays will continue to push for the playoffs and presumably still have a need for rotation help.

Because Gibson doesn’t throw hard or miss bats he’s not in the David Price mould, but his combination of modest salary, team control, and 2021 performance means that he won’t come cheap.

Off-Brand Option: Caleb Smith, Arizona Diamondbacks
2021 stats: 10.15 K/9, 4.50 BB/9, and 1.38 HR/9 with a 4.38 ERA and 4.64 FIP in 78 IP for 0.4 WAR
Team control: Through 2023

Smith is far from a household name, but he’d be a similar acquisition to Stripling last season. The 29-year-old right-hander comes with two more years of control beyond 2021, but hasn’t performed well enough that the Diamondbacks would be dying to keep him. Six days from his 30th birthday, it’s unlikely they see him as a big part of their future, either.

The left-hander started the season pitching out of the pen and has given the Diamondbacks 45 innings of 5.20 ERA ball since joining the rotation full time. That number is marred by one horrendous start (nine ER in one inning), though, and in his other eight starts his ERA has been 3.48. Smith has an ability to miss bats (9.94 K/9 in his career), and a track record as a solid back-of-the-rotation starter with the Miami Marlins (4.41 ERA and 2.2 WAR in 230.2 IP between 2018 and 2019).

Sometimes he demonstrates a frustrating inability to throw strikes, but his stuff can be dynamic, and the Blue Jays’ success with Robbie Ray might empower them to feel more comfortable adding a guy like Smith. Worse case, he could bolster the club’s bullpen.

Reliever

Rationale: This team’s relief corps simply hasn’t been good enough, and a tendency to meltdown late in games is one of the biggest reasons for the discrepancy between the Blue Jays’ run differential and their record.

Luxury Choice: Craig Kimbrel, Chicago Cubs
2021 stats: 15.54 K/9, 3.06 BB/9, and 0.25 HR/9 with a 0.51 ERA and 1.10 FIP in 35.1 IP for 2.0 WAR
Team control: Through 2022

Prior to the season the Cubs would’ve been happy to give Kimbrel away thanks to two off years and his hefty $16 million salary, but the eight-time all-star is back with a vengeance in 2021. The 33-year-old still brings the heat, his curveball has been borderline unhittable this year (60 per cent whiff rate) and he’s among the league leaders in a number of Statcast categories.

Kimbrel has a $16 million option for next season that would be worth picking up if he continues to stay healthy and produce like one of the league’s best relief aces.

Off-Brand Option: Ryan Tepera, Chicago Cubs
2021 stats: 10.37 K/9, 2.59 BB/9, and 0.65 HR/9 with a 3.02 ERA and 2.88 FIP in 41.2 IP for 0.9 WAR
Team control: Through 2021

When Tepera and the Blue Jays parted ways he no longer looked like an impact arm, but he’s found new life in Chicago. The right-hander has given the Cubs 61 innings of 3.39 ERA ball with a matching 3.10 FIP while posting an 11.4 K/9 — far better than the 8.5 he managed in Toronto.

Tepera has eased off his hard cutter in favour of a slider — which has helped him up his whiff rate — and even started playing around with a curveball this season. He’s a different pitcher now than Blue Jays fans remember and his $800,000 salary would be easy to fit on the books. He’s not a big name, and he’s a free agent after 2021, so it’s hard to imagine the price tag would be prohibitive, either.

Corner Bat

Rationale: The Blue Jays bench has been offensively punchless all season long, hamstringing Charlie Montoyo in late-game situations. The Blue Jays could add a starting third baseman and use Biggio to bolster the reserves, or find a bench player who can help.

Luxury Choice: Eduardo Escobar, Arizona Diamondbacks
2021 stats: .251/.301/.490 in 382 PA with 22 HR for 2.1 WAR
Team control: Through 2021

While Escobar’s all-star status in 2021 is a function of the Diamondbacks’ talent-bereft roster, he hit 35 home runs in his last full season, has graded out as a strong defender at third base and second this year, and is relatively matchup proof as a switch hitter.

Escobar could be installed as the team’s starting third baseman or play something of a super utility role allowing other players to get rest. The Blue Jays might prefer someone who gets on base consistently considering they already have plenty of power hitters who don’t, but it’s hard to argue with the overall production the 32-year-old is capable of providing.

Off-Brand Option: C.J. Cron, Colorado Rockies
2021 stats: .246/.359/.472 in 295 PA with 14 HR for 0.8 WAR
Team control: Through 2021

Cron has played for five different teams in the last five years, but he always seems to generate above-average offensive production. His negligible defensive value isn’t enough for teams to see him as a long-term solution, but he could fit a very specific role for the Blue Jays.

Toronto lacks a true backup first baseman who’d allow Guerrero Jr. to DH a little more and stay in the lineup without fear of fatigue, and Cron would be a nice card to play in late-game situations when one of the team’s weaker hitters comes to the dish.

Entertaining an option like Cron would mean expanding to a four-man bench, but as the bullpen solidifies, that’s probably a positive tactical move for the team to make anyway — and because of the Blue Jays’ positional versatility, they can afford to keep a 1B/DH in reserve.

Bench Player

Rationale: Despite Santiago Espinal’s best efforts, the Blue Jays bench hasn’t contributed much. The fact Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Marcus Semien have each played every single game is a pretty good indication the club could use an infielder.

Luxury Choice: Freddy Galvis, Baltimore Orioles
2021 stats: .249/.306/.414 in 274 PA with 9 HR for 1.5 WAR
Team control: Through 2021

The Blue Jays know exactly what they’d get from Galvis, a little bit of pop, strong defence and a clubhouse presence the club constantly praised when he was in Toronto. Galvis isn’t used to playing a utility role, but he’s played a fair amount of second base in recent years and based on his work at short (and some work in 2013-14) it’s safe to assume he can handle third, too.

Galvis wouldn’t impress with the bat, but he could serve as a late-inning defensive replacement capable of solidifying the team’s infield. There would be some overlap with him and Espinal, but the veteran switch hitter is a better bet to hit right-handed pitching, has a little more power and possesses a glove as trustworthy as they come.

Off-Brand Option: Matt Duffy, Chicago Cubs
2021 stats: .278/.377/.356 with 1 HR in 106 PA for 0.6 WAR
Team control: Through 2021

With a career Isolated Slugging below .100, Duffy has no power, but he’s still a useful two-way contributor. His career on-base percentage of .340 is more than solid (as is the .377 he’s posting this year), and he’s a strong defender at third base with the ability to handle second. He’s even capable of playing a little short and this year he’s logged a few innings in the outfield for the first time.

Duffy would give the Blue Jays a lot of what Joe Panik was supposed to but usually didn’t. With the power in this lineup his ability to draw walks and slap singles would come in handy, and his positional versatility is impressive. The biggest concern with Duffy is a back injury that’s kept him out since May 22, but his return is imminent.

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