Coming into this offseason Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins has made it very clear that improving the club’s pitching staff is the priority.
That makes sense considering the team’s position-player depth chart is packed, even after the departure of Yangervis Solarte. The rotation, however, is undoubtedly thin with J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada hitting free agency.
As it stands, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez have the first two places locked up. Ryan Borucki is good for another spot. Beyond that you have the talented, but far from polished, Sean Reid-Foley and Sam Gaviglio, who’s more of a sixth or seventh starter type.
There’s definitely work to be done, and perhaps the easiest way to do it is through free agency and that only only costs money, of which the Blue Jays have some with Happ, Estrada and Josh Donaldson coming off the books.
Here are a few guys they could go after to round out their top five:
The Long-Term Play: Yusei Kikuchi
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Slider, Curveball
Fastball Velocity: 92-94 mph, topping out at 96
2018 stats (NPB): 8.4 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 3.06 ERA in 163.2 IP
How it works: Kikuchi will generate tonnes of interest league-wide, and the chances of the Blue Jays landing him is frankly slim. That said, he’s one of the few players available who might makes sense for the team on a long-term deal.
The Japanese southpaw is young enough that the majority of his deal would come in Toronto’s theoretical window of contention and perhaps he could use the lower-stakes of 2019 to adjust to the MLB level. Although Kikuchi doesn’t project as an ace in the Yu Darvish or Shohei Ohtani mold, he still has the look of a second or third starter. Considering Stroman and Sanchez are both free agents after 2020, it would be nice for the Blue Jays to have a core rotation piece pencilled in for the foreseeable future.
The Improbable Comeback: Clay Buchholz
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Two-Seam Fastball, Cutter, Changeup, Curveball
Fastball Velocity: 90.2 mph
2018 stats: 7.41 K/9, 2.01 BB/9, 0.82 HR/9, 2.01 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 98.1 IP
How it works: Buchholz looked done in 2016 and barely pitched in 2017, but he was awfully good last year. The 34-year-old is both a performance and an injury risk, but he’s exactly the kind of guy who the Blue Jays could sign on an affordable one-year deal and turn into a decent trade deadline chip if he holds up.
That’s far from a certainty, especially considering he’s coming off an elbow injury that required a PRP injection. Last year he wasn’t nearly as dominant as his sparkling ERA indicated either, but even by the far-less-kind xFIP his 4.01 ERA was pretty solid. Though is stuff isn’t what it once was, Buchholz has a diverse repertoire and the savvy to keep hitters off balance, and his cutter can still be a weapon. The former Red Sox rotation staple wouldn’t be a smart bet for a true contender, but the Blue Jays are exactly the type of team that could profit from giving the oft-injured hurler a shot.
Old Faithful: J.A. Happ
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Two-Seam Fastball, Changeup, Slider
Fastball Velocity: 92.0 mph
2018 stats: 9.78 K/9, 2.58 BB/9, 1.37 HR/9, 3.65 ERA and 3.98 FIP in 177.2 IP
How it works: Happ is exceedingly consistent, his stuff hasn’t diminished in his mid-thirties, and there is some mutual interest in a reunion. If the Blue Jays were to bring Happ back, they’d need to consider him a trade candidate again, though.
Locking in a 36-year-old with the intention of just keeping him isn’t logical for a club that isn’t contending yet. If he’s brought back as a rotation-steadying presence who can be converted in to young controllable assets, that makes sense. Otherwise, the appeal is more sentimental than rational.
On the other side of the coin, Happ may only want to return if he has some no-trade protections because the point of signing in Toronto for him would be that he likes playing in Toronto. That makes this a tricky needle to thread, but we know it’s at least been discussed.
The Fun Option: Bartolo Colon
Arsenal: Four-seam Fastball, Two-Seam Fastball, Cutter, Changeup, Slider
Fastball Velocity: 87.4 mph
2018 stats: 4.98 K/9, 1.54 BB/9, 1.97 HR/9, 5.78 ERA and 5.47 FIP in 146.1IP
How it works: Colon is no longer good, nor is he the best pitcher available to the Blue Jays in free agency. However, for a team that’s not necessarily looking to maximize 2019 wins that’s OK.
“Big Sexy” could provide something of a gate attraction, an ample supply of veteran presence, and more than a few innings at a discount rate. He’s not going to take this team to the next level, nor is he a potentially-valuable trade chip, but he would make the 2019 Blue Jays a little more fun. That doesn’t tend to be a big team-building consideration, but when you’ve got as big an uphill climb to contention as Toronto does it ought to be.
More Blue Jays coverage from Yahoo Sports Canada: