Blue Jays: Did Toronto Do Enough at the July Trade Deadline?
By Charles Kime
After three tough road losses against the Angels and Mariners, some of those persistent concerns about the competitive makeup of the Toronto Blue Jays have resurfaced.
It looked like the Blue Jays were going to pick up a win on Saturday to even their series with the Mariners, but those same issues popped up again before the bullpen imploded in the 7th.
As per Sportsnet:
"The problem was the Blue Jays didn’t do their own part — struggling to string hits together, going 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position, leaving 9 on base, imploding with two out in the bottom of the ninth, walking in a game-winning run that reached third without a ball leaving the infield, and losing a game they could have won, 3-2. It wasn’t pretty. And it let Robbie Ray’s latest strong outing go to waste."
Blue Jays fans have been spoiled with the ‘feel good’ story of a return to Toronto on July 30th, and the addition of the top starting pitcher available at the trade deadline in Jose Berríos. The 9-2 home stand at Rogers Centre also pulled the Jays to within 3.0 games of a Wild Card berth before the current west coast road trip. However, teams the Jays need to leapfrog to earn a playoff spot like Tampa, Oakland and New York continue to win, putting further pressure on the Jays and knocking the odds of them making the playoffs back under 40%.
Did Toronto’s front office do enough at the July trade deadline to help this ball club make the 2021 playoffs?
The Achilles heel of this 2021 Blue Jays team has clearly been the bullpen, with 24 bullpen losses season to date, trailing only Minnesota and Texas in the American League. The AL worst 19 bullpen losses since reliever David Phelps was lost for the season and lefty Ryan Borucki was placed on the IL with a forearm flexor strain on May 14th have wasted good starting pitching (third best AL ERA at 3.45 since then), and a juggernaut offense (AL best 121 wRC+, OPS .817 and run differential +94). Since May 14th, the Jays have had the tenth ranked bullpen ERA in the AL at 4.53, with the 12th ranked FIP at 4.37.
Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins stated on multiple occasions in June and July that they were focused on improving the bullpen along with defensive upgrades, and that the Blue Jays had “earned the right” to more additions at the July trade deadline.
And add he did: in separate trades from June 30th through the trade deadline on July 30th, the Blue Jays acquired relievers Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards, along with rentals Brad Hand and Joakim Soria, left-handed hitting outfielder Corey Dickerson, and a young top of the rotation starter with control in Jose Berríos.
But was this enough to help this team make the playoffs? Could the Jays have done more at the trade deadline?
To consider that, and given the stated goals were to upgrade the Blue Jays bullpen and defense, let’s look at the cost for some of the other relievers and positional players who were traded before the trade deadline.
Lots of pundits have weighed in on the best trade deadline deals, and the crew at MLB network highlighted All-Star rental third basemen Eduardo Escobar and Kris Bryant as two of the best positional player moves made.
The Athletic also listed the winners and losers at the deadline, highlighting relievers Richard Rodríguez from the Pirates, Kendall Graveman from Seattle, Ian Kennedy from Texas, Daniel Hudson from Washington, Diego Castillo from Tampa, Luis Cessa from the Yankees, Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin from the Cubs, Yimi García from the Marlins and Mychal Givens from the Rockies as good bullpen pieces moving at the deadline.
Other good summaries of the best & worst TDL deals can be found from MLB here, SI here, The Score here, Sporting News here, and Fox Sports here.
Clearly adding starter Jose Berríos for top prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson was an aggressive move, with most pundits calling it “win-win” for both parties involved. It ranks amongst the biggest July 2021 trade deadline moves. Berríos is 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA in his three Blue Jay starts covering 16.1 innings.
Adding relievers Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards, along with OF Corey Dickerson, for Joe Panik, minor leaguer Andrew MacInvale and Rowdy Tellez was an inexpensive way to upgrade the bullpen. Despite losing the strike zone in the first game in Seattle, Cimber has been for the most part ‘lights out’, setting up closer Jordan Romano and also earning his second career save on August 5th against Cleveland. He’s gone 1-2 with a 1.02 ERA over 17 innings, with two holds and that save and 13 strikeouts and 3 walks as a Blue Jay.
Trevor Richards has also been a solid addition to the ‘pen, going 2-1 with a 1.88 ERA over 14.1 innings with 19 K’s against 5 BB’s, with a hold and one blown save in Boston’s late inning, come-from-behind 5-4 win on July 26th.
