It may be happening a season late, but the Blue Jays aggressive dealing during the 2012-2013 offseason is finally paying off. Toronto currently sits atop the AL East one game ahead of the Orioles with a record of 45-39. While the turnaround is unexpected, it isn't all smoke and mirrors. Their current record matches their Pythagorean record and is just between one and two games above their second and third-order winning percentages as calculated by Baseball Prospectus. In the shockingly mediocre AL East, Toronto's offense, which sits behind only the Athletics and Rockies in runs scored this season, could be the separating factor in the division. The Blue Jays' big bats could carry them a long way, but with just a few games separating them from the Yankees and Orioles and their three top run producers all on the wrong side of 30, GM Alex Anthopolous has every reason to go big at this upcoming trade deadline. Recent injuries to key players like Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie have slowed them down heading into July and that only adds to the sense of urgency surrounding this team.
Are the Blue Jays Buyers or Sellers?
Toronto's division lead is far too small for the team to simply stand pat and there is no shortage of ways for the Blue Jays to improve. This team's spot at the top of the AL East doesn't appear to be just some early season fluke, but their struggles over the last two weeks are noteworthy. Since going 18-3 from May 15 to June 6, the Blue Jays have gone 7-15, allowing the Yankees and Orioles to remain well within striking distance as the trade talk begins to heat up. Thanks to the second Wild Card spot, even the Red Sox could end up buying at the deadline, leaving the second half competition even tougher for Toronto.
Most importantly, the Blue Jays need to take advantage of the window to win that is open now as much as any other playoff contender, if not more so. Jose Bautista is 33 and coming off a hamstring injury and Edwin Encarnacion is 31. Neither is showing any signs of slowing down, but time is certainly not on their side. Jose Reyes is still a valuable role player but age and injuries appear to be catching up to him. Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera and Casey Janssen are all headed to free agency after this season and ace Mark Buehrle and catcher Dioner Navarro will hit the market after the 2015 season. This is an old team that is only going to get older and while the Blue Jays farm system has a lot of intriguing talent, there are no few offensive stars sitting on the cusp of the majors. The Blue Jays will be buying and it would not be surprising to see them end as the most aggressive buyer out there as July 31 draws near.
After Toronto watched rookie Ryan Goins and zombie Chris Getz struggle miserably, Toronto experimented with moving Brett Lawrie from third over to second as well as handing over the majority of at bats at the position to career minor leaguer Steve Tolleson. With Lawrie injured Toronto is stuck with fringe major leaguers as options. The lovable but inept Munenori Kawasaki is currently at the top of the depth chart, but it is hard to imagine him staying there for very long. Tolleson posted some impressive numbers early on, but he has come back to earth lately and he possesses so many obvious flaws that it is hard to imagine that the Blue Jays would comfortable leaving him in the role on a daily basis from here on. His splits are extreme enough to be taken as a misprint. Against lefties he has hit 64 percent better than league average (by wRC+) and against righties he is 108 percent worse than average. Again, that is not a typo. His 27.6 percent strikeout rate is alarming for a player with little power. Tolleson is useful on the short side of a platoon, so a left-handed hitting second man like Chase Utley or Daniel Murphy would be an ideal fit here, Eyeing Lawrie's return, the Blue Jays have also been connected to third baseman Chase Headley of the Padres, so the solution at second could come in the form of a player at third as well.
Trade Liklihood: High
Starting pitching was the major question mark for Toronto at the start of the season, but so far it has been better than expected. Mark Buerhle has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season by ERA. R.A. Dickey has not been great, but he has been the kind of inning-eater the Blue Jays hoped he would be when they got him from the Mets. Drew Hutchinson has stepped up to give the Blue Jays a formidable number three starter and rookie Marcus Stroman has looked excellent through his first six major league starts. All in all, Toronto's rotation is eighth in the American league in ERA. Unfortunately, even this middling performance is not likely to hold up. The Blue Jay rotation is 13th in the league in FIP and 10th in xFIP. Internal options Aaron Sanchez could help, but Toronto shouldn't hang their chances at a division title on top prospects and continued over-performance alone. Landing one of the top arms on the market is probably going to be priority number one for the Blue Jays this July.
Trade Likelihood: High
One year ago, the bullpen was one of the Blue Jays' only redeeming qualities. Toronto relievers posted a 3.37 ERA in 2013, good for the fourth best mark in the American League. This season the same cast of characters has provided extremely different results. Casey Janssen has once again been excellent in the closer, but an oblique injury cost him the month of April and he has thrown just 17 innings so far this season. Sergio Santos has also battled injuries and when he has been on the mound, he has had serious issues with his control, leading to an ugly 6.9 BB/9 rate and a gaudy 20 percent HR/FB rate. Getting healthy should help this group tremendously, but adding another late-inning reliever to help bridge the gap from the rotation to Janssen makes sense as well. This bullpen's true talent probably lies between the extremes of the last two seasons and boosting that talent level could be the difference-maker in a tight pennant race.
Trade Likelihood: High
Pieces to Deal
Astros trade discussions leaked
Lucas Harrell for Lucas Giolito? Ichiro retiring in Houston? All of the top prospects for Bud Norris? Man, the Astros have been busy.
It is unlikely that the Blue Jays will part with either Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez for a short-term rental and that might mean the Blue Jays can't land a top pitcher like Jeff Samardzija or David Price. At this point, there appears to be "zero chance" that they will pony up the type of package teams are asking for top talent, but they could certainly make it happen if they wanted to. Even if they end up targeting guys like Jason Hammels and Justin Masterson, who will be free agents at the end of the season, it will be their young arms that teams want in return. Baseball America's Prospect Handbook had the Jays system ranked 15th prior to the start of the 2014 seasons, but noted that they have taken the high risk, high reward strategy and "turned it up to eleven," noting that this system "could be number one if it all comes together or No. 30 if high-ceiling, high risk prospects crash and burn." Apart from Stroman and Sanchez, some of the best arms on the Toronto farm are players like Alberto Tirado and Chase DeJong who are currently learning to find the plate in the lower levels, but the Blue Jays can also offers teams a guy with a more modest ceiling like Sean Nolin to deliver a lower, near MLB-ready arm to the mix. One name to watch in Blue Jays trade talks is Daniel Norris. The 21-year-old lefty recently moved up to Double-A after dominating High-A with a 10.3 K/9 and a 2.4 BB/9 rate in 13 starts. Norris strikes a good balance between risk and reward and should be the type of arm that teams are looking for at the top of a big deal this July. Toronto will be loathe to move him, but if they want to land a big piece without dealing Sanchez or Stroman, something will have to give. If teams on the other side drop their prices as time runs down, the Blue Jays probably won't pass on a key addition. Even if they only make a minor upgrade, they will probably need to include at east one young arm to get the deal done.
Trade Likelihood: High
.233/.347/.291, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 85 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR
Gose may well be the Blue Jays center fielder of the future, but Gose is also an excellent trade chip right now. He has an impact glove in center and he has a patient approach at the plate that could help him evolve into a plus-hitter if he ever manages to add some pop. With Rasmus heading to free agency at the end of the year, the Blue Jays might not want to move him, but he is exactly what many teams will want in return- a cost-controlled player with some major league experience and upside. Given the deals that Anthopolous made when trading for Dickey, Buehrle, and Reyes, it likely that he will send teams prospect-heavy packages that don't include any players that he is counting on in the near future, but Gose should draw enough interest to make the Jays front office think hard about his future in Toronto.