TORONTO — One by one, the options Ross Atkins had in front of him to improve his starting rotation for 2020 are coming off the board.
The Toronto Blue Jays GM claims to be unfazed.
Something about opportunities and alternatives. You’ve heard it before.
But facts are facts: Jake Odorizzi (qualifying offer), Kyle Gibson (three years, $30 million with the Texas Rangers), Cole Hamels (one year, $18 million with the Atlanta Braves), and Zach Wheeler (five years, $118 million with the Philadelphia Phillies) are no longer available, and the start of Monday’s MLB winter meetings in San Diego will begin to narrow that list even further.
Odorizzi, Gibson, and Wheeler are without a doubt three names the Blue Jays had serious interest in and had presented offers to over the past month since free agency opened.
Three swings, three misses. Some would view that as a strikeout.
So what gives Atkins confidence they won’t be frozen out of the starting pitching market over the next few weeks?
“Our confidence comes from the opportunities that still exist and the flexibility we have to do it with, not just in free agency but on the trade front,” Atkins said Wednesday during his annual pre-winter meetings sitdown with the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).
“We’ll just continue what we’ve been doing to understand every opportunity across the entire market. The top of it, the middle of it and beyond that. There’s not a free-agent pitcher that we haven’t touched base with and we have been aggressively trying to understand every opportunity and we’ll continue to do that.”
Here’s the thing.
The top of the market is Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg.
The next tier was/is Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Madison Bumgarner.
Still likely no chance, even if Ryu is a pitcher they’ve touched base with.
After that, it’s the tier most expected the Blue Jays to be in play for, with Michael Pineda, who sources say has been a target, Dallas Keuchel, Rick Porcello, Tanner Roark and Julio Teheran being the most realistic options from here on out.
There’s a league-wide search for pitching that goes on 365 days a year.
This winter is no different.
With an obvious need atop the rotation — even with Nate Pearson on the verge of joining the big club, likely in June or July as the Jays’ top prospect will have to deal with a 130-to-140 innings limit in 2020 — the Atkins-led front office has left no stone unturned, but as of yet they’ve been unwilling to go the extra mile to secure the services of anyone who matters, aka the extra year or handful of millions.
Atkins maintains that’s a competitive window decision rather than Rogers ownership limiting them in any sort of way.
“The flexibility has been there and it’s always a combination of how much revenue you’re creating and now we’re in a situation where it just makes sense to start to be a lot more aggressive than we were last year,” Atkins said.
If they strike out on the top options this winter, it only makes the work tougher in the winter of 2020 and beyond … if this front office is allowed to get to that point.
They have a checklist, but it’s really hard to tick multiple boxes off in free agency, where most players are flawed in various ways.
“In a perfect world, you would be acquiring someone that had a track record, that had athleticism, that had durability and had shown sustained levels of success,” Atkins said. “When you are checking all of those boxes, you are at the top of rotations and you have 30 teams with interest in them. As fewer of those boxes become checked, the acquisition cost is different. In an ideal world, we would like to have all of those boxes checked.”
As of today, there are internal rotation options, but they all come with flaws.
Atkins indicated veteran right-hander Chase Anderson, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers last month, is likely guaranteed a rotation spot, but Matt Shoemaker, Ryan Borucki and Trent Thornton — the next three in line if the season started today — will have to prove themselves in spring training.
Asked if Shoemaker, and to a lesser extent Borucki, were pencilled into the 2020 rotation, Atkins was non-committal.
“I would say pencils have an eraser on the end,” he said. “Pencilled in? Sure.”
After losing out on Wheeler, the Jays are inching perilously close to arriving in Dunedin in February with another ho-hum off-season under their belts.
The last couple were expected and understood.
Shed payroll and aging veterans, give the kids a chance to play.
Even Atkins is on record saying he expects to be much improved in 2020, and even went as far to compare his 2020 club to the 2015 Houston Astros, a team that made the playoffs after 70-win season in 2014, jumping by 16 wins to 86.
After three down seasons and that expectation coming from within, you’d expect an ultra-aggressive approach.
Behind the scenes, that’s been happening, according to multiple sources, as the Jays have been one of the more aggressive teams this off-season in terms of going out and touching base and indicating interest.
That will mean nothing if deals don’t get done and the roster around Vladdy Jr., Bo and Biggio doesn’t improve.
There are still ways this could turn out to be a successful off-season for Atkins & Co.
Adding Keuchel and Pineda would significantly improve the rotation, even if it may not satisfy fans looking for major splashes with household names.
By now, splashy shouldn’t be something anyone expects when it comes to a proven risk-adverse internal strategy, but at some point this front office will have to go out on a bit of a limb in free agency.
Based on where the roster sits today, this winter might not be the perfect time to do that, but we’ve exited the rebuilding stage of wins don’t matter and development is the focus.
There’s pressure on this regime to start winning, and how they go about playing from behind in the pitching market will be key.