Let’s imagine the Blue Jays still look formidable a month from now, formidable enough to justify a trade for the top-of-the-rotation starter that most everyone in the sport thinks they need.
Someone like Cubs right-hander Jeff Samardzija or Rays left-hander David Price. Royals righty James Shields, in the outside chance that he becomes available. Phillies lefty Cliff Lee, if he returns from a strained left elbow in time to demonstrate that he is healthy to justify swallowing (gulp) the rest of his contract.
I’m getting ahead of myself — the Jays are 1-3 since a 20-4 run that followed an 18-20 start. But the Jays’ offense, at least, is legitimate, and should get even stronger if center fielder Colby Rasmus returns on schedule next week from his right hamstring injury. Besides, which team exactly is going to blow past the Jays in the AL East? The Yankees? The Red Sox? The Rays?
No, the division appears weaker than it has been since at least 2000, when the Yankees finished first with 87 wins. And while a lot can happen in the seven weeks leading to the July 31 non-waiver deadline, I’ll be surprised if the Jays suddenly blow their chance to seize their first postseason appearance in 21 years.
They’re going to need a starter, and I’m not talking about right-hander Brandon Morrow, who could — repeat could — return from a torn tendon sheath in his right hand by the end of July. No, I’m talking about someone to pitch Game 1 of a postseason series, a genuine difference-maker, a front-of-the-line monster.
To this point, Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos has indicated that he would prefer to acquire a “rental,” a pitcher whom the team would control — and pay — only for the rest of the season. But if the Jays remain in contention, Anthopoulos would be foolish to limit himself to the rental market, which probably will not be all that fertile, anyway.
Shields would be a perfect fit, given his past success in the AL East — but barring an outright collapse the Royals are not going to sell. Ditto for the Indians, who are sitting on their own potential free agent, righty Justin Masterson. Cubs righty Jason Hammel? Sure, he’ll get moved. But the Jays should aim higher.
Samardzija and Price, both of whom are free agents after the 2015 season, are the real prizes of this market. Lee could be, too, but even if he returns next month, he still would be a 35-year-old coming off elbow trouble owed more than $45 million, including a $12.5 million buyout on a $25 million option for 2016.
The Jays actually pursued both Samardzija and Price last offseason, but neither was traded. As I reported previously, the Jays’ talks for Samardzija stalled when the Cubs asked for righty Drew Hutchison plus one of Toronto’s top two pitching prospects, righty Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez. The Rays likely wanted even more for Price, and those discussions, too, failed to advance.
In retrospect, trading 11 combined years of control over Hutchison and Stroman or Sanchez for two of Samardzija would have been short-sighted, particularly since the Jays parted with three starting pitchers in their blockbuster with the Marlins and righty Noah Syndergaard in their R.A. Dickey deal with the Mets.
The difference now is the Jays’ improved position in the standings. The acquisition cost for Samardzija seemingly would be lower than it was last winter; every start he makes for the Cubs is one that he is not making for his next team. On the other hand, Samardzija has boosted his value significantly since posting a 4.72 ERA after the All-Star Game last season. So far this season, he ranks 12th in the majors with a 2.54 ERA.
American League clubs such as Toronto still might regard Samardzija warily; the two starters that the Cubs traded last July, righties Matt Garza and Scott Feldman, both performed worse in the AL. If the Jays view Samardzija as say, only a No. 3 starter in the AL East, they again will be reluctant to part with top young pitching talent.
Keep in mind: The values of Hutchison, Stroman and Sanchez to the Jays only have increased since last winter. Hutchison has been the team’s second-best starter, Stroman recently moved into the rotation and Sanchez is expected to reach Triple A soon.
The Jays, as they did with Syndergaard, would rather trade pitchers who aren’t as close to the majors — Class-A lefty Daniel Norris, their No. 6 prospect according to Baseball America, is one who would qualify. But the Cubs aren’t going to settle for A-ball prospects for Samardzija, and the Rays surely won’t accept such players for Price. No, those clubs are going to want major league-ready talent.
Price, in many ways, is the perfect fit for the Jays, even though his velocity is down, his ERA is up and his salary next season, in his final year of arbitration, figures to jump from $14 million to at least $18 million.
Prior to this season, Price had a 2.96 ERA in 74 career appearances against the AL East (73 starts). While his ERA within the division this season is 4.58 in six starts, he’s still only 28 and evidently doing something right — he leads the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Could the Jays afford Price next season? Good question, considering that they only could manage a $14 million offer to free-agent right-hander Ervin Santana in spring training after five of their veterans agreed to defer salary.
Would the Rays trade Price within the division? It probably wouldn’t be their first choice, but if the Jays offered the best package, the Rays would be silly to say no. The Jays actually would stand a greater risk of getting burned in such a deal; they would face the players they traded for considerably longer than the Rays would face Price, who almost certainly would hit the open market after ’15.
I know, I know — I’m getting ahead of myself, particularly when the Jays, with their supposedly all-world offense, have been shut out in three of their past four games.
Maybe in the end the Jays won’t be good enough to justify trying to acquire a Samardzija or Price. My guess, though, is that this discussion will become even more intense and pointed in July.
The Jays won’t be talking only about rentals then.