TORONTO — Stockpiling prospects and dreaming of future value can only last so long.
For every successful franchise, there’s a pivot point where the present takes precedence over years of control.
The Toronto Blue Jays have clearly reached that point and they proved it with the acquisition of José Berríos on Friday afternoon, paying a steep price to add exactly what they needed — another top-of-the-rotation arm.
In trading away 2020 fifth-overall pick Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson, the main piece in the return for Marcus Stroman at the 2019 deadline, GM Ross Atkins sent two top 100 prospects to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for two-plus months of Berríos this season and a full 2022 campaign that’s really the key to the whole thing.
If you think it’s too much to give up, that’s not outlandish.
But when you start to factor in how fleeting opportunities to acquire impact rotation pieces are, combined with the fact prices at this trade deadline were much higher than previous years, and you start to see how the chance to acquire the 27-year-old right-hander was too good to pass up.
Even if it meant dealing Martin, a very good prospect who’s faces significant questions about not only his defensive home, but his power, as well, something that was a concern for evaluators during the draft process.
That’s not to say Martin isn’t a very good prospect. He is.
But there’s a chance the Blue Jays sold high. There’s also the chance, of course, he alters his swing, taps into the power and becomes the star many have envisioned.
This trade, however, is all about what the Jays needed most to take the next step in their hopeful evolution into a World Series contender.
It’s impact pitching, and Berríos may just be the start.
The Jays are fully expected to be in on names like Noah Syndergaard and Kevin Gausman in free agency this winter, as well as whatever other trade opportunities present themselves.
“We’re fortunate that we were in a position to be able take that next step and we’ll continue to do that this off-season, at the next trade deadline, and, obviously, that will be exceptionally dependant upon us doing a decent job in the scouting and development areas,” Atkins said Friday evening as 13,446 fans were filtering into Rogers Centre for the first time in 670 days.
Many will look at Berríos’ career 4.08 ERA and feel underwhelmed.
It’s more about the stuff, the track record of health and durability, and the touch of upside he could possess at an age when pitchers are usually just starting to figure things out.
After being drafted by the Twins with the 32nd pick in the 2012 draft, a new organizational message and a different voice in veteran pitching coach Pete Walker could unlock another level in the 6-foot Puerto Rican.
It’s a thought that has crossed Atkins’ mind, but they didn’t make the deal banking on it.
The current version of Berríos, with a career-best 3.48 ERA through 20 starts thus far this season, is well worth the price in his opinion.
“I think it is really interesting as young he is, as athletic and how hard-working as he is, it’s easy to think about him just continuing on a positive trend,” Atkins said. “Whether that is in more just how he’s deploying his work and how he’s learning how to attack different teams and learning how to reshape certain pitches or make adjustments, he has the ability and all of the attributes to do all of those things. We’ll see. Time will tell on that front, but the current version in the current form was obviously exciting enough for us.”
Once it was clear to the Jays that Berríos was available this week and the Twins were motivated to move him a year-and-a-half out from free agency, he became the clear target.
Not only does it give Atkins’ club a chance to catch lightning in a bottle this season and climb over a number of clubs to claim a wild-card spot, it gives them a full season of Berríos paired with Hyun Jin Ryu — and potentially free-agent-to-be Robbie Ray, who absolutely needs to be re-upped with a lucrative new deal — atop the Jays rotation in 2022.
“In my discussions with (Twins president of baseball operations) Derek (Falvey), we knew the potential was there,” Atkins said of the deal coming together. “We also knew that it was going to be a very steep price. They want to continue to try to win and they could’ve very easily just had him pitch for them tonight.
“Over the last probably 48 hours, it felt as though we were one of the teams that had a real chance at him,” Atkins added. “So we spent a little bit more time on that and spent a little bit more time with that organization, not just myself, but other individuals talking to them. Today, the offers became more concrete and it was a decision point for us.”
With Berríos now added to a rotation that includes the aforementioned Ryu and Ray, rookie Alek Manoah, who will start Saturday at Rogers Centre, as well as Steven Matz and Ross Stripling, the Jays are likely to roll with a six-man rotation for the time being.
The depth is nice, but it is Berríos’ ability to consistently pitch deep into games that will really help.
“This moves helps not only protect others starters and the reliance on Hyun Jin Ryu and Robbie Ray to each time out really be the stoppers for us, but it’ll also impact our relievers because Berríos is someone who has gotten deep into games pretty routinely and that takes some stress off,” Atkins said. “It was important for us to acquire pitching in some way if it were possible and it wasn’t the best market to be in for starting pitching but we were fortunate to have the talent to be able to acquire Jose.”
Durability is a major factor, as well.
Since arriving in the big leagues in 2016, a span of 781.1 innings, Berríos has never been on the injured list.
“I think in order to be a major league starting pitcher, I think it starts there,” Atkins said. “In order to get better, you need to do it a lot. And to get those reps, you have to be durable … that is certainly an attractive attribute.”
Facing Berríos over his career, the scouting report that Charlie Montoyo got was always the same.
“This guy’s nasty,” Montoyo said. “That’s the scouting report. This guy’s got good stuff, every time we face him.”
Atkins was also able to fortify the bullpen leading up to Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline.
That process began Thursday with the trade for lefty Brad Hand and it continued in the final moments before the deadline Friday when they acquired 37-year-old right-hander Joakim Soria from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for two players to be named later.
In an interesting wrinkle around the game this week during one of the busiest trade deadlines in recent memory, teams suddenly started paying the high prices usually associated with the final week in July, something that hasn’t been the case over the last half-decade or so as the value of prospects — aka cheap talent — skyrocketed.
The Jays weren't the only team giving up top-100 type prospects.
“As we were going through, we felt as though the asks were very high than what we were accustomed to,” Atkins said. “And then as we saw moves occurring, it appeared that those asks were being met. It’s a hard thing to really pin down and say one reason why.
“Everything is a bit cyclical in the world and in business and maybe we’re seeing a bit of a shift here. It’s exciting. It really is exciting to see this deadline. It was one of the more invigorating deadlines that I can recall in a while and, I think, that’s ultimately good for baseball.”
The Blue Jays began the night — and an absolutely critical 11-game homestand, their first at Rogers Centre in 22 months — 4.5 games back of a wild-card spot.
Not insurmountable by any means with two full months to play.
“We believe we haven’t played our best baseball yet,” Atkins said. “Hopefully, those days are here upon us.”