With the Toronto Blue Jays fully committed to a deep postseason run in the fourth year of their current competitive window, they are likely buyers ahead of the upcoming MLB trade deadline. General Manager Ross Atkins has added a string of reinforcements at the trade deadline since the 2020 season, and with the team currently in a wild card position, 2023 should be no different.
While we’ve worked to identify potential playoff difference-makers who might be available in a midseason trade - think Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray in 2020, José Berrios in 2021, or Whit Merrifield last year - who have the Jays got to trade away for big league players?
And given Alek Manoah’s continued struggles on his minor league demotion, giving up 11 earned runs in 2.2 innings on Tuesday against NY Yankees rookies in the Florida Complex League (FCL), do the Blue Jays need to add an experienced MLB starter?
MLB Insider Mark Feinsand recently noted potential trade deadline chips like 2023 rentals Jack Flaherty or Lucas Giolito; Tigers ace Eduardo Rodríguez, who can opt-out of his contract after this season; Cubs ace Marcus Stroman, who has a player option to stay with the Cubs for $21 million next year; or Cleveland ace Shane Bieber, who is under team control through 2024?
A potential template to use is the July 28, 2019 trade of then-Toronto ace Marcus Stroman’s 1.5 years of team control for the NY Mets 4th- and 6th-best prospects at the time: lefty Anthony Kay and then 18-year old, lottery ticket righty Simeon Woods Richardson.
As Bob Nightengale of USA Today wrote then, “The Mets just acquired a guy who has the fifth-best ERA in the American League (2.96) despite pitching in the AL East, and is yielding just 0.7 homers per nine innings in a year where they are using superballs instead of baseballs. And all it cost was their fourth- and sixth-best prospects in a farm system that’s considered among the worst in baseball.“
Assuming the Cleveland Guardians are really making the next 1.5 years of their ace Shane Bieber’s arbitration eligibility available in a trade, could a similar package of the No. 4 and No. 6 prospects in the weak Blue Jays system be enough too acquire him? Depending on which top prospect ranking you look at, that would equate to two players like infielders Addison Barger or Orelvis Martinez and a pitcher like Yosver Zulueta or lefty Kendry Rojas.
While Bieber has struggled this year relative to his previous four seasons with Cleveland, he has thrown 100.0 innings with a 3.69 ERA in 16 starts, with a FIP of 4.13 and an ERA+ of 110. He’s been better than 10% of all MLB pitchers normalized across the entire league, and has averaged over 6 innings per start.
Most importantly, he’s a proven post season difference-maker. Last year in the ALWC game against Tampa Bay, he tossed a 7.2 innings in a 2-1 win, allowing only three hits and one run, with 8 Ks and one walk. He followed that up with a solid 5.2 innings against the Yankees in the ALDS, allowing only two runs on 5 hits and 3 walks, with 7 Ks in a 4-2 Cleveland win.
According to Statcast, his fastball and slider velocity has not declined this season, and while his strikeouts are way down to a career low K% rate of 18.5% from a career average of 27.9% (and a high of 41.1% in his AL Cy Young winning 2020 season), at age 28, he’s still elite on fastball spin and extension; and, he has allowed two or fewer earned runs in nine of his 16 starts this season,
While the Jays will have to compete with the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Orioles, Yankees, Astros Rangers and Angels to acquire a pitcher like Bieber, his postseason success last year might make it easier to spare a good young hitter and deal from a relative position of strength in the Blue Jays system. There are a number of infielders in the top prospect ranks, with 2022 draft picks Josh Kasevich, Tucker Toman and Cade Doughty all knocking on the door of their top ten.
As Zack Meisel, the Cleveland Guardians beat writer for The Athletic (subscription required) notes, Cleveland has a history of dealing starting pitchers with limited remaining control:
• July 2019: Traded Trevor Bauer with 1+ year remaining of team control
• December 2019: Traded Corey Kluber with one year of team control (plus a club option)
• August 2020: Traded Mike Clevinger with 2+ years of team control
That could match well with the Jays position of strength on nearly MLB-ready infield bats like Barger. The Indians struggle to generate runs (27th in MLB), and rank 24th on weighted runs created plus (wRC+), which quantifies run creation and normalizes it for external factors like ballparks. As Meisel notes, “Any young hitter with the ability to rack up extra-base hits would be welcome. The two logical avenues to acquiring such a player: package prospects or trade Bieber.”
Let’s hope the Blue Jays can acquire a playoff difference-maker this year. Think Juan Soto, Raisel Iglesias or Luis Castillo, not Brad Hand, Mitch White or Anthony Bass. Whether the front office will be willing to drain their prospect pool further remains to be seen, but if they are buyers - and they do need to find a rotation replacement for Manoah - a trade to acquire Shane Bieber would fit the bill.