TORONTO — Five days out from Major League Baseball’s trade cutoff, there still seems to be very little clarity surrounding who’s buying, who’s selling, who’s available, and who’s not.
Some have even speculated that the Toronto Blue Jays could pivot and sell off expiring contracts like Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray.
Despite the overall up-and-down nature of the Jays’ past few weeks — they’re now just 8-9 in the month of July — it’s extremely hard to imagine that happening. Even getting swept this week in Boston might not change the front office’s plan, one that has always balanced adding talent to the current roster in order to see what can happen with the one of the best offences in baseball over the final two months and keeping an eye on the two-to-three-year competitive window that has opened up in front of them.
They’d have to be blown away by an offer to deviate. But everything is on the table inside clubhouses across baseball because expecting the unexpected is what these players are used to.
Veteran starter Ross Stripling gave us an honest assessment Sunday afternoon of what players are talking about leading up to Friday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline.
“Guys love to play GM,” Stripling said. “It’s one of the more fun things that we do when we’re just sitting around in the locker room or the dugout. Nobody has a clue [what’s going to happen]. What I’ll say is, none of us feel like we’re out of it. We feel like we’re in the hunt. We’re obviously in the hunt for the wild-card and we’re a really good 10-game stretch away from being in the hunt in the division. Obviously, we have some guys on one-year deals that some other teams [would want]. I don’t know if you sell them for the amazing loot that you can get back or do you ride with the team that we have or do you go buy. Those decisions get made above our pay grade, no doubt, but, yeah, we talk about it and there’s some buzz in the locker room about it … for the most part, we just like to speculate. Where’s Kris Bryant going? Where’s [Max] Scherzer going? Do those guys get moved? We try and just play GM for the fun of it, but none of us really have any clue what’s going on.”
The two names Stripling mentioned could interest the Jays on the higher end of the scale, but there are all sorts of ways GM Ross Atkins and his front office could go.
While unexpected names are traded each year, here’s a look at five areas the Jays could upgrade and some of the available talent at each spot.
Top options: German Marquez, Rockies; Max Scherzer, Nationals; Jose Berrios, Twins; Luis Castillo, Reds; Sonny Gray, Reds
Lower-end help: Kyle Hendricks, Cubs; Michael Pineda, Twins; Kenta Maeda, Twins; Kyle Gibson, Rangers; Jon Gray, Rockies; Mike Minor, Royals
This is where the Jays could toe the line between adding for this year and looking to 2022, as well, with Marquez, Berrios, Castillo, Gray and Hendricks all at least under contract for next year.
They could also look to do what they did last year — add a reclamation project type like a Ray or a Stripling and at least give pitching coach Pete Walker another starter to work with. Scherzer is the big fish with the playoff pedigree that every contender will be after if he’s on the market.
Top options: Craig Kimbrel, Cubs; Richard Rodriguez, Pirates; Raisel Iglesias, Angels; Taylor Rogers, Twins; Ian Kennedy, Rangers; Brad Hand, Nationals
Lower-end help: Yimi Garcia, Marlins; Tanner Scott, Orioles; Daniel Hudson, Nationals; Greg Holland, Royals; Daniel Bard, Rockies; Mychal Givens, Rockies
It seems to be the obvious area of need for the Jays, so all of the names in the top group are easy fits.
These types of bullpen arms tend to cost a lot in the hours leading up to the deadline and this Jays front office regime has up to this point shown a tendency to troll for more under-the-radar relief help.
If they pay the price for a top closer, they’ll likely be adding elsewhere, too, and making a push.
Top options: Jose Ramirez, Cleveland; Kris Bryant, Cubs; Eduardo Escobar, Diamondbacks
Lower-end help: Jorge Polanco, Twins
The easiest spot to upgrade in the lineup, which would push Cavan Biggio to a super-utility role, Bryant is easily the top rental and will cost a lot.
If Cleveland truly puts Ramirez on the market, there’s a relationship there with both the player and the Ohio front office that could lead to conversations.
Escobar, a free agent this winter and a switch-hitter to boot, is an intriguing fit and the price might be reasonable.
Top options: Yadier Molina, Cardinals; Willson Contreras, Cubs
Lower-end help: Tucker Barnhart, Reds; Roberto Perez, Cleveland; Yan Gomes, Nationals; Robinson Chirinos, Cubs
With Danny Jansen sidelined for a significant stretch by another hamstring injury, the front office has to ask itself whether it’s comfortable with Alejandro Kirk and Reese McGuire behind the dish.
The Cardinals sit right at .500, but the ageless Molina would be a fun rental to add to this young Jays clubhouse.
More realistically, a capable veteran defensive catcher with a touch more offensive upside than McGuire or Jansen is likely the thought process.
Top options: OF Joey Gallo, Rangers; OF Kyle Schwarber, Nationals
Lower-end help: OF Ian Happ, Cubs; 1B Carlos Santana, Royals; OF Kole Calhoun, Diamondbacks
The Jays don’t need an outfielder, but moving one in a trade — Randal Grichuk or Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are the candidates — would allow them to shift some things around if they wanted to add Gallo in a blockbuster.
A left-handed bat is on the shopping list, and one who could play multiple positions like Happ would be ideal.
THINGS I PROBABLY TWEETED
John Axford’s resurgence this summer at the age of 38 has been pretty remarkable up to this point. He started his year as a TV analyst before using an opportunity with Team Canada during the Olympic qualifiers to show he could still dial it up to 98 mph, which is exactly what he’s been doing in Triple-A since inking a minor-league deal with the Jays a month ago. Across seven appearances, Axford has a 1.04 ERA with 11 strikeouts and three walks in 8.2 innings. The reports on the righty’s stuff have been excellent, too, so it’s not just results-based … The Jays traded 2016 first-round pick T.J. Zeuch to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for cash Sunday, but one glimpse at the first round of that draft shows Toronto isn’t the only club to mess up that year. The first round is littered with bust after bust, starting at the top with Mickey Moniak to the Philadelphia Phillies first overall. The four best players up to this point were selected much later in Will Smith (32nd overall) Pete Alonso (64th overall), Bo Bichette (66th overall) and Shane Bieber (122nd overall), but a lot of names are still just starting to show up in the majors. Welcome to the unpredictability and long lead time of the MLB draft … The Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Triple Crown watch: .326 (tied for first with Michael Brantley), 32 homers (three behind Shohei Ohtani), 79 RBI (one behind Rafael Devers).
STAT DIG: .960
That’s the OPS that Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano has allowed since MLB starting enforcing new rules on sticky substances back on June 21.
The .297/.366/.595 slash line allowed has led to a 4.82 ERA over his last nine appearances, and the month of July has been particularly rough for the 28-year-old, one who’s so key to the Jays’ bullpen mix over the next two months.
Since the calendar flipped to July, Romano’s ERA has jumped from 1.21 to 2.41, including three homers allowed over his last two outings.
Romano has dropped the usage of his usually dominant slider from 50.4 per cent in April to just 34.1 per cent in June and now down to 31.2 per cent in July.
He’s clearly not comfortable with the pitch he threw nearly 60 per cent of the time during his 2020 breakout.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“You can look at areas of need, certainly, whether it’s defence or bullpen, those are the ones that are the most obvious, but sometimes the biggest impact you can make is not necessarily in those areas.”
—Jays president/CEO Mark Shapiro on trade deadline plan of attack
THE CALL-UP LIST
Five players closest to a promotion to the big leagues when a need arises:
RHP Alek Manoah, 10-day IL: After slipping down the dugout steps in Buffalo and bruising his back, Manoah will start ramping back up with a simulated game Monday at the club’s player development complex in Dunedin. If that goes well, he’d be on regular rest to start Saturday at Rogers Centre.
RHP John Axford, Triple-A: See above for all your Ax info. He’s pitched well enough to get another big-league chance at the age of 38.
OF Corey Dickerson, 10-day IL: The 32-year-old outfielder was taking batting practice last week and Charlie Montoyo said he’s closing in on a rehab assignment. Dickerson has been out since June 13 with a foot injury.
SS/3B Kevin Smith, Triple-A: The 2017 fourth-round pick is absolutely on fire — as he has been most of the season — with six homers in his last 11 games, including another one Sunday. If he was on the 40-man roster, he’d have been given a shot by now. He’s the most-deserving prospect in the system.
RHP Nate Pearson, Triple-A 7-day IL: He hasn’t pitched in a game since June 16, but once he gets into a handful of games in the coming weeks, it may not be long before he’s ready.
Highlighting one player in the system that you need to know about:
RHP Nate Pearson, Triple-A Buffalo
Health permitting, the top prospect in the organization should be back in the big leagues sometime during the month of August.
Save for a tiny late-season cameo and an exciting two-inning postseason appearance last year, it will be in a different role than he’s used to.
While the organization still views the 6-foot-6, 250-pounder as a starter, but there’s no doubt that the faith in that happening is starting to wane.
It’s based on two things: The first is his inability to stay healthy thus far; the second is when he has been able to take a turn in the big-league rotation, the command — especially fastball command — hasn’t been good enough.
Pearson will turn 25 on Aug. 20, and with the Jays in win-now mode, they’ll use him in a short-stint bullpen role from here on out, with the idea of stretching him out and moving him back into the rotation competition next spring.
“We’re excited for the possibility of having him back in that bullpen, to be honest with you,” Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said Sunday. “I think it could be a shot in the arm for this ‘pen and having 100 mph coming out of that ‘pen could be a big lift to this team.”
Pearson hasn’t pitched in a game since a six-inning Triple-A start on June 16 and is currently on the seven-day minor-league IL with what the Jays discovered to be a sports hernia-type injury.
After rehabbing the injury over the past six weeks, the Jays are hopeful he’ll be ready to throw off a mound in the coming days and eventually join the Bisons bullpen.
“It’s really just getting him consistent, getting his stuff consistent, making sure he’s feeling great and getting him to the point where he’s [pitching] in games and bouncing back,” Walker said. “It’s one step at a time right now with him and kind of making sure things progress on a normal path.”
From there, Pearson may not need many innings before he shows he can help the big-league bullpen.
While Walker said it might not be noticeable to the naked eye, they’ve made some adjustments to Pearson’s delivery in order to try to keep him healthy.
“There’s been a couple of small adjustments that we’ve made, trying to relieve some of the issues that he’s had physically,” Walker said.
“He’s had a lot of bumps in the road up to this point. I feel bad for him and obviously for us because we need him. I think we’ve rectified some of those physical issues, mechanically, as well, and looking forward to getting him back in short stints.”