Toronto Blue Jays: Potential July Trade Deadline Targets

Sep 27, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant (17) throws out Chicago White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal (not pictured) during the third inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 27, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant (17) throws out Chicago White Sox second baseman Nick Madrigal (not pictured) during the third inning at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports /

As April showers give way to May flowers, the Major League Baseball season is in full swing. The Blue Jays are in the thick of the AL East race, and should be looking to add talent ahead of the July 30 trade deadline.  Based on early season trends, who are the potential targets?

The Jays sit at 16-14 heading in to a weekend series with Houston, just two games back of the AL East leading Red Sox. The team welcomed back ace Hyun Jin Ryu from a glute strain this week; and while CF George Springer finds himself back on the IL with lingering quad issues, there are still four to five solid hitters in the lineup for any given game. If the starters can keep games close through five innings, the bullpen can hold leads and lock down wins.

As other teams start to fall out of contention through June and July, rumours will pick up on who might be available at the July trade deadline. Often trade talks would heat up after the June amateur draft, as baseball executives spent less time thinking about who to draft, and started thinking about where they saw their team headed in the current season and beyond.

But the draft has been pushed back to July 11 this year, so front offices will be forced to explore trades at the same time they are deciding which amateurs to select. The trade deadline itself will fall on July 30 by 4pm ET rather than the customary July 31.

Given the Blue Jays have used eleven different starters through their first 30 games, it is a fair assumption to think that adding one or two starting pitchers will be a key consideration ahead of the trade deadline. Through Wednesday, Jays starters ranked dead last in the majors with only 128 innings pitched, ranked 22nd on ERA at 4.57 and 24th on fielding independent pitching (FIP) at 4.50, and  had a combined fWAR of only 0.6, ranking them 28th in the league.

Certainly there are internal options, with Ryu returning after missing a start, and top prospects Nate Pearson and Alex Manoah building up arm strength as the Triple A season gets underway.

Another obvious area of concern is the left side of the infield defence, where the Blue Jays rank a major league worst at third base with -4 defensive runs saved (DRS) and -6 outs above average (OAA). At shortstop, the Jays rank 29th in baseball with DRS of -5 and OAA of -7. Much of this is due to Cavan Biggio playing out of position at 3B, putting pressure on Bo Bichette at SS because his range cannot help cover for Bichette’s below average footwork and arm strength. All of the rushed throws to first that Vladimir Guerrero Jr., has had had to corral are evidence of this dynamic.

It’s probably too early for top prospects Jordan Groshans and Austin Martin to help improve the Jays infield defence in 2021, as they’ve started this year at Double A New Hampshire.

Which means the front office could look at external options for third base on the trade market, allowing Biggio to return to a more of a super utility role.

Overlaying the current standings with players on expiring contracts this season yields a list of potential trade targets from teams that may be out of contention by July. From that list, there are a number of interesting starting pitchers, third basemen, shortstops and utility infielders that could be of interest to contending teams looking to make a playoff push in 2021.

Elite talents like Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Trevor Bauer, Zack Greinke, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, Eduardo Rodriguez, Lance Lynn and Nolan Arenado have been excluded, simply because their teams are all contending, and it is assumed they won’t be sellers at the trade deadline.

Assuming the Jays are also still in the hunt come July and looking to add rental talent for the stretch run, here are nine potential targets:

1. Jon Gray, Rockies – contending in the NL West against the Dodgers, Padres and Giants is going to be very challenging for Colorado this year; they are already six games back in the division with a 12-19 record, and just this week general manager Jeff Bridich “mutually agreed” to step down from his role with the team. 29 year old right hander Jon Gray will be a free agent after the season. The 6’4” 225 lb former third overall pick looks like a capable mid-rotation starter. He’s on a $6 million contract this season, but his 4-2 record 3.12 ERA and 3.70 FIP in seven starts and 40.1 innings has added an fWAR of 0.7, more than the combined Jays’ starting staff. In seven MLB seasons, he’s made 129 starts and pitched to a 4.51 ERA over 720.2 innings, the kind of innings eater the Jays were hoping for in the just released Tanner Roark. Hitters have a hard time barreling his pitches, with a barrel percentage of only 2.7%, ranking him in the 90th percentile of all pitchers. He features a fastball averaging 94 mph (thrown 45.5% of the time), which he uses to set up an 86.2 mph slider (37.8% of his pitches), and an 86.4 mph changeup (used 11.5% of the time).

2. Kris Bryant, Cubs – just the simple fact that new Cubs president Jed Hoyer hasn’t signed his 29 year old, former MVP third baseman to an extension by now suggests the Cubs may be willing to consider selling what’s left of the final year of Bryant’s contract if they are out of contention by July. The club currently sits three games back in the NL Central and a wildcard slot will be a tough ask. The Jays would have to take on the additional prorated part of Bryant’s $19.5 million salary, but he’d immediately become the starting 3B. He barrels 15.4% of the pitches he sees (89th percentile), and who wouldn’t love to add his .308/.395/.673/1.068/OPS+193 slash line with 9 HR and 22 RBI to the already potent Jays’ offence, even if it is only for half a season? Not to mention that he has six HR and 16 RBI across 167 plate attempts in 39 post season games.

3. Jake Arrieta, Cubs – also on an expiring deal, Arrieta is a 35 year old workhorse with a 3-3 record and 4.31 ERA over six starts and 31.1 innings this year. His 5-3 record with a 3.08 ERA in nine starts and 52.2 innings of post season experience could be of huge value to the Jays should they progress to post season baseball this October. The sinker has lost an average of 4.4 mph since his Cy Young award year in 2015, but he’s still missing bats.

4. Kevin Gausman, Giants – while the right hander was just placed on the IL with lingering side effects from the COVID vaccine, he’s become an important part of San Francisco’s rotation over the past season-plus; Gausman has thrown 39.2 innings of 2.04 ERA ball in six starts, with a 25.8% strikeout rate and a 7.1% walk rate so far in 2021. He uses a 94-95 mph four-seam fastball to set up a ‘wipe out’ 83-84 mph splitter, and has been one of the leaders of a Giants starting staff that entered Thursday No. 1 in the majors in ERA (2.78) and second in fWAR (3.8). The Giants made an $18.9 million qualifying offer after 2020, which Gausman accepted. Assuming he is not extended – and that the Giants eventually fall back to earth behind the Dodgers and Padres after a scorching 18-13 start to the season – Gausman is a name the Blue Jays front office have ‘checked in on’ in the past.

5. Eduardo Escobar, Diamondbacks – the 32 year old Venezuelan can play second base, third base and shortstop and is slashing .246/.304/.500/.804/OPS+ 115 with some pop (7 HR, 18 RBI). He’s on the last year of a $7.7 million contract and Arizona is another NL West team that may have a hard time competing for a playoff spot against the Dodgers, Padres and Giants. He could help solve the third base woes if Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal aren’t the solution at the hot corner.

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6. Brock Holt, Rangers – another utility infielder who bats left handed, he could help if Joe Panik were to be injured, as he is now. Holt also has post season and World Series experience with Boston, slashing .297/.381/.595/.976 in 12 post season games spanning 42 plate attempts.  The Texas Rangers certainly don’t look like they’ll be going anywhere behind Oakland and Houston in the AL West in 2021.

7. Jose Urena, Tigers – the 29 year old righty is off to a solid start for the lowly Detroit Tigers this season in his final year of salary arbitration. He’s a relative bargain for $3.25 million, pitching to a 3.53 ERA and 3.24 FIP in six starts over 35.2 innings. The 9-23 Tigers are already nine games back in the AL Central and should be clear sellers. He features a 94-95 mph sinker and fastball, to go with an 86 mph slider.

8. Dylan Bundy, Angels – the disappointing Angels are already 4.5 games back in the AL West, and the righty is slated to become a free agent after the season. He’s 0-3 with a 4.00 ERA and 3.60 FIP over six starts and 36 innings, and he seemed to have put it all together last year when he went 6-3 with a 3.29 ERA in eleven starts and 65.2 innings. Older Jays fans will love his Dave Stieb-like slider which freezes right handed hitters and drives a 95th percentile chase rate.

9. Matt Harvey, Orioles – the resurgent Harvey is 3-1 with a 4.06 ERA in six starts and 31 innings for Baltimore. The fastball velocity has lost 2-3 mph since his early flame-throwing days, and now sits around 93-94 mph, but he’s been making quality starts and tossed six innings to beat the Yankees on April 26. As MLB Insider Andy Martino notes,

"He’s not trying to be the power pitcher who lit up [New York City] in 2012 and 2013, and who was later destroyed by Tommy John and thoracic outlet surgery. His new repertoire features an increased emphasis on the two-seam fastball. None of his pitches are elite, but his velocity is decent and he’s commanding his repertoire well."

Of course, should the Blue Jays find themselves well out of the playoff race by late July, they could also look to move their own pending free agents in return for prospects: Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, Marcus Semien, Joe Panik, David Phelps and Tyler Chatwood are all on expiring deals and could be traded to contending teams.

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But if they do decide to buy at the July 30 trade deadline, which prospects should be used to acquire MLB starting pitching and infield talent like the players listed above?  Could these players above help with a potential post season run and meaningful baseball games beyond September? We’ll revisit the this list and update potential targets in July.