Atkins open to adding 'super high impact' FA

October 2nd, 2020

The Blue Jays will look to add to their pitching this offseason, but since 29 other teams will have similar plans, let’s get a little more specific.

Last season, the Blue Jays made their biggest splash under the regime of general manager Ross Atkins and president and CEO Mark Shapiro, signing ace left-hander Hyun Jin Ryu to a four-year, $80 million deal. This signaled a transition from developing to competing after the club’s leadership had said in prior seasons that they’d be prepared to make these aggressive moves when they felt it would help the organization make that final jump.

It worked, relatively speaking. The Blue Jays went 32-28 in the shortened 2020 season, and while their return to the postseason for the first time since '16 was in an expanded format, they still looked like legitimate competitors at times. With so much pitching depth on this roster and beyond, the need for classic “depth starters” could be limited, with higher-upside arms like Ryu becoming more of a priority.

“I think we are in a position where we could add to this team with talent that is condensed in one player and a super high impact,” Atkins said on Friday. “We got to the point last year where we felt like the team was competitive enough to move towards winning, and that was a big part of that decision. We’re going to continue to think about how we can build upon this group, and hopefully it’s both complementary as well as making as making a really high impact.”

With so many names involved, let’s lay them out. Among the pitchers who could start games for the Blue Jays, either definitely or conceivably, in 2021 are: Ryu, Nate Pearson, Tanner Roark, Trent Thornton, Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, Julian Merryweather, Ross Stripling, T.J. Zeuch and Patrick Murphy.

Beyond those 10, the Blue Jays also have a $9.5 million option on Chase Anderson ($500,000 buyout) along with trade acquisitions Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray, who will both headed for free agency with continued interest expected from Toronto. Then there is a cloudier group of young arms who could start or relieve, including Jacob Waguespack, Shun Yamaguchi, Hector Perez, Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and Elvis Luciano.

The third level to this picture is the prospect pool, topped by some big right-handers Simeon Woods Richardson (No. 4), Alek Manoah (No. 5) and Adam Kloffenstein (No. 10). They’ll need time, but they’re coming, and the Blue Jays are confident in the prospect group as a whole.

“We need to think about that not just for 2021, but beyond that in 2022 and 2023,” Atkins said. “This is an exciting young group with a lot of really young pitching that hasn’t transitioned as far as our young position players. There’s still a lot of growth for our young position players, but thinking about the amount of exciting pitching that we have to complement that group already on our roster with really exciting pieces not on our roster.”

What this laundry list of names should reveal is that there are options, and a lot of them. Ryu is the ace of the present and Pearson is the assumed ace of the future, but given the depth beyond that going another 10-plus names deep, how much need is there to add an innings-eater with a mid-4 ERA?

Roark’s 6.80 ERA in 2020 might be an unfair example, as the right-hander, typically known as a workhorse who chews through innings, was in an unnatural role. But he still works as a case study here. Instead of spending money on a No. 4 or No. 5 starter, the Blue Jays should be able to piece together a handful of these young arms to produce value. No, one young arm doesn’t need to throw 180-plus innings, but a combination of several surely could with a level of effectiveness, thus allowing Toronto to allocate its money to the pursuit of an arm with more upside.

One challenge the Blue Jays’ depth will need to weather, though, is coming off a shortened season. Many pitchers threw during the shutdown, giving them a larger 2020 workload than their innings total might suggest, but it could be challenging for many of these arms to jump back up to a full season of starting.

“Our challenge next year beyond [adding talent] will be workload and how we’re managing it as we do look to complement that group,” Atkins said.

"As always, one of the biggest variables in this pursuit will be dollars and cents. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the finances of different clubs in different ways, creating an extremely uncertain outlook as we eventually approach free agency. Some believe this could open up the trade market, with teams more willing to use prospects over cash to acquire talent entering 2021."

The Blue Jays have done most of their trade work at the lower end of the market, and they nailed the Trade Deadline deal for Walker, who posted a 1.37 ERA over six starts with Toronto and surely made himself some money in the process. We’ve yet to see the Blue Jays' front office swing a deal for a major name at the top of the market, sans Ryu, but they could certainly have an opportunity to do so this offseason.