Opinion | The Blue Jays spent their money in the right place in an off off-season for starting pitchers

If there was one thing the Blue Jays were criticized for more than any other this off-season, it was their inability to upgrade the starting rotation.

Even after a busy winter that included the free-agent signings of George Springer and Marcus Semien, the complaints were the same as the ones uttered throughout 2020. Sure, the lineup looks pretty good but why aren’t they doing something about the pitching?

The frustration was understandable because the puzzle was missing a few key pieces and everyone knew it. Jays starters were coming off a season in which they posted a mediocre 4.55 ERA while throwing fewer innings than all but three other teams. They have been even worse this year with a 4.86 ERA, 27th overall.

Those are the facts, but the one-sided argument misses a key point. The off-season market for starting pitchers was weaker than a Josh Thole pop-up to shallow left. It seemed bad enough last fall, and the benefit of hindsight has since made it look even worse. It’s too early in the year to label guys as busts but this was a market where the risk frequently outweighed the reward.

Jake Odorizzi made three starts for the Astros, all of them bad, before he was placed on injured list with forearm tightness. Chris Archer made two appearances before going down with a forearm issue of his own. James Paxton didn’t even make it through his first appearance in Seattle before he was ruled out for the year. Aaron Sanchez is hurt again, too.

Even the guys who remained healthy haven’t done much. Matt Shoemaker has a 6.43 ERA in Minnesota while Angels left-hander Jose Quintana has been even worse at 9.00. Right-hander Garrett Richards, another reported off-season target, has been average at best for first-place Boston. Atlanta lefty Drew Smyly, who received $3 million (U.S.) more than Robbie Ray, is allowing almost two homers per start.

The obvious exception, at least so far, is right-hander Taijuan Walker. The 28-year-old was acquired at last year’s trade deadline and performed well for the Jays down the stretch. There was mutual interest in reuniting, but it’s believed Toronto was reluctant to guarantee a second season, preferring instead to maintain as much flexibility as possible for the upcoming winter.

That opened the door for the Mets, who signed Walker to a two-year deal worth $20 million. It’s a gamble that has worked out well for New York with the former first-round pick having allowed two earned runs or fewer in all but one of his seven outings. His 2.20 ERA through seven starts is 11th in the majors and is better than anything that can be found in the Jays’ rotation.

Veteran starter Corey Kluber could be considered another miss, albeit one that comes with a logical explanation. The Jays were believed to have a shot at Kluber, at least in part because of the relationship Atkins and president Mark Shapiro built with him during their time in Cleveland. But then the Yankees entered the mix, and what were the Jays supposed to do about that?

Kluber had barely pitched the last two seasons because of injuries. He wasn’t the kind of guy you just tack on another year to sign. One season was all he was going to get and when the offers are similar enough, most players will pick the Yankees.

Familiar face J.A. Happ has been one of the only other free agents who began the year strong. Through five starts, Happ posted a 1.91 ERA while striking out 16 across 28 1/3 innings. Impressive stats, but at age 38 and coming off a year in which he lost his job in the Yankees rotation, Happ was an unlikely pick to solve the Jays’ woes.

One bet that has paid off is Ray. The 29-year-old raised a few eyebrows when he became the first free agent to come off the board with a one-year deal worth $8 million. That contract now looks like a bargain considering his 3.38 ERA, with more than a strikeout per inning. Out of all the names on this list, he has some of the best numbers.

On the trade front, Joe Musgrove would have been a nice fit but it’s difficult to criticize a team for not making a deal without knowing all the details. It’s not as simple as looking at the value of the contract, or even the return, because all teams value prospects differently. The Pirates were interested in Alejandro Kirk at last year’s deadline and if he was part of their demands in the off-season, Atkins and company can hardly be faulted for taking a pass.

Another option, Lance Lynn, threatened to step away for the rest of 2020 if the Rangers dealt him to a team he didn’t want to play for at the deadline. That preference would have loomed large again this winter with Lynn entering the final season of his contract. The Jays undoubtedly had interest, but they were never a threat to close the deal.



It’s one thing to say the rotation needs an upgrade, it’s another to go out and do it. Outside of re-signing Walker, or going all-in on the pursuit of Trevor Bauer, there just weren’t that many viable options for the Jays to accomplish all their goals. That’s why a team filled with promising position players doubled down on offence instead of addressing its most glaring need.

The Jays’ biggest weakness from last year remains one today, but there are reasons for that. Judge the front office on how it solves the problem moving forward, not on its decision to take a pass this winter. That might have led to more problems than solutions.


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