Blue Jays' GM looks to add to rotation

November 9th, 2022

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays are standing at the doorway between good and great, loaded with talent but still far from where they want to be as an organization after their excruciating loss to the Mariners in the Wild Card round.

This is where the margins grow thinner and the decisions grow more difficult. The Blue Jays can hit, and while the front office is open to tinkering or rebranding that group, Toronto’s lineup in 2023 should look awfully familiar. The rotation, on the other hand, needs some new faces.

Expect the Blue Jays to be involved at all levels of the starting-pitching market, both via free agency and trade. Another contract similar to that of Kevin Gausman or José Berríos seems unlikely, given where the Blue Jays are financially, but there’s plenty of room to add one of three types: a veteran free agent seeking a short-term deal, a bounce-back candidate with upside or a controllable starter acquired via trade.

Toronto’s rotation is locked in at the top with Gausman and Alek Manoah, an AL Cy Young Award finalist at 24. And Berríos simply has to be better than his 5.23 ERA in 2022, which was the surprise of the season. Beyond that, though? It’s wide open.

“We’ll look to acquire another starting pitcher,” said GM Ross Atkins, “then think about what that means from a workload standpoint with the pitchers who already are here and the innings we need to fill. Then, obviously, we want to think about complementing our bullpen as well.”

Yusei Kikuchi still has two years remaining on his deal, but he's coming off a 5.19 ERA in ’22. Kikuchi often lost all contact with the strike zone, putting extra strain on the Blue Jays’ bullpen in the process. His time in the 'pen offered some brief glimmers of hope, at the very least, leaving the Blue Jays best positioned with Kikuchi entering Spring Training as a No. 6 starter competing for a job, not a presumed member of the rotation.

That means the Blue Jays need two legitimate MLB starters. There’s another discussion to be had about the need for depth in Triple-A and beyond, which was a weakness last summer. This is modern MLB, though, and teams are changing how they view the starting-pitching role, especially in the No. 5 spot.

“It all comes down to innings,” Atkins said. “Defining it as starter vs. reliever? It would be great if we could have eight incredible starting pitchers and two or three of them on option [years] or in the organization. That would be an incredible starting point, but how realistic is that for any team, really?”

Consider Ross Stripling, who so admirably filled in as a starter last season and is now a free agent. The Blue Jays also acquired right-hander Mitch White from the Dodgers, who has many of the same traits as Stripling with an ability to slide in and out of the rotation as needs arise. Having White, Kikuchi and other multi-inning arms as “bulk” options is a fine fallback plan, but with where this organization is, every Plan A needs to be explored first.

The top of the market will boast names like Jacob deGrom and Justin Verlander, the latter of which the Blue Jays explored last offseason and could again on a short-term deal if the money is available. There are also lefties like Carlos Rodón and Clayton Kershaw, but it’s better to look a level lower early.

Arms like Chris Bassitt, Jameson Taillon, Mike Clevinger, Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney, Nathan Eovaldi, Michael Wacha, Taijuan Walker, José Quintana and Martín Pérez make up that crowded secondary group. Do the Blue Jays see the upside they like in one of these veterans, or will the trade market prove more lucrative?

If it is, the catching trio of Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno can open all sorts of doors.

“Our catching has been interesting to other teams for years,” Atkins said. “It’s another good position to be in, having a decent understanding of where the levels of interest are, specifically who they are on and understanding if that is best for us, to push forward in that area. It’s fun for us to think about all three of us on our team. Whether that’s for all 162 games and the playoffs, we’ll see, but it’s a really good starting point.”

Regardless of which road the Blue Jays take, they need starting pitching, period. Money is a factor here, and while teams at this stage are often forced to make difficult decisions with core players, these windows are rare, making this an incredibly important offseason for the organization.