8:36am: The Jays are a finalist for Yates but don’t have a deal in place just yet, tweets The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal. Heyman further tweets that Yates is “leaning” toward the Blue Jays but has yet to formally agree to anything.
8:28am: Free-agent reliever Kirby Yates has been said to be nearing a decision since earlier this week, and TSN’s Scott Mitchell reports this morning that Yates is “firmly” on the Blue Jays’ radar. Yates is expected to meet with team officials at the organization’s Spring Training complex in Dunedin, Fla., per Mitchell, who adds that he’s told Yates is not “just visiting.” MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that Yates and the Jays are close to a deal.
Yates pitched in just six games this past season before undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow — a procedure that put an end to the already truncated 2020 season for the former All-Star. The 33-year-old Yates (34 in March) went from waiver claim to dominant reliever in similarly meteoric fashion to former Padres teammate Brad Hand and new White Sox closer Liam Hendriks.
Following a strong first season in San Diego in 2017, Yates added a splitter to his arsenal and saw his career take off; in 2018-19, Yates led all qualified relievers with a 1.67 ERA and ranked third with a 2.14 SIERA over the life of 123 2/3 innings. Along the way, he struck out a whopping 38.7 percent of the hitters he faced, while walking just 6.1 percent of opponents. Among qualified MLB relievers, only Josh Hader and Edwin Diaz topped him in terms of K-BB% during that time.
The Blue Jays received middle-of-the-pack results from their bullpen in 2020 but quietly enjoyed some strong performances from unheralded members of the relief corps. Rookie Jordan Romano, returned after failing to stick with the Rangers after the Rule 5 Draft, allowed just two runs in 14 2/3 innings while striking out 21 of the 57 batters he faced. Former Cubs righty Rafael Dolis, meanwhile, joined the Jays after an impressive run in Japan and yielded just four earned runs in 24 innings while punching out 31 of the 100 hitters he faced. Tom Hatch and Julian Merryweather, acquired in respective trades of David Phelps and Josh Donaldson, both gave the Jays reason for optimism as in their MLB debuts as well.
Encouraging as some of those showings may have been, the Jays lack experienced arms at the back of their bullpen. Ken Giles, who entered the 2020 season as Toronto’s closer, missed nearly the entire year due to Tommy John surgery and is now a free agent. Veteran righty Anthony Bass, one of the team’s most reliable options in 2020, is also a free agent at the moment.
Toronto reportedly agreed to terms with right-hander Tyler Chatwood, another bