Blue Jays: When less is more for the starting rotation

Apr 26, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins speaks during a press conference before playing the Oakland Athletics at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 26, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins speaks during a press conference before playing the Oakland Athletics at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports /

As the Blue Jays weigh which free agents to target and which prospects they might trade, a less is more approach to the pitching staff might be best for now.

Since the 2020 season ended for the Blue Jays, I’ve been excited about all of the ways they could improve the roster over the winter. They’re still in need of another infielder, and there’s been a lot chatter about upgrading in centre field, but the pitching staff remains as the greatest area of need.

The Blue Jays seem to have checked in on pretty much every notable free agent, including the top starter in this year’s free agent class in Trevor Bauer. However, the more that we hear about Bauer’s reporting ask (rumours of up to 36-40 million per year), the less enthused I am about the idea of committing that much of the payroll to one player. The more this offseason develops, the more I’m understanding why the Blue Jays’ focus seems to be more on position player upgrades thus far.

When it comes to improving the starting rotation, that work still needs to be done either way. That said, I think there are better solutions than throwing all of your eggs into the Bauer basket, for a number of reasons.

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To begin with, the Blue Jays have some serious internal options that aren’t far away from making an impact. Nate Pearson made his MLB debut in 2020, and is expected to hold down a spot in this year’s rotation as well. And as long as there’s a MiLB season in 2021, there’s a solid chance that Pearson won’t be the only highly-rated prospect in the group.

That list could include Alek Manoah, the 2019 first round pick for the Blue Jays that was added to the 60-man player pool in 2020. The big right-hander will turn 23 later this week, and if not for losing last season to the pandemic, I’d bet that he’d be a more serious name in discussions to start a fresh calendar in the big leagues.

There’s also Simeon Woods Richardson, who is still just 20 years old, but isn’t far away from joining the big league club either. In fact, last week pegged him as the Blue Jays’ top prospect expected to debut in 2021. He’s going to need some time in the minor leagues as well, but he’s a special arm that has a chance to advance quickly.

You can’t necessarily hold a spot for a younger player that’s not quite ready to contribute at the MLB level, but you can certainly consider them in your long-term planning. With that in mind, might the Blue Jays be better off looking at starting pitchers that they could sign on a 1-2 year deal, rather than committing 200 million or even a lot more to Bauer? I’m not usually an advocate of the cheaper route, but this situation might provide an exception.

For example, let’s say the Blue Jays can take the even 35 million that Bauer might get, and turn it into two starting pitchers. That way, the rotation could look something like this.

1- Hyun Jin Ryu
2- Masahiro Tanaka
3- James Paxton
4- Nate Pearson
5- Robbie Ray

Depth: Ross Stripling, Tanner Roark, Anthony Kay, Trent Thornton, etc.

Tanaka might take something closer to a three-year pact in order to get him to sign, but his market doesn’t sound like it’s that robust at the moment either, as he’s reportedly even considering a return to Japan. Something like two years and 30 million might be in the ballpark, and even a small increase could be more palatable than taking a risk on Tomoyuki Sugano, who the Blue Jays are reportedly interested in as well.

Don’t like Tanaka and/or Paxton, or think they wouldn’t sign in Toronto? Maybe you’re right, but there are other interesting options that could fit a similar mold. Jake Odorizzi might find that a “pillow contract” is in his best interest, or maybe it’s worth a roll of the dice with Garrett Richards, or Corey Kluber. In reality, with the presence of Roark, Stripling, and other depth arms in the Blue Jays’ system, one one solid starter could make a huge difference. Raising the overall floor of the rotation is a much bigger focus than adding depth for once.

In a way I feel like I’m opposing arguments I’ve made in the past, and in some ways I suppose I am. That said, the more that I think about the future of the Blue Jays’ rotation, the less I think they need to overpay to bring in a free agent like Bauer. That’s especially the case if they can bring in an upgrade for the offence like George Springer, DJ LeMahieu, or Francisco Lindor and ramp up the exciting offence to another level.

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Pretty soon Ross Atkins and his staff are going to have to make some decisions, whether that’s because Sugano’s deadline is looming, or perhaps the free agent market finally seeing some movement. If they elect to go with some shorter-term solutions for the rotation and hang on to their homegrown pitching talent (provided they acquire legitimate reinforcements), that route doesn’t feel as much like a cop out as it has in the past. This time around, it might make the most sense.