TORONTO – This period of the baseball calendar is one ripe for cautionary tales of bad deadline deals past, and certainly every general manager buying right now is wary of being haunted by the future success of a traded prospect. While the right trade can help fuel post-season glory, the wrong one can derail a franchise’s long-term trajectory, and the Toronto Blue Jays need only recall Esteban Loaiza’s ill-fated 2000 acquisition for Michael Young for a reminder.
Given this front office’s emphasis on the management of prospect capital, that’s probably not the most applicable lesson-learned-the-hard-way at this moment. More pertinent are the uneven deadlines of 2012 and 2014 for the Blue Jays, when front-office actions didn’t come close to matching clubhouse expectations, leading to discontentment that had to be dealt with.
Without a doubt the franchise is in a much stronger position now than in both those years, with a deep big-league roster, a better asset base to deal from, financial flexibility and the unique expected boost a return home to Rogers Centre after a pandemic displacement will provide.
All of that is justly creating an air of expectation around the 48-43 club that remains seven games back of the AL East leading Boston Red Sox after Tuesday’s rainout. Before the game was banged, GM Ross Atkins repeated that the Blue Jays “have earned the right” to more additions by “staying focused on what they can control with a lot of challenges put in front of them.”
Given that they’re about to move into their third home stadium this season, the players certainly deserve a boost, even before considering that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is having perhaps the best offensive year in team history, Marcus Semien, Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez and Robbie Ray are also having special seasons, and that the best of George Springer looms.
The challenge for Atkins is in ensuring that the expectations of the type of adds the clubhouse believes it has earned isn’t too divergent from the type of adds he ends up making. Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards, Jacob Barnes and Corey Dickerson have helped raise the floor. Players are waiting for the ceiling to be heightened now, too.
“It’s not as simple as deciding to do something and making it happen, although you can, in some cases I suppose, if you have all the resources that you could possibly need,” Atkins said. “But it takes two. It takes the opportunity to present itself and then to the alignment in values for trades to happen and for acquisitions to happen, for moves to happen. I think that our players know we’re committed and committed to trying to close those gaps. Whether or not those values align, time will tell and we’ll see, but our effort and energy will be there.”
Communication is key in that regard and Atkins said the process of managing expectations with players is “not too dissimilar to how we’re talking about it.” There’s a “similar narrative and dialogue” that takes place with players and coaches, he added, but there’s also a fine line in bouncing ideas and seeking input from those in the clubhouse.
“You have to be very careful with that, as you can imagine, if someone were asking about your peers’ role and how that would impact him and then how that impacts you carrying that information,” Atkins explained. “We’re always aware of the opportunities to learn from within our clubhouse about potential acquisitions. But we have to be very careful with how we ask those questions out of respect for their teammates. I’m sure anyone can appreciate that.”
The needs for the Blue Jays are well-defined, as they have been for the past two months. More leverage arms for the bullpen, perhaps a starter, maybe a third baseman – preferably one that hits left-handed – who provides above-average defence, all in the service of run prevention, which is your key baseball buzzword for the next two weeks.
Failing that, the Blue Jays could go all 2015 and seek out a boost in run creation, which is why you’ve seen them loosely linked to Nelson Cruz. They’ll be connected to virtually every name in play before the cutoff hits July 30, too, because as one industry insider put it, “they’re going to be involved in everything.”
Sensibly, they’re preparing for every eventuality, in part that’s because Atkins feels “the market is not clearly defined yet” and “there’s still more to learn on teams and exactly what they will be doing, exactly who will be available and just how available they are.”
“Prices, as you guys know,” he added, “tend to really take shape closer to the actual deadline.”
Then, in perhaps his most telling comment, he added that “until you understand the price, the prioritization (of targets) is helpful, but it doesn’t drive the process in the end.”
Remember that above all else, the Blue Jays will seek to balance out the long-term against the short, which means they are unlikely to lunge for a Craig Kimbrel unless the price is right, which is why managing expectations internally is important.
That doesn’t mean they won’t be aggressive, but Blue Jays fans probably need to reframe that word to something less than the 2015 deadline buildup, but more than last season’s top-ups.
A potentially pivotal internal add could be Nate Pearson, who is working towards a return as a reliever after his troublesome groin issues were traced back to a sports hernia. He’s resumed throwing, is expected be back on a mound for live batting practice “within a week and back into competitive baseball just shortly after that, assuming things go smoothly,” said Atkins.
If they do, the electric-armed right-hander with the 100-m.p.h. heater “could be a reliever option for us in the near term,” Atkins added.
The situation is reminiscent of the Blue Jays’ handling of Aaron Sanchez in 2015, when the then sophomore righty began the year in the rotation, suffered an injury and returned as an elite leverage reliever.
Pearson made two relief appearances last year after returning from a forearm injury and the Blue Jays would gladly take two months of that in their bullpen. In those two games, one of them in the post-season against the Tampa Bay Rays, he logged 3.2 innings and struck out seven batters, allowing just a hit and a walk.
“Throwing that hard and throwing the fastball by people, he looked great. If I’m imagining that, that would be a good weapon for us to have,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “But he’s got to build up to that and see how it goes before we see him here.”
There’s also Thomas Hatch, who was set to start in Alek Manoah’s place Tuesday and could eventually end up part of the bullpen solution, while outfielder Corey Dickerson is moving toward a rehab assignment and can help in both preventing and creating runs.
Their roles will be impacted by what else the Blue Jays do between now and the deadline, an approach sure to be informed by past lessons, including ones beyond those most obvious.