TORONTO — The Toronto Blue Jays locked up a key piece of the starting rotation for the 2018 season on Wednesday.
The one-year extension for Marco Estrada also indicates the team intends to contend next year rather than rebuild.
Estrada, who would have been eligible for free agency this off-season, will return on a US$13-million, one-year deal. He has been a steady presence in the rotation throughout most of his three seasons in Toronto.
"I'm extremely optimistic about our chances next year," Estrada said. "That was the main reason why I wanted to come back. I feel like things are about to happen for this team."
Estrada raced out to a hot start in 2017 before cooling considerably over the middle portion of the season. He regained his form in August and has continued to pitch well into September, allowing three earned runs or less in nine of his last 11 starts.
He has 170 strikeouts this year, surpassing his previous career high of 165 from 2016. Estrada is 9-8 with a 4.84 earned-run average over 31 starts this season and is 31-25 with a 3.81 ERA over three combined years as a Blue Jay.
"I knew in my heart I wanted to come back," he said. "It's the right move for me."
After back-to-back American League Championship Series appearances, the Blue Jays have struggled this season. Toronto took a 71-80 record into Wednesday night's home game against the Kansas City Royals.
Estrada, a 34-year-old right-hander, is expected to slot into a 2018 rotation with Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ. Joe Biagini and a host of other candidates are expected to battle for the fifth spot.
Estrada made three playoff starts in each of the last two years, posting a 2-1 record with a 2.33 ERA in 2015 and a 1-2 mark and 2.01 ERA last year.
General manager Ross Atkins said Estrada is an "incredible teammate" and proven performer.
"One of the things that's most exciting about Marco to probably all potential 30 teams that would look to acquire someone like himself, is his ability to be the exact same or better in playoff scenarios, which he's done for us," Atkins said.
Estrada initially came to Toronto in an off-season trade with the Brewers that sent first baseman Adam Lind to Milwaukee in 2014. The Blue Jays re-signed Estrada to a two-year deal before the 2016 season.
His run of consistent form was interrupted this summer by an extended mid-season slump. Estrada said he was dealing with some personal issues — now resolved — and felt like himself again on the mound once he had a clear head.
"I feel that month and a half this year where I was really bad, I was dealing with a few things," he said at a pre-game media availability. "It happened, I got over it. Once I got over that, I've turned things around ever since.
"I know that I can do that for these guys for an entire year. That's why they believe in me and wanted to bring me back to this team."
Estrada, who made his big-league debut in 2008 with Washington, was 13-8 in 2015 and fifth in the AL with a 3.13 ERA. He earned his first all-star nod last year and finished with a 9-9 mark and 3.48 ERA.
Over 10 big-league seasons in Toronto, Washington and Milwaukee, Estrada has a 54-51 record and 4.02 ERA.
He has cleared the 175-inning plateau in each of his three seasons with the Blue Jays.
"We had a really good team this year, there was a lot of injuries," Estrada said. "These things happen and who's to say those things don't happen again this year. But if we stay healthy, we're going to be in the mix of things.
"And from what I'm hearing, it sounds like a positive things are going to be made for this team. I feel this is the start of it, just bringing me back. I know I can help these guys out."
With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Melissa Couto.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press