With emphasis on offence, Jays not racing to add arms this off-season
TORONTO — With a pitching staff that finished fourth in baseball in team ERA returning mostly intact, arms are on the backburner for Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins early this winter.
But the old adage that you can never have too much pitching certainly rings true for multiple clubs across baseball every summer, leaving some sort of eventual tinkering necessary.
As the Major League Baseball winter meetings approach next week in Nashville, the Jays have focused in on making lineup improvements, but there are small holes to patch on the pitching staff at some point this off-season.
The most glaring is the fifth starter spot, one that is currently led by a small group that includes former Cy Young finalist Alek Manoah and 21-year-old lefty Ricky Tiedemann, who’s made just one Triple-A start and still hasn’t crossed the five-inning threshold as a minor-league starter.
That spot will need to be addressed, as well as finding some upper minors rotation depth that they can dip into in the event of injury.
And that’s where things could go differently for the Jays next season.
Will go differently might be the correct phrase because the top four of Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi will have to work miracles to all stay healthy for every single turn as they did in 2023 – the only club in baseball to have that good fortune.
That simply does not happen on a regular basis and if the Jays endured a couple of rotation injuries this past season, they likely would’ve missed the postseason altogether.
It definitely isn’t the focus this winter, but pitching additions will be needed in one form or another.
Here are 12 ideal targets at various price points.
RHP Yoshinobu Yamamoto, JPN
Now officially posted by the Orix Buffaloes and free to negotiate with MLB clubs over the next couple of weeks, Yamamoto is a ready-made top-of-the-rotation starter who will cost a pretty penny.
But he might be worth it if the Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka comparisons come to fruition.
The Jays have done their homework on the 25-year-old right-hander, and he represents an intriguing way to spend their resources and build one of the best rotations in baseball top to bottom.
Is it likely? Probably not because there will be a ton of suitors that need rotation help more, but with Kikuchi a free agent at the end of 2024 Yamamoto could give the Jays a great trio with Gausman and Berrios to build around moving forward.
LHP Shota Imanaga, JPN
The budget — and left-handed — version of Yamamoto, Imanaga’s market is also buzzing after he was officially posted on Monday by the Yokohama BayStars.
He’s expected to cost a fraction of the price of Yamamoto and likely fits what the Jays would be looking for more at the back end of their rotation.
Sort of similar to Kikuchi in terms of profile, Imanaga is seen as a mid-rotation starter with some home run issues.
Those issues with the long ball in the NPB — not a particularly power-oriented league — might give you some pause in the AL East.
RHP Naoyuki Uwasawa, NPB
Another NPB import, Uwasawa is by far the least well-known of the trio of Japanese hurlers coming over this winter, but he’s going to be the most cost effective.
The 30-year-old right-hander hovers around 90 mph with his fastball and posted a 2.96 ERA across 170 frames for the Nippon-Ham Fighters this season.
Uwasawa doesn’t strike many batters out and brings back memories of Shun Yamaguchi, who the Jays signed in December of 2019, but he could be an interesting arm to throw into a fifth starter competition next spring.
RHP Luis Severino, NYY
Severino didn’t exactly have the platform season he was hoping for, and that’s putting it mildly.
The right-hander posted a 6.65 ERA and allowed a .921 OPS, essentially turning every hitter he faced last season into a superstar.
Not what you want.
But what Severino loses on this year’s free agent market, he could make it back next year if he decides to take a one-year prove-it deal, which is the expectation.
The upside here is sky high and the risk will simply be the cash doled out to get him to sign.
For a pitcher just heading into his age-30 season with a couple of Cy Young-calibre seasons on his resume, that tiny amount of monetary risk is absolutely worth it.
RHP Tyler Mahle, MIN
Mahle is expected to be sidelined at least into July, maybe a touch longer, after undergoing Tommy John surgery in May.
But the Jays saw how valuable a mid-season bonus addition to the rotation can be when Hyun Jin Ryu returned from his TJ to give the club some important innings in the second half last year, helping a gassed rotation get through the dog days.
These types of deals are usually of the two-year variety, which would allow Mahle to slide into the 2025 rotation with the idea of putting together a full, healthy season and then re-entering the free agent market in two years’ time.
