Predicting the Blue Jays' trade deadline needs
TORONTO — Very few teams head into opening day with a complete, World Series-ready roster.
Even the odds-on favourites have a need here and there, and if they don’t, the four-month-plus grind between March 30 and the trade deadline is sure to reveal a couple of weaknesses.
This year’s Toronto Blue Jays club is no different, even if it looks like a pretty well-rounded group as we sit here today with the regular season on the horizon next week.
The official date of the trade deadline — last year it was pushed back to Aug. 2 after traditionally landing on the final day of July — hasn’t been publicly set, but here’s a way-too-early look at what areas GM Ross Atkins could be looking to address as the season progresses.
Impact bullpen arm
They added Erik Swanson and his elite splitter back in November, giving them another weapon at the back end to pair with Jordan Romano.
But more will be needed, and that will be the same for every true contender across baseball no matter how things stack up in March.
The Jays’ bullpen boasts better depth than it has in years, with not only a quality arm like Zach Pop potentially set to be squeezed out and optioned to Triple-A Buffalo to start the year, but also a group of homegrown arms like Hayden Juenger, Adrian Hernandez and potentially Yosver Zulueta getting close to hopefully making an impact.
Instead of organizational fodder and get-me-by pitching, the Jays could be calling on some truly intriguing depth arms in 2023.
Injuries and poor performance are part of the deal when it comes to relief pitching, though, and what we think now about certain pitchers isn’t going to be what we think in four months.
Sellers will be marketing top bullpen arms in July, and the Jays need to be in on them, regardless of price.
The Jays seem to be currently sifting through some internal options here, content to roll with what they already have before potentially exploring an in-season addition.
There’s a few reasons for this, and cumulatively it makes the decision make sense.
The Jays did kick tires on some lower-tier right-handed hitting outfielders late in the off-season, showing the bench isn’t exactly a finished product heading into the regular season.
With a starting trio of Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer set to eat up the majority of the playing time as they head into the season healthy, there’s not of a ton of at-bats available anyway.
Springer is pretty much an everyday player when he’s available, but Varsho and Kiermaier could offer up obvious platoon opportunities against left-handed pitching.
For his career, Kiermaier holds a similar batting average against both sides — .249 versus lefties compared to .247 versus righties — but the power dries up against same-side pitching with just 13 career homers, dropping his wRC+ to 84 against left-handers.
It’s an ever-so slightly above-average 102 against right-handers, which is emphasized by his all-world defence.
Similarly, albeit in a much smaller sample size, Varsho has struggled against lefties, slashing just .234/.276/.339 in his career.
That’s a 66 wRC+, compared to a 112 mark against righties.
But even though just four of Varsho’s 41 home runs in his career have come against left-handers, there’s internal belief that the 26-year-old can improve enough to play every single day for the most part, keeping his elite glove in the lineup.
If Kiermaier and Varsho prove to be black holes against lefties in the first half of the season, a right-handed hitting outfielder will become even more of a priority at the deadline.
The other reasons the Jays are waiting on a potential addition in this area are the names Whit Merrifield, Cavan Biggio, Santiago Espinal, Otto Lopez and Addison Barger.
There’s varying levels of impact amongst that group of names, but the simple idea is the Jays want to get a look at what they have over these next couple of months.
Which one runs with the second base job?
Can Biggio rebound enough to play the versatile role they’ve always envisioned him fitting beautifully?
If Espinal hits like the all-star he was in the first half of last season, is Merrifield, who has a career 115 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, already the fourth outfielder they seek?
Coming off a hot WBC, is Lopez ready to play a role?
Can Barger’s left-handed power bat help him force his way onto the roster?
The only way some of the questions can be answered is with playing time, and they’ve got until late July to sort it out.
Where this lands on your need scale is going to completely depend on how you feel about Yusei Kikuchi and the prospect of a year two rebound in a Jays jersey.
But there’s a chance the Jays are actually better off here than you think, even if no team in baseball ever has enough starting pitching.
With Kikuchi looking solid at times, electric at others, in the pretend games so far and Mitch White’s barking shoulder slowly healing — don’t forget the Jays gave up a pretty good prospect in Nick Frasso to get White, so they see something in this guy — there’s currently a group of six options.
The name to remember, however, is Hyun Jin Ryu, who’s rehab from Tommy John is going smoothly and has him in line for a potential August return.
It’s tough to know what to expect from Ryu, but the expectation for any fifth starter isn’t all that high and maybe the 36-year-old lefty can provide five quality innings every fifth day for the final two months of the season as he seeks to build some value heading into free agency.
If Kikuchi is improved, White, Ryu, some veteran Triple-A depth, plus the outside chance Ricky Tiedemann shows up, might be enough, but an in-season injury or two would immediately shoot starting pitcher to the top of the needs list. Just ask the Yankees.