TORONTO — The same thing happens every single November.
Before 30 general managers around baseball start handing out free-agent overpays to fill holes, they scour the trade market to see if there’s a way to satisfy their needs by swapping assets.
It starts at the GM Meetings, an event that wrapped up in Scottsdale Ariz., earlier this month with a relative whisper, but groundwork was laid.
Turkey Day south of the border is usually seen as a pivot point, where things start heating up in advance of the annual Winter Meetings, a gathering that starts Dec. 9 in San Diego.
“We definitely learned a lot and we definitely spent a lot of time engaging with ideas and concepts with teams and where we might be lining up [in trade talks] and where we really need to drill down and prioritize,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said of the first few weeks of off-season work. “Similarly, on the free-agent front, [we learned] where interest is aligning and where we need to roll up our sleeves.”
There were a number of Blue Jays linked to trade talks this month, as catchers Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire, and outfielders Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez were all being investigated at different levels by rival clubs.
There’s also closer Ken Giles, who seems to be on the back burner at this point, and the Jays very well could keep the right-hander until the trade deadline next July.
That, however, could change with one phone call.
At this point, it’s clear Atkins and the Blue Jays are at least open to creative ways to improve the roster and the trade market is an avenue to do just that, even if the off-season has started slowly for most teams around baseball not named the Atlanta Braves.
Scouring the league, here are 10 names – some of them rumoured to be available, some of them not – that could be of interest to the Blue Jays:
RHP Jon Gray, Colorado Rockies
Since starting pitching is the clear No. 1 priority for Atkins this winter, we’ll start this list with four arms that would immediately upgrade the rotation.
They’ll also cost a lot to acquire.
The Rockies have been sending mixed signals for the better part of a year now when it comes to what they want to do with Gray, a big right-hander who they selected third overall in the 2013 draft.
One thing is clear: Gray, who is controlled through the 2021 season, can likely be had – for a steep price.
Pitching in an impossible environment, Gray has been a valuable arm for the Rockies, producing seasons of 3.6, 3.3, 2.5 and 2.9 fWAR over the past four years, respectively, and there are some Gerrit-Cole-in-Pittsburgh vibes here.
Perhaps a change of scenery and a little less elevation can unlock Gray’s full potential, but it’s going to cost a lot in prospect capital for the Blue Jays to go down this road.
The 28-year-old is far better than his career 4.46 ERA suggests and could be seen as a chance to land an ace … before he becomes an ace.
RHP Chris Archer, Pittsburgh Pirates
Buy low, sell high.
It’s stock market 101.
Right now, there’s no doubt Archer’s stock is at an all-time low, as the 31-year-old is coming off the worst season of his career, one that saw him post a 5.19 ERA across 23 starts.
The Pirates, prior to hiring former Blue Jays VP of baseball ops Ben Cherington as their new GM, thought enough of Archer’s ability to bounce back to pick up his $9-million option for 2020, but it’s clear Pittsburgh is entering a period of change and no one is untouchable.
With an $11-million option on the books for 2021, Archer is controllable for two more years, and his 3.69 ERA over seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays provides proof he can hack it in the AL East.
Shoulder inflammation ended his season in August, so the medicals will play a role in both his availability and ultimate price tag once Cherington figures out his priorities.
RHP Kenta Maeda, Los Angeles Dodgers
Frustrated with his role and the Dodgers’ creative way of shuffling their rotation throughout the season in order to keep arms fresh, Maeda may be on the move this winter.
Right now, he’s still the third starter pencilled into the Dodgers’ 2020 rotation — behind Walker Buehler and some Kershaw guy — so there may have to be an addition made before Maeda is truly available.
Add in the fact Maeda, who will turn 32 in April, is signed for four more seasons at the bargain price of $3 million per, and it’s clear Maeda is a valuable asset in a number of ways.
Over four MLB seasons, the crafty righty has pitched to a 3.87 ERA, in addition to being ultra-consistent in each of those seasons, before transitioning to a valuable bullpen role in the postseason over the past three Octobers.
RHP Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
For a few reasons, Kluber is the worst fit of the four starting pitchers on this list.
Sure, there’s a whole lot of familiarity with the Atkins-led front office from their Cleveland days, but not only is the two-time Cy Young winner coming off an injury-ravaged 2019 campaign and a 5.80 ERA, he’s also owed $17.5 million this year and has an $18 million option for 2021.
That’s not a lot of money for a top-of-the-rotation arm, but the question now is whether Kluber, who will turn 34 in April, is still that and whether he would fit into the Jays’ contention window.
If he’s Justin Verlander and can stave off Father Time in his age-34-to-36 seasons, then he’ll be worth the high price the Indians will attach to their long-time rotation horse.
OF Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates
Relationships mean a lot in this business, and it’s easy to envision the Jays and Pirates being able to orchestrate a deal or two with Cherington now at the helm.
With centre field being a priority for Atkins, the Jays could enter the Marte sweepstakes, with a number of contenders already hot for the fleet-footed outfielder.
At the age of 31, Marte is far from a perfect player, but he’d immediately be the best centre field option on the Blue Jays roster, and would help lengthen the lineup around the kids.
The downside is that Marte’s defensive grades fell off in a big way this season – he put up a minus-9 Defensive Runs Saved mark in centre – and is a better fit in left field.
He also doesn’t walk a lot and seems to deal with an injury or two every season, which is something you wouldn’t expect to get better as he ages.
He’s also due $11.5 million in 2020 and $12.5 million in 2021, his age-32 season, before hitting free agency.
With all that being said, however, Marte has six seasons of 3.0-plus fWAR under his belt, something the current outfield group in Toronto could only dream of.
OF A.J. Pollock, Los Angeles Dodgers
With all of these potential trade targets, you have to first consider price, as in what it would take to acquire them.
Pollock is an interesting case.
The Dodgers handed him a five-year, $60-million guarantee in January, but he limped to a .266/.327/.468 slash line in just 86 games, leaving $42 million on his contract over the next three years.
That may lower the asking price.
Add in the fact that, like Marte, Pollock’s DRS was a less-than-inspiring minus-9 while patrolling centre field in 2019, and you have a number of reasons why he could be available with the Dodgers looking to retool after a disappointing year.
OF Aaron Hicks, New York Yankees
Despite being in the same division, Atkins and Yanks GM Brian Cashman have engaged in trade talks on numerous occasions and being at different points in the contention cycle helps.
Signed to what looked like a bargain of a deal in February, Hicks’ seven-year, $70-million pact looks smart on behalf of the player now that half of his 2019 season was wiped away by Tommy John surgery, and the first half of 2020 will be the same.
Considering the Yankees’ vast resources, need for pitching, and no other obvious centre field options on hand, it’s likely a rehabbing Hicks isn’t available, but the fit on the Jays’ side is obvious.
Hicks is one of the better defensive centre fielders in the game and the owner of a game-changing arm, while also showing why he was once considered one of the best prospects in baseball with a .248/.366/.467 slash line with 27 homers and 11 steals in just 137 games in 2018.
The trick is enticing the Yankees to part with the 30-year-old.
OF David Dahl, Colorado Rockies
Dahl simply can’t stay on the field for any length of time.
When he does, the 25-year-old outfielder has authored an impressive .297/.346/.521 slash line with a 111 Weighted Runs Created Plus (100 is league average) over parts of three injury-riddled seasons.
Dahl has played all three outfield spots, but like Marte and Pollock above, likely fits better in a corner, which is fine if he’s healthy and producing with the bat.
The Rockies aren’t about to give up on their 2012 first-round pick, but his value won’t be any lower than it is right now.
1B Trey Mancini, Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles roster is hard to look at coming off a 54-win season, but Mancini is a bright spot.
Drafted in the eighth round out of Notre Dame in 2013, Mancini has quietly put together an impressive start to his career, completing the breakout with a .291/.364/.535 slash line with 35 home runs this past season as a 27-year-old.
Mancini’s calling card has been his right-handed bat, leaving him to dabble in the outfield corners and first base over his first three full seasons in the big leagues.
For the Jays, he’d be a solution at first base, where he’s been serviceable.
Trading for Mancini would also mean he can no longer beat up on Jays’ pitching, as he’s crushed to an astounding .325/.368/.594 slash line with 11 homers and 31 total extra-base hits in 55 games against Toronto.
He also owns a .905 OPS at Rogers Centre and is controlled through his age-30 season in 2022.
OF Ender Inciarte, Atlanta Braves
With Ronald Acuna Jr. entrenched and top 30 prospects Cristian Pache and Drew Waters already in Triple-A, Inciarte is quickly becoming expendable.
It doesn't help that he wilted to a .246/.343/.397 slash line in 2019, after a three-year run that saw him accumulate 9.0 fWAR, mostly on the strength of elite centre field defence.
Back and hamstring injuries contributed to that slip in his age-28 season, so it’s easy to envision Inciarte getting back to his career norms in 2020, it just may not be in Atlanta.
Inciarte is owed $24 million over the next three seasons.