The Jays already tried to trade for this guy a couple winters ago, so there should be interest.
RHP Seth Lugo, SD
Pigeonholed as a swingman for most of his career, Lugo had an excellent year in his first full season as a starter since 2017, posting a 3.57 ERA and 2.8 fWAR across 26 starts.
That’s going to get the 34-year-old a nice little contract and a rotation spot, but the allure for the Jays his is ability to pitch in both roles, a la Ross Stripling a couple years ago.
If Tiedemann proves to be ready by June, Lugo could slide back into a bullpen role without much fuss.
And if he’s pitching too well to shift back to the ‘pen, that’s a good problem to have, too.
LHP Sean Manaea, SF
One of my personal pets on his list, Manaea pitched really well for the San Francisco Giants last season, but their unique pitching staff structure kept him out of true rotation spot for most of the year.
Knowing that, Manaea opted out of the final year of his deal and provides some intriguing upside heading into his age-32 season.
He seems primed to put it all together and author a career year at some point soon.
The velocity has been fluctuating the past couple of years, but Manaea finished the season at 93.6 mph on the heater and went seven innings and six innings, respectively, in his final two outings, allowing just two total earned runs.
He’s a perfect fifth starter option for the Jays, with loads of upside if things finally click.
RHP Frankie Montas, NYY
The Montas acquisition did not work out well whatsoever for the Yankees and now the big right-hander hits the open market coming off a lost season.
Montas made it back for one September appearance, so he’s expected to be healthy heading into his age-31 campaign.
If you’re sensing a theme here, you’re absolutely correct.
If the Jays are adding a fifth starter, they should be looking at a reclamation project with some upside, a strategy that’s worked fairly well for them recently with Steven Matz.
There were some hiccups along the way, but Montas has authored a 3.67 ERA across his last 86 starts, proving there’s a 3-4 fWAR starter in there when healthy.
If, like Severino, he’s looking for a one-year deal, then that’s an ideal scenario.
LHP James Paxton, BOS
Big Maple has thrown a no-no at Rogers Centre, so you have to think he’d love a chance to toe that bump 30 times in a season.
With his injury history, that’s unlikely to happen, but Paxton did pitch very well last season with the Red Sox and went into the winter healthy for the first time in a long time.
Marketing angle aside, the lefty would look great in the No. 5 spot come April.
These days, the extreme upside is probably gone at the age of 35, but Paxton was finally able to make 19 starts — his most since 2019 — and shook off two years of rust in the process.
If you remove his final three starts before a knee injury ended his year, Paxton had posted a 3.34 ERA across 86.1 frames.
The aging curve for a pitcher can be a weird one, so even in his mid-30s maybe there’s hope for run of good health in Paxton’s future.
RHP Jordan Hicks, TOR
The best reliever on the market, Hicks is likely to get paid beyond what the Jays are comfortable with given their needs, but he was lights-out for the Jays down the stretch and bringing the hard-throwing righty back to group with Jordan Romano, Erik Swanson and Tim Mayza would be impossible to pan.
After Reynaldo Lopez got three years and $30 million from Atlanta to start the off-season, it became pretty clear the 27-year-old is in a very good spot with his 101 mph heater and 3.29 ERA in his platform year.
RHP Yariel Rodriguez, JPN
This Cuban-born right-hander starred at the World Baseball Classic but sat out the NPB season in Japan before finally being given his release and declared a free agent earlier this off-season.
Almost every team has done work on the 26-year-old, and that’s due to a 2022 campaign in Japan that saw him post a 1.15 ERA and strike out 60 across 54.2 frames.
There are some Rafael Dolis vibes here, which could be good or bad for Jays fans. Don’t worry, he doesn’t work as slow.
LHP Matt Moore, MIA
A former top prospect as a starter years ago, Moore has transitioned to the bullpen full-time for the past two seasons and has been excellent, posting a combined 2.20 ERA across 113 appearances.
The lefty should be moderately cheap and hasn’t had any issue getting results, despite maybe a few too many free passes.
If the Jays aren’t adding a true setup man to the mix, they’re probably adding a couple of different look arms to surround the core, and Moore’s four-seamer/changeup/curveball approach is a much different arsenal than fellow lefty Mayza’s sinker/slider mix.