Reminiscent of 2016, when the Toronto Blue Jays won 89 games and eventually advanced to the American Championship League Series, the front office decided against using too much of its prospect capital in deadline deals. Instead, general manager Ross Atkins opted for a similar approach; acquiring low-risk players (Francisco Liriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Melvin Upton) without blowing it up.
Two of the three worked out great down the stretch, as Benoit and Liriano proved to be worthy acquisitions at the time. This season, overseeing a highly motivated group with playoff aspirations, Atkins did much of the same in terms of philosophy, trading for three rental players (Taijuan Walker, Robbie Ray and Jonathan Villar) with Dan Vogelbach* and Ross Stripling under team control beyond next year. Walker, one of the most coveted rental pitchers on the market, looked good in his Blue Jays debut and could be used out of the bullpen once, and if Matt Shoemaker returns from the IL.
*Vogelbach was designated for assignment on Tuesday
In Ray and Stripling, the front office targeted two guys with good track records both in the middle of putrid single-season performances. Walks, home runs allowed and inflated ERAs led to the Blue Jays giving up very little in terms of value with the replaceable Travis Bergen heading to Arizona. For Stripling, the Blue Jays gave up a bit more, reportedly sending pitching prospect Kendall Williams and another player to be named later to the Dodgers. Williams was widely ranked among the club’s top 15 prospects entering the year, likely included because Stripling is not a rental.
It’s not pretty. Ray is striking a ton of guys out, which is a great sign if you’re the Blue Jays and pitching coach Pete Walker. The velocity is in tact and the spin rates are in elite territory. The southpaw looked as advertised in his debut on Tuesday, striking out the first batter he faced on three pitches, giving up a home run one at-bat later.
His pitch usage is pretty much the same compared to past years with Ray’s off-speed stuff generating the most swing-and-miss. Ray admitted to altering his arm action this season, telling reporters on Tuesday night he’s now staying away from that completely with hopes of returning to his old self.
“Obviously it’s no secret I had trouble with that,” Ray said. “So that was an adjustment that I needed to make. I should have made it earlier, but I didn’t and hindsight’s 20–20, but I feel really comfortable with where my arm is at right now.”
Ray hasn’t been a near 3-win pitcher for no reason. There’s tantalizing upside here and if he can’t figure it out as a starter, there’s a chance the Blue Jays look to him as a reliever, much like they did in his debut.
Stripling has been an analytics darling for years pitching effectively as a starter and reliever behind Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler and current Blue Jays teammate Hyun Jin Ryu. At first glance, Stripling may just resemble a minor depth move for the Blue Jays and because of his current struggles, he is, but like Ray, there’s a lot to like about his profile.
Entering the shortened season, this is what FanGraphs Alex Chamberlain had to say about him.
“For nearly any other team, Stripling might be a no. 2 starter rather than a no. 5. He profiles similarly but not identically one of this offseason’s most-desired free agents, Zack Wheeler, who possesses solid fastballs but no true put-away pitch, resulting in decent contact management skills but modest strikeout rates. Stripling owns only one fastball, but his secondaries are arguably better than Wheeler’s, headlined by an underused change-up that induces whiffs and weak contact.”
Most pitchers rely on maybe one or two put out pitches. When he’s on, Stripling has three. In 2019, a year in which he accrued 1.8 fWAR in 90 2/3 innings, the righty generated a whiff percentage of 33.3 % with the curve, 33.9 % with his change up, and 20.9 % with the slider. His ERA, FIP and xFIP have hovered around the same low number for years, fueled by a solid ground ball rate.
What’s unclear with Stripling is how the Blue Jays will deploy him. In Los Angeles he was used both as a starter and reliever. He’s only started this season, appearing in seven games, but throughout his career Stripling has thrived in both roles (3.93 ERA in 59 career starts compared to a 3.12 ERA in 84 games out of the bullpen). His K/9 is all but identical, at 8.6 and 8.8.
With an abundance of depth in the starting rotation, and a whole lot of effective relievers in the bullpen, one would reasonably assume manager Charlie Montoyo will use Stripling as a high-leverage long reliever. He could even deploy him as an opener if need be. Here is how it could eventually shape up.
Hyun Jin Ryu
Matt Shoemaker (10-day IL)
Nate Pearson (10-day IL)
Sean Reid Foley*
Jordan Romano (10-day IL)
Ken Giles (10-day IL)
That is an overwhelming amount of arms. Jacob Waguespack was optioned to the alternate site on Tuesday, and Sam Gaviglio was designated for assignment. That still leaves a ton of question marks and a lot of bodies.
*Reid Foley was optioned on Wednesday to make room for Stripling
Will Pearson be back? If so, will he start? Could a struggling Roark take a back seat with new additions in the mix? Will Anderson, who has pitched well, be moved to the bullpen? Giles will be back soon so someone will have to go, and that doesn’t even factor in Romano and Shoemaker. Questions, as they say, will be answered in due time.
Villar — the lone position player acquired by the front office — is well known among these parts. In his first and only season in the AL East with the Baltimore Orioles, the infielder hit .274/.339/.453 with a career high 24 home runs and 3.9 bWAR. He produced on a very bad team, playing all 162 games. Villar is a nice addition if only for what he brings on the base paths. The dude can flat out run, is a versatile defender, and a capable switch hitter. Similar to almost every other new Blue Jays addition, Villar’s advanced statistics aren’t very good as he continues to struggle to generate solid contact (his launch angle is also incredibly sub par, leading to a ton of ground balls). His playing time will likely diminish when Bo Bichette returns from injury.
As it stands, the Blue Jays took calculated risks in acquiring these players. There is no debating it; they were not producing with their former teams, specifically in Ray and Stripling’s case. As the front office has proven in the past, taking on struggling players can work out for both parties. If the player tail spins, the good news is, the front office isn’t contractually committed to them. It’s a win-win, just as it was in 2016.
Statistics courtesy: Statcast, FanGraphs, Baseball Reference