Continuing on with my “foolproof” plan to get the Blue Jays into contention in 2020. Last time we figured on upgrading the starting rotation – a necessary point agreed upon by everyone involved in the team it would seem – by adding a great, front-line starter through trade. Preferably Carlos Carrasco but perhaps Jon Gray. They, along with recently acquired Chase Anderson, would improve the starting rotation vastly and theoretically, make it good enough to compete IF people stayed healthy and a couple of the group of youngsters we saw this year like Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay or Ryan Borucki continued to develop and improve. However, that seems like a lot to assume. Remember how last spring, it seemed like the rotation was quite “deep” with Clay Bucholz and Clayton Richard added to Marcus Stroman, a seemingly revitalized Aaron Sanchez and Borucki coming off a very strong rookie campaign. Those guys and 16 others added in, we know how that all turned out! So more would still need to be done.
As we’ve often noted, Toronto is a big market with deep pockets, but has spent “small” the past couple of years. Mark Shapiro says they have money to spend, if need be, and with Russell Martin and perhaps Justin Smoak off the payroll, they’ve cut another $20-25M from the budget since September. (To clarify, Martin was playing for the Dodgers but Toronto had picked up most of his $20M salary as part of the trade.) Spending a chunk of that on pitching would be wise. So I’d be looking to add another quality starting pitcher via free agency.
The one who comes to mind to top the list of candidates would be Hyun-jin Ryu. The Korean veteran was second in NL Cy Young balloting this year after having a 14-5, 2.32 season, that ERA being best in the majors among pitchers tossing better than 100 innings in ’19. He had a great 163K : 24 BB ratio through his 183 innings. That added up to a WAR of 5.3 – and given how bad some of Toronto’s rotation was, one might think that if he’d been here he might have added more than 5 wins to the year-end tally.
Over the past two seasons, Ryu is second to only two-time Cy-winner Jacob Degrom in ERA, and through his whole career here, he’s come in at 2.98, a rather stellar number, even when considering he’s pitched in the pitcher-friendly NL West. While as our reader Badfinger 20 notes, he’s no longer a strikeout machine, he knows how to pitch. And as MLB point out,he has one of the lowest “hard hit” rates against him- he can keep batters off balance enough so even when they do hit him, they don’t usually get tremendous power or lift. All factors which would play very well in Toronto.
On the negative side, Ryu will be 33 by opening day and has pitched 150 innings only three times in his six seasons (and he missed almost all of 2015-16. due to injury.) He thus doesn’t have a reputation as being very durable, but that could work to a suitor’s advantage in possibly deflating the market for him somewhat. Unfortunately Scott Boras is his agent, and he says “age wise, (he’s) 32, but…innings-wise, probably 26 or 27” and he expects a huge contract for his client. However, even Boras doesn’t get everything he wants (witness Dallas Keuchel sitting out half the season before signing a one-year deal when Boras was aiming for a huge, multi-year deal.) I’d not break the bank for Ryu or pay him Verlander-type money, but if he would sign on for three or four years at $18-20M a year or so, I’d welcome him with open arms… and point out just how multicultural Toronto is, a plus for an Asian-born player.
If Ryu held out for a much bigger contract, or was determined to go to San Diego as rumored, I’d turn my attentions to another 33 year-old come springtime – Tanner Roark. Roark, for whatever reason, has been linked to Toronto as a potential employer often this fall anyway.
Roark isn’t quite the star Ryu is, but is even more reliable so far in terms of staying healthy and is a consistently solid pitcher. From 2014-19, he’s averaged 189 innings a year and owns a career 3.71 ERA. He split 2019 between Cincinnati and Oakland, going 10-10 with a 4.35 ERA and a WAR of 2.0. The year before, he posted a WAR of 2.9 with Washington. His ERA’s always bested league average and he has good numbers with things like strikeouts to walks. A bit of a concern is how much his numbers fell and his homers allowed rose in Oakland this summer, the first time he’s been in the AL, but he is resilient enough and a good enough pitcher to suspect he will adjust just fine and be back to about where he’s been before – no superstar, but a winning pitcher who’ll go pretty close to 200 innings. Even more than with Ryu, I’d not be giving him a mega-contract, but given his last salary of $10M and his age, he might be a good fit and willing to sign for say three years and about $40M total.
Ryu would be a huge upgrade, Roark a solid one. Either would make Toronto’s rotation very solid with the other additions mentioned, but i’d still learn from 2019 and try to add one more arm, but at a bit of a discount rate. Toronto’s been famous for doing so in the past, and sometimes such bets pay out (Carlos Villaneuva for instance) and other times, they don’t so well (Bucholz), but with Toronto’s income and the possible upside it would be worth a shot. the names I have in mind are two lefties – Alex Wood and Daniel Norris.
Wood will be only 29 in spring, and has had some good years behind him in LA. Check out his career 3.40 ERA. But, he was injured for the first half of ’19 and didn’t come back too strong for the Reds, going 1-3 with a 5.80 ERA and a negative WAR. He allowed an uncharacteristically high 11 home runs in just 35 innings and basically wasn’t good. But the year before, he was (9-7, 3.68, 27 starts and 151 innings) and the year before, even more so (16-3, the best winning percentage in NL, 2.72 with a 3.3 WAR in 152 innings.) He has a good deceptive delivery, steady srtikeout to walk ratio and thus a pretty big upside. But that’s countered by a steadily dropping rate of strikeouts per inning, his inability to go much beyond 150 innings a year and the ugly campaign this season. His name isn’t mentioned much in discussions about “name” free agents, so if he would sign on for one or two years at a lower rate (probably about $6-8M a season, perhaps with a number of incentives for innings, quality starts and so on) he’d be a great, under-the-radar pickup.
The last name, Norris, is well-known to Jays fans. He was the centerpiece of the trade with Detroit that brought David Price in for the 2015 playoff run. At that time he was the highest-rated young Jays arm. However, the southpaw has never quite lived up to the potential in Tiger-town and now that trade’s throw-in Matt Boyd seems the lasting reward to them. So they might be open to trading Norris. On the bad side, he’s 14-29 career with Detroit (but hey, that’s one bad team so it’s difficult to load up on “W”s there!) and his ERA has been middling at best – 4.49 last year. His fastball is only so-so – 91MPH average last year, according to Fangraphs – and has lost two or three miles over the past three years. And his career has seen too many balls fly out of the park behind him. However… there may be hope. He has a good slider and a pretty decent curveball which perhaps could improve given the right coach and get more outs if utilized more. And even with his 13 losses last season, he had a fair WAR of 2. He’s only 27 and here’s what interests me – like a lot of other pitchers, he’s good early in the game, and loses steam mid-game. Last year, he posted a 3.38 ERA over the first 4 innings, and allowed under a hit per inning. He slowed in the fifth but from the 6th on, forget it. He gave up nearly 2 hits an inning and his ERA was 12.59 in them. My take – he doesn’t have the stamina or the “smarts” to go deep into the game and keep batters off balance several times one day. But he can do so well for once through the order. He might make a very good long reliever, something which could be of great use to the Jays.
The Tigers surprisingly say their biggest need is infield help. Maybe not surprising when you consider they rely on such redoubtables as 3B Dawel Lugo (.271 OBP) and middle-infielder Jeimer Candelario (.203 avg, .337 slugging percentage.) Toronto has one time star Brandon Drury gathering dust and likely to not be more than a seldom-used backup in ’20. He’d be an upgrade over anyone (except perhaps aging Miguel Cabrera) on the Tigers infield. I’d make the offer.
So there we have it. Whew! My 2020 Jays would have one star first-line starter (Carrasco or Gray), another solid one (Ryu or Roark) and probably at least one more potential decent starter or long reliever (Wood, Norris or maybe both) added to the existing likes of Matt Shoemaker, Trent Thornton, Chase Anderson and a bevy of young “bubbling under” arms like Zeuch and KAy to choose from. My work here is done. But alas, the starting rotation was only one pressing need for the team next season. I’ll look at other changes to make next time out.