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Toronto Blue Jays

Improving the starting rotation is Blue Jays’ main focus

It was a little over two months ago the Blue Jays said goodbye to a forgettable season and started looking at what was next for the rebuilding club.

Since then, the team dotted some i’s and crossed some t’s, taking care of necessary business like hiring new manager Charlie Montoyo and his coaching staff, exercising and declining options on Justin Smoak and Yangervis Solarte, respectively, adding five arms to its 40-man roster ahead of next week’s Rule 5 draft and tendering contracts to nine of its 10 arbitration eligible players, with Solarte headed to free agency.

A deal that sent Aledmys Diaz to the Houston Astros in exchange for Trent Thornton is the only bit of creative work by general manager Ross Atkins and company so far this off-season, with the other moves generally prompted by imposed league deadlines.

So the Jays’ front office still finds itself looking to do what it set out to do in early October: turn position player depth into pitching ahead of the 2019 season.

Heading into the annual winter meetings, which begin Sunday in Las Vegas, Atkins said the club’s priority is pitching, and acquiring it through trade more than free agency.

If that’s the case, Toronto has a number of players it could offer:

Randal Grichuk: The Jays’ trade for the outfielder last January may not have looked great when he hit .106 in the first 25 games of the season and landed on the disabled list by May 1. But the 27-year-old came back in June a new player, hitting a near career-high .271 in the final four months. He finished with a team-high 25 home runs and 61 RBIs, and played right and centre field. While there have been question marks surrounding fellow outfielder Kevin Pillar’s future in Toronto, trading Grichuk — two years younger than his teammate, a better hitter and with comparable defensive skills — would likely score a better return. Plus, he is not eligible for free agency until 2021.

Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez: Toronto’s rotation is threadbare, so dealing one of these starters, or both, is likely a long-shot proposition. Plus, both struggled on the mound this past season — a 5.54 ERA for Stroman in 102 1/3 innings, and a 4.89 ERA for Sanchez in 105 innings — and the latter missed the better part of the past two seasons because of blisters. Recent history aside, though, both right-handers have proven they can be dominant at the major-league level and that potential upside, plus two years of control over each player, could be attractive elsewhere. Toronto has to start weighing their value against the risk of not being able to extend them in 2020.

Justin Smoak: The Jays’ team-voted most valuable player for the past two seasons, who has slashed .256/.353/.495 with an .847 OPS since his breakout all-star season in 2017, Smoak would be a reliable first baseman and switch hitter for teams looking for an upgrade. Toronto recently picked up Smoak’s $8 million (U.S.) team option and like his veteran presence in the clubhouse, but the club-friendly price tag and the short-term investment — he will be a free agent at the end of next season — could sway buyers. Smoak his said he would like to finish his career in Toronto, but the emergence of Rowdy Tellez, who hit .314 with four home runs and 14 RBIs in a small sample size of 23 games last September could give the Jays the confidence boost they need to shop Smoak.

Ken Giles: Bulking up the bullpen is likely another priority, though Atkins said their focus is on starting pitching, which would make a trade of their closer unlikely. But Giles proved a decent acquisition for Toronto in the final two months of the season after he was part of the package from the Houston Astros for Roberto Osuna. He posted a 4.12 ERA in 19 2/3 innings for the Jays and maintained a 100 per cent record in save situations over the course of the season. Off-field issues in Texas and trouble in non-save situations are red flags, but Giles showed fewer signs of trouble with the Jays and, like Grichuk, the 28-year-old isn’t free-agent eligible until 2021.

Laura Armstrong is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @lauraarmy

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