After returning from the IL, OF Corey Dickerson has been a decent platoon bat in his 30 plate attempts so far as a Blue Jay in games through Friday, slashing .286/.333/.429/.762 with 4 RBIs.
However, rental relievers Brad Hand and Joakim Soria have not helped in high leverage situations in close games since arriving. Soria only made one appearance, pitching one scoreless inning before being placed on the 10-day IL with right middle finger inflammation. Brad Hand has so far appeared indifferent to be on a playoff team again, most recently allowing Seattle a walk-off win on a bases loaded walk, after badly missing the strike zone with four straight balls, none of which were even close to being strikes. His last pitch in that high leverage situation was more than a foot off the plate.
So who could the Blue Jays have added instead?
31 year old high leverage reliever Richard Rodríguez, who had converted 14 of 17 saves with a 2.82 ERA for the Pirates, and who has two more years of control after this season, only cost the surging Atlanta Braves pitcher Bryse Wilson and prospect Ricky Devito, who is on the 60-day IL.
In eight appearances as a Brave, Rich-Rod hasn’t allowed any runs, has only walked one, and has three holds as a set-up man for Atlanta Closer Will Smith. 23 year old Wilson was the #6 prospect in 2019 for the Braves and had a 4.83 ERA in seven starts with Atlanta this season. DeVito, who turns 23 next week, was in A-ball before being placed on the IL with an elbow issue on June 9th.
The Blue Jays were rumoured to be interested in him, but apparently couldn’t better that offer?
Would a reunion with 34 year old rental Daniel Hudson and his 97 mph four seamer and nasty 89 mph slider have made sense? He only cost the Padres #9 prospect Mason Thompson. Baseball analytics writer Eno Sariss noted in The Athletic that for relievers,
"“the thing that matters most is STUFF. How fast are you throwing the ball? How much spin and movement are you putting on your bendy pitches? How nasty are your pitches? This year, among relievers available at the deadline, the second-best Stuff number belonged to Hudson.”"
The cost for rental relievers like Kendall Graveman (infielder Abraham Toro and right-hander Joe Smith) and Ian Kennedy (top Phillies prospect in right-hander Spencer Howard, plus right-handed pitching prospects Kevin Gowdy and Josh Gessner for a package that included Kennedy and starter Kyle Gibson) might have been prohibitive.
We can also assume that Diego Castillo from Tampa and Luis Cessa from the Yankees would not have been available for the division rival Blue Jays.
Craig Kimbrel (with a team option for 2022) would have surely cost more than what the Chicago White Sox paid in second baseman Nick Madrigal and pitcher Codi Heuer.
However, other rental relievers who could have helped Toronto include Ryan Tepera from the Cubs (who cost 23 year old lefty prospect Bailey Horn in A ball), Yimi García from the Marlins (who cost outfield prospect Bryan De La Cruz and swingman Austin Pruitt), righty Mychal Givens from the Rockies (who cost the Reds #20 and #26 ranked prospects in Case Williams and Noah Davis), and lefty Andrew Chafin from the Cubs (who cost outfielder Greg Deichmann and righty pitching prospect Daniel Palencia).
As per the Baseball Reference stats at the links on their names above, all of these relievers have been solid for their new teams since the trade deadline.
And while the left side of the Blue Jays infield defense has been much improved as per Statcast with Santiago Espinal starting 19 games at 3B in July and August, its also fair to say that the cost to acquire rental All-Star Kris Bryant from the Cubs was not prohibitive. He only cost the Giants two prospects in 21 year old OF Alexander Canario in A-ball, and RHP prospect Caleb Kilian, a 24 year old in AA.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee acquired another rental All-Star in power-hitting, switch-hitter Eduardo Escobar for minor-leaguers Cooper Hummel, a 26 year old catcher in AAA, and Alberto Ciprian, an 18 year old 3B playing in the Dominican Summer League.
‘All in’ on the playoffs?
After adding Berríos, Cimber, Richards, Dickerson, Hand and Soria, do you think the Jays did enough to help their playoff chances in 2021? Would relievers like Richard Rodríguez, Daniel Hudson, Ryan Tepera, Mychal Givens, Yimi García and Andrew Chafin have improved their high leverage relief options more so than Brad Hand and Joakim Soria? Would a switch hitting 3B like Eduardo Escobar or the right-handed hitting Kris Bryant have been a more effective positional player to add than a fourth or fifth OF option in Corey Dickerson? With only 46 games left in the regular season, we’ll soon find out whether the upgrades were enough to help propel a return to the postseason for the Jays.