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2016 MLB Trade Deadline Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

The path to contention has been long. With a beleaguered farm, do the Jays have enough to continue?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Press Conference Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach August 1, we will preview what each team is projected to do in advance of the non-waiver trade deadline. For a complete listing of our previews, click here.
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Toronto Blue Jays: 43-38, 3rd in the AL East

Since shuffling some office chairs around this offseason, things have seemed to quiet down around Canada’s team.

Much has been made of the past 12 months surrounding the Blue Jays. On his way out the door, Alex Anthopoulos—the former general manager—made franchise-altering deals that resulted in the Blue Jays breaking a two decades long postseason drought.

By this time though, the team had already appointed the executive that would helm the new front office: Mark Shapiro. The Blue Jays went from looking feeble under the previous regime to looking like contenders because of moves that regime had made—all the while the dawn of a new era was stepping in and it all left a weird taste in the mouths of many fans. Transitions just aren’t supposed to happen this way.

The offseason commences, Anthopoulos officially rejects a half-hearted attempt to retain his services, and Shapiro hires Ross Atkins—a former colleague with the Cleveland Indians—as the Blue Jays’ new general manager.

Where does that leave us now? The Blue Jays currently sit in the middle of a tough pennant race that includes at least the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles, if not the entire division. They are also sitting near the bottom of the league in farm system depth with an eclectic group of major league assets. All of this has put the focus largely back on the baseball team. Though it has also surfaced some mixed feelings about the previous regime—it’s no longer so rosy back then, the whimsy has subsided.

Despite a batting lineup that looks like an older version of the Chicago Cubs, the Jays feel like they are in contender-pretender purgatory at the moment, straddling the line between going for it and selling at least some assets for farm help. For now, though, the team seems focused on postseason contention.

What moves have they made so far?

Three moves have been made this season, but only one helps to illustrate the desire to contend. In minor moves, the Jays traded away Wade LeBlanc and Jimmy Paredes to the Mariners and Phillies, respectively, for cash considerations or players to be named later.

The biggest deal the Jays have made though was for the 39-year old reliever, Jason Grilli. By parting with a minor-leaguer, the Blue Jays took what seems like no risk at all at bolstering a faltering bullpen. Boasting a surprise rotation that works late into games, the Blue Jays weren’t even needing to rely that heavily on their bullpen.

In fact, the Blue Jays’ bullpen has thrown the fewest innings of any American League team. While the margin between them and the 14th-place Indians is negligible, Blue Jays relievers have thrown 20 fewer innings than the team with the 13th-most relief innings pitched. That’s a wide margin.

All this is to say, with the bullpen not getting taxed as much, one would assume their performance would benefit. Instead though, Blue Jays relievers have the 11th-best FIP in the AL. In 2015, it was sixth-best and the cast has largely stayed the same, only really making additions.

The offseason acquisition of Drew Storen just hasn’t seemed to pan out. Furthermore, their key lefty, Brett Cecil, just hasn’t been his previous self while battling some injuries. Grilli then has been a very welcome addition to one part of the team that needed the most urgent care.

Are they buyers or sellers?

Coming off of the 2015 deadline, it’s important for fans to know that a pair of blockbusters probably aren’t in the cards. Fans expecting deals for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki will be disappointed. That being said, there’s still reason for elation.

First of all, a Price and a Tulowitzki might not even be available this year. The upcoming offseason is markedly weak in pitching talent, and the Boston Red Sox are reportedly having trouble adding any elite starting pitching.

Second, the lack of farm depth severely hampers the Jays’ ability to replicate that success. Not only could a Price-like pitcher not be available, but Daniel Norris and Jeff Hoffman-like prospects are no longer plentiful in the minors.

If a blockbuster is shaken down by Atkins in the vain of contention, it would likely include top farm hands such as Anthony Alford—the 21-year old outfield prospect currently stationed at High-A Dunedin. Other trade chips could include outfielder Dalton Pompey, while opposing teams could be asking for the 17-year old outfield prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

More realistically though—based on track record—the new regime would prefer to retain controllable assets like Alford, Pompey, and Guerrero Jr. Instead then, Storen’s name has popped up in trade rumors, though it is unclear what type of asset would come back in such a deal. Honestly though, teams in contention don’t frequently trade away depth relievers at what could be a suppressed cost due to his recent performance. The Blue Jays likely prefer to retain Storen unless the right price comes around.

The resurgence of Darwin Barney in tandem with the return of Devon Travis could make Ryan Goins an expendable asset as well. Known as a plus defender, Goins could be a good bench asset for a team looking for late-inning defense.

The Blue Jays will probably be hesitant buyers this deadline; looking for low cost additions in hopes that that’s enough of a push.

Who will they target?

Heading into the season, the Blue Jays seemed weakest at starting pitching. However, that hasn’t been as big of a weakness as some would have guessed. They’ve worked late into games and are right in the middle of the American League by FIP. If pitching depth was their major concern, why would the team deal away Wade LeBlanc so readily?

That being said, Marcus Stroman’s recent struggles may have caused a need to add some extra depth. The team has Drew Hutchison with Triple-A Buffalo, but seem to prefer to not use him. Furthermore, Aaron Sanchez—their best starter this year—is on an innings limit and will be converted to the bullpen some time in the second half of the season.

Furthermore, it appeared earlier this season that the Jays were looking for outfield depth. Specifically, exploring the availability of Padres’ outfielder Jon Jay. His forearm injury may have complicated the chances of that going through now though. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the Blue Jays were interested in the first place.

Outfield depth is a bit puzzling of a thing to add for the Blue Jays. Kevin Pillar is a mainstay in center field while Michael Saunders and Jose Bautista usually man the corner spots. Bautista is currently injured and Ezequiel Carrera is covering right field at the moment. Of course, none of the Blue Jays outfield options seem like adequate cover in the event of an injury to Pillar, as there isn’t a lot of center field experience between them.

Predictions

By Baseball Prospectus’ third-order win percentage—a measure of a team’s run differential—the Blue Jays are in second-place in the division. This suggests the team has suffered some bad luck and should have roughly two extra wins. If this trend continues though, we should suspect the 162-game season to bring this difference to fruition, and the Jays to perform slightly better than their actual win percentage suggest.

In all likelihood, the Blue Jays will look to buy this deadline. Staying in contention in the AL East will be no easy feat down the stretch. The Red Sox and Orioles will be looking to add, and the Jays might not be able to afford standing pat.