Blue Jays fall to Cardinals as front office mulls trade deadline options

TORONTO — Less than a week out from the Aug. 2 trade deadline, “the prices feel very high” for available talent, says Toronto Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins. That’s not atypical when there’s still runway remaining to the cut-off line. Buyers and sellers have time to test one another’s pressure points, await a market-setting deal or two, and play out the process in search of the best deal possible.

“Right now, in order to move quickly,” added Atkins, “you’re probably going to pay a premium.”

The Blue Jays, even after a 6-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday night ended their seven-game winning streak, aren’t in a position where they have to jump. The damage from the 1-9 stretch that helped seal the fate of former manager Charlie Montoyo has been undone by a 9-2 run since and their situation has largely stabilized.

Clear needs remain, but as the market develops (the New York Yankees struck first, acquiring Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi), the Blue Jays are debating internally how best to augment their group. Does going all out for a starter like Luis Castillo or Frankie Montas deliver the most impact? Load up for one, if not two, impact relievers and move toward an elite bullpen? Go nuts and get Juan Soto, even if he’s walking after 2024, pitching be damned?

Despite sacrificing their 2020 and 2021 first-round picks in future-for-present deals last summer (Jose Berrios) and this spring (Matt Chapman), the Blue Jays still have the prospect capital to make more deals. Their players have “done an incredible job to put themselves in a position where we need to think about that,” said Atkins. To reward that effort and spur the group along, they’ll need to do more than just think about it before next Tuesday.

“We feel good about the depth,” Atkins said of his team’s farm system. “You never feel good about subtracting (prospects), but we feel like we’re in a good position to be able to make a decision if it makes sense for us.”

What makes sense for them, to some extent, will be determined by what the market presents.

But it’s not strictly coincidence that Yusei Kikuchi is parachuting back into the starting rotation Thursday, when the Blue Jays could have waited until Saturday. Having at least a small indicator of how much the enigmatic lefty can be counted on will certainly inform their decision-making.

There is some optimism about the changes Kikcuhi’s made while on the injured list — notably in stabilizing his release point, using his athleticism more in his delivery, nailing down a consistent slider — and if he can just consistently be a five-inning, four-run guy, that will be enough.

At the same time, with Hyun Jin Ryu done for the season, Ross Stripling already in the rotation and Max Castillo seemingly the last line of defence, adding to the rotation seems wise.

Whether it needs to be a Luis Castillo/Montas level add is another matter, but the action is hot on even down-market starters with supply thin. Someone in the Chad Kuhl/Drew Smyly mold could make sense, as long as it didn’t cut the Blue Jays off from adding to the bullpen.

A case can be made that even with the Kikuchi uncertainty, adding more whiff to a bullpen that is 18th in the majors with an 8.69 strikeouts-per-nine rate, the sixth-highest homers-per nine at 1.24 and a collective 1.1 WAR, as calculated by Fangraphs, that’s tied for 22nd, is a bigger priority.

Atkins noted that “swing and miss is definitely effective, and I think that would be the one area where if we could add more swing and miss, that would be a positive.”

There’s the possibility for internal help in that regard, too, with Julian Merryweather throwing bullpens, Nate Pearson throwing at 60 feet and prospects like Hayden Juenger, recently promoted to triple-A Buffalo, and Yosver Zulueta, at double-A New Hampshire, making progress.

Counting on any of them may not be responsible, especially with no more August waiver period. Kikuchi, Merryweather and Pearson are talents, but at the moment tantalizing ones.

“We think about how can we support them, how can we put them into the best possible position to provide depth for us,” said Atkins. “But we have to think about how we can also provide depth externally, as well.”

Deepening the bullpen (how about a reunion with 2020 set-up man Anthony Bass?) would allow current relievers to play down a role, giving interim manager John Schneider more options earlier in the game.

An example of how that could play came in the fifth inning Wednesday, when Kevin Gausman had two runners on with two outs and Albert Pujols coming up. Schneider in this case went to Trevor Richards, who ended up surrendering a three-run homer that put the Cardinals up 6-1, so the move in this instance backfired.

“It’s a tough call, Gausman is obviously one of our guys,” said Schneider. “Just trying to feel out with how he was going, where his location was. Obviously we like his velo a little bit more against Albert. He was having a little trouble sticking it at the top of the zone tonight. So it kind of just worked out to where a fresh arm seemed like the best option. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Scheneider noted that Richards has pitched well of late and it’s true. But what if David Phelps or Adam Cimber, say, weren’t needed later and could pitch in that spot? Having multiple relievers adept at extinguishing fires allows for the type of creative bullpen usage that tends to play in the post-season. It’s a way to help the Blue Jays both get there now and succeed there later.

“We base it of how the game is going, with who we have available,” Schneider said of identifying relievers for such situations. “Liked that match-up honestly. I’ve said it a lot, where you’re trying to just put guys into a three-hitter pocket where they’re going to have success and it was just a mis-executed pitch from Trevor. It’s something we would do again and we have multiple guys that we trust in that spot.”

Either way, focusing resources on bolstering the bullpen rather than going all out to boost an offense that’s already dominating might make the most sense.

“Making incremental improvements, even, to our position-player roster isn’t the easiest thing to do,” noted Atkins, so unless they’re adding elite impact like Soto, or a mid-tier talent like Ian Happ (a switch- hitter who offers another left-handed option), better bang for their prospect buck probably comes elsewhere, especially if that prevents them from adding pitching.

That outlook among the Blue Jays isn’t unanimous and they may ultimately be faced with locking down the most consequential set of moves possible. One way or another, decision time looms, high prices or not.

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