TORONTO -- With a critical offseason on the horizon, the Blue Jays’ top priority is crystal clear. Starting pitching will rule the winter.
The Blue Jays turned to 21 different starters in 2019, including a long list of openers and bullpen games as they maneuvered around injuries, poor performance and trades. A team ERA of 5.25 from the starting pitching won’t cut it, and the front office knows that.
“We’ll look to add pitching in every possible way,” general manager Ross Atkins said on Tuesday. “Free agency is obviously one way. We’ll consider trades if they’re there. We have to continue to think about developing the core that is here. It’s not good enough just to have depth. We have to have guys who can contribute in significant ways.”
With such a clear-cut plan for the offseason, the question immediately shifts from what to how and where.
The Blue Jays have spent conservatively over the past couple of offseasons. Signees Clay Buchholz and Matt Shoemaker, paired with trade acquisition Clayton Richard, cost Toronto a combined $8 million in commitments last offseason.
The financial landscape has changed, though, with so many contracts off the books compared to one year ago. Going young naturally lowers payroll, too, so the Blue Jays expect to have a great deal more flexibility entering this winter. That will primarily benefit them on the free-agent market, but it could also be valuable when it comes to trading for players in the middle of contracts.
“That’s probably the biggest difference in this offseason and the last two: We’ve got flexibility in both term and the amount of money we can offer,” team president and CEO Mark Shapiro said. “We still have to be cognizant of trying to make sure we don’t make moves that would limit our flexibility moving forward to build a championship team. Timing is really important.”
Shapiro cautioned that other teams have spent big and not seen the results, saying that the Blue Jays aren’t looking to just win the offseason. Regardless of the additions, some development will need to come from within, too.
Depth is one thing but, like Atkins alluded to, it can’t be the only thing. Atkins mentioned names like Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger as pitchers who have become front-line starters despite not having the best numbers or profiles coming through the upper Minors. The Blue Jays have plenty of candidates to fill No. 4 or 5 roles in the rotation, but who will step forward to become something more?
Of the 2019 group, Atkins suggested that Trent Thornton has done the most to secure a 2020 rotation spot, but even he will need to “put his best foot forward” this offseason to make that happen. The 26-year-old unexpectedly led the club with 29 starts and 154 1/3 innings in 2019, posting a 4.84 ERA and finishing strong down the stretch.
The wild card in all of this -- and the big story of next Spring Training -- is Nate Pearson, Toronto's top prospect and MLB's No. 10, per MLB Pipeline. The 6-foot-6 right-hander represents the organization’s best chance at a true ace, combining triple-digit velocity with above-average breaking pitches and a physical frame that pitching coaches dream of working with.
“He’s still got some refinement, and he does have to be built up to be a 200-inning pitcher,” Atkins said. “Whether that happens in the Minor Leagues or Major Leagues, we’ll see. That will largely depend on his continued development and our alternatives.”
Pearson missed nearly all of 2018 after breaking a bone in his forearm when he was hit by a comeback liner. This past season, the 23-year-old posted a 2.30 ERA over 101 2/3 innings and three levels of the Minor Leagues, finishing in Triple-A Buffalo.