Toronto Blue Jays prospects draw interest as trade deadline nears

Two of the Blue Jays’ best pitching prospects started in the minors on Tuesday — and the scouting presence at both games strongly indicated that rival clubs expect the Jays to be serious buyers.

High-ranking officials from the Padres, Marlins, Reds, Phillies and Athletics saw right-hander Jeff Hoffman pitch for the Jays’ Single-A Dunedin affiliate, according to major-league sources.

Meanwhile, in Rochester, N.Y., scouts from the Padres, Dodgers, Reds, White Sox and Cubs saw left-hander Daniel Norris pitch for the Jays’ Triple-A Buffalo club.

These things aren’t always what they seem — both Chicago teams routinely staff games in Rochester, sources say. The Reds’ presence for Hoffman’s start was not necessarily unusual, either — he was pitching against the team’s affiliate in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Still, the Padres had not one but two high-ranking officials watch Hoffman, and they scouted Norris as well. The Reds, coincidentally or not, also saw both pitchers. And almost all of the other teams that scouted the Jays’ minor leaguers could end up moving high-quality starting pitchers or relievers.

Forget Phillies lefty Cole Hamels — many in the industry doubt that he would approve a trade to the Jays, despite his recent comments about being open-minded even to teams on his no-trade list.

But the White Sox’s Jeff Samardzija, Athletics’ Scott Kazmir and Reds’ Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman likely are drawing the Jays’ interest (though Kazmir left his start in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night with left triceps tightness).

And the Padres, well, as FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi wrote, "Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos, who has a history of trades involving large numbers of players, could address both his primary needs by acquiring (Craig) Kimbrel and one of the (Padres’ starters)."

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Those starters include right-handers James Shields, Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner. The Padres also could trade relievers Joaquin Benoit and Shawn Kelley, both of whom are in the final years of contracts, not to mention position players such as left fielder Justin Upton.

While the Pads have not officially decided on their direction, one rival executive says he expects them "to sell as hard as they bought" last offseason. Kimbrel, under club control through 2018, already is drawing significant interest, sources say.

The good news for the Jays: They are deep enough in prospects to land Kimbrel, as well as others. The bad news: Due to renewed payroll concerns, they might need to part with some of their better youngsters.

A year ago, the Jays told potential trade partners that they would need cash to help cover the salaries of any high-priced acquisitions. They wound up making only one minor deal, acquiring third baseman Danny Valencia from the Royals for pitcher Liam Hendriks and catcher Erik Kratz.

The team is in a more flexible position this season, but still will require cash back in deals, sources say. Which is why Norris and Hoffman, two of the team’s top three prospects entering the season according to Baseball America, could be in play.

The non-waiver deadline is more than three weeks away. The Jays are casting a wide net in their search for pitching. They’re serious buyers, it would appear. How serious, we soon will find out.

For all the talk about Cueto, Chapman and right-hander Mike Leake, some around the Reds believe that right fielder Jay Bruce is as good a bet as anyone to be traded.

Bruce, 28, rejected a pair of extension offers from the team last season. Catcher Devin Mesoraco, coming off surgery on his left hip, could end up in the outfield next season. So, if the Reds move Bruce (along with potential free agent Marlon Byrd), they might be short only one outfielder in 2016.

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In today’s market, Bruce’s contract is relatively reasonable — he is guaranteed $12 million this season and $12.5 million next season, with a $13 million club option for 2017.

Bruce had a .713 OPS in April, but improved that to .754 in May, .840 in June and .925 thus far in July. His contract gives him the right to reject trades to eight clubs.

The Twins’ primary concern is their bullpen, and they’re doing their due diligence in exploring possible upgrades, sources say. Among their potential targets: The Padres’ Benoit.

The Rays are among the teams that would love to upgrade at catcher — the Mariners are the only major-league team with a lower OPS at the position. Catchers, though, are scarce, and any team that acquires one risks a defensive tradeoff for any offensive boost.

The three Braves most likely to move, according to a source: Outfielder Jonny Gomes, closer Jason Grilli and third baseman Chris Johnson. Gomes, though, is batting only .204 with a .633 OPS.