Should The Toronto Blue Jays Consider Moving A Starting Pitcher?

by Brendan Panikkar | Posted on Tuesday, November 15th, 2016
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Joe Biagini will likely be stretched out for 2017 Spring Training.

Joe Biagini will likely be stretched out for 2017 Spring Training.

The free agent class of 2016-2017 for free agent starting pitchers is extremely weak. It got even weaker when Jeremy Hellickson decided to agree to the Philadelphia Phillies qualifying offer which pays him $17.2 million for 2017. That takes Hellickson off the free agent market which further weakens the free agent crop of starting pitchers. Let’s first look at who MLB Trade Rumors has listed in the Top 50 free agents available (rankings beside each player are reflective of where they fall among relievers and position players):

If you remove Hellickson, Wood, Colon, and Dickey, the crop of free agent starters gets extremely thin. Ivan Nova was “fixed” by Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage when he went to the Pirates much like when J.A Happ went to Pittsburgh in 2015. Hill and Cashner both have strong potential to be maybe in the top 3 of a rotation but both have a strong injury history with both. Edinson Volquez was nowhere near the guy with the Pirates and Royals of the past few years and Jason Hammel as well as Derek Holland are both average at best.

Names not included on that list of top 50 free agents that I feel could be signed to a 1-3 year deal include the likes of:

All of these names are heading towards the end of their careers or riddled with injuries. All come with asterisks including the names listed above that were featured in the Top 50 list by MLBTR (MLB Trade Rumors). By now, you probably can see just how weak the free agent class of starting pitchers are which makes the potential for big time trades to occur this off-season. Already mentioned being “available” are the likes of Chris SaleChris Archer, and Sonny Gray. Those names would all get a massive haul in return for the clubs that could move them.

That brings us to the point where I think it could be smart for the Toronto Blue Jays to maybe consider moving a starting pitcher to capitalize on the weak free agent class to get a bat, back end of the bullpen reliever, or prospects to replenish the farm system, something both GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro feel needs to happen. The Blue Jays are now going to benefit strongly from keeping rookie and rule 5 phenom Joe Biagini for a full season.

Joe Biagini will now have options available to the Blue Jays disposal to take advantage of. The team has already expressed that going into Spring Training 2017 that Biagini will likely be stretched out to see how he plays as a starter in the spring. This makes complete sense. If Biagini does not impress as starter in the spring, he is inserted back into the back of the Blue Jays bullpen to pitch in high leverage situations again. If he impresses, depending on other moves made, Biagini could be sent to AAA Buffalo to be used as starting pitching depth for a team that needs depth in the system with the lack of arms behind the current starting 5. Essentially, Biagini could be last years Drew Hutchison, who was later traded for Francisco Liriano.

If the Blue Jays go ahead and think that Biagini could start in 2017, perhaps they consider moving an arm from the current 5 in the rotation. Let’s look at who could be moved starting with the most likely to least likely. This list does not include Aaron Sanchez for obvious reasons.

  1. Marco Estrada

I love Marco Estrada. He is quietly one of the MLB’s most dominant starting pitchers and he clearly loves being in Toronto by re-signing with the team last off-season. Estrada’s changeup is probably the best in the MLB and as a Blue Jay the past two seasons, is among the tops in BAA (batting average against).

Estrada has 1 year left on his deal for $14 million. The fact that Estrada would come at a very good price for the production you’d get would make him attractive to move for a team needing to find an upper echelon starting pitcher. The term of his deal will scare teams away seeing as they would only have Estrada for 1 season meaning the return may not be worth the Blue Jays moving him.

2. J.A. Happ

J.A. Happ came back for a second stint in Toronto after signing a 3 year deal worth $33 million. Happ wanted to come back to Toronto due to his strong relationship with pitching coach Pete Walker. At the time of the signing, many criticized the move because of the fanbases strong desire and infatuation with David Price. Happ rewarded the Blue Jays by posting a 20 win season.

Happ is a strong candidate for some regression. Almost nobody would bet on Happ having another 20 win season but there is nothing in Happ’s sabermetric stats to suggest he can’t be a middle of the rotation guy at worse. Happ is cheaper than Estrada at $11 million per season for the next 2 years. Teams inquiring about Happ would be attracted to his 2 year term and $22 million owed to him. That’s a steal. In my mind, Happ would bring in about the same return as Estrada. Estrada is the better pitcher and Happ likely will regress in 2017 but Happ’s term and price would net a decent return. It may not be enough to entice the Blue Jays to make a move.

3. Francisco Liriano

Frankie Liriano came to the Blue Jays after a very underwhelming season with the Pirates. Liriano was nowhere near the dominant starter he was the previous 3 seasons with the Pirates but his upside cannot be questioned. When you get Liriano in the strikezone, he really does have some of the most electric stuff in the MLB.

Liriano looked a lot closer to the Liriano of his glory days with the Pirates which could bode well for Toronto in 2017. If Liriano is close to where he was with the Pirates, he is an ace calibre starting pitcher. This is the final year of Liriano’s deal and teams would likely be scared of his inability to locate his stuff without the aid of Russell Martin behind the plate. That being said, I highly doubt Liriano would be moved but his upside could tempt a team to pull the trigger and assume the risk he will either be dominant or not effective at all.

4. Marcus Stroman

There are some folk that think maybe the Blue Jays would move Marcus Stroman. This is very interesting to me because Stroman is only 25 years old and under team control for the foreseeable future meaning the return the Blue Jays could seek and maybe get could be similar to Chris Archer.

Stroman was expected to do BIG things for the Blue Jays in 2016 but he wasn’t close to that. He started strong, had a very rough middle of the season, and got closer to the Stroman Blue Jays fans expected in the second half of the season which included a very strong start in the Wild Card game against the Baltimore Orioles.

The upside Stroman has puts him right behind Aaron Sanchez going forward for the next 3-4 years. Stroman does have potential to be a dominant starter and his stuff is very good. However, if the Blue Jays wanted to be bold and get a solid haul in position players or a dominant reliever for next year and beyond, Stroman is the guy you move. However, moving Stroman could put the team in a hole after 2017 if Estrada is not brought back and the all but certain departure of Frankie Liriano. Moving Stroman likely will NOT happen but I’d sure dangle him to see what kind of return you would get.

In summary, Joe Biagini is the X-Factor in this whole hypothetical situation of moving a starter. Keep in mind the Blue Jays brass strongly believes that this team will yet again be in the 2017 post-season and what got them there in 2016 was on of the best starting rotations in all of baseball. That would mean it may be silly to even consider moving one of these 4 arms behind Aaron Sanchez. Joe Biagini was a starter his whole MiLB career with the San Francisco Giants and as we saw in 2016 out of the bullpen, has two plus pitches with a 3rd potentially on the way which plays strongly to Biagini starting in the future.

Personally, I do not see the Blue Jays moving a starter this off-season but the results of Biagini as a starter in Spring Training could set the Blue Jays down the road of moving Happ, Estrada, or Liriano in the spring to a team who still has a gaping hole in their rotation or an injury in the spring. The return for those three could be a bat or reliever that would immediately be inserted into the Blue Jays every day bullpen or starting lineup.

If Marcus Stroman is moved, it’s during this off-season and before Spring Training. That would only happen if the Blue Jays commit to inserting Biagini into the rotation for 2017 which I think they’re not prepared to do once they see him as a starter in the spring.

If the results are good, Biagini opens as the #5 starter which would see one of Marco Estrada, J.A Happ, or Francisco Liriano being dealt. High risk, but potentially very worth it. Do I think it happens? No. But it is extremely worth it and tempting to see what you can get for one of the 4 this off-season or one of the three not named Sanchez or Stroman in Spring Training.

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Brendan Panikkar
About the Author

Brendan Panikkar is a graduate of Brock University's Sport Management program. Currently, he is the Vice-President, Customer Service at North Aware. He loves all sports but baseball and football take precedent over hockey and basketball. Teams: Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Argonauts, San Francisco 49ers, Toronto Raptors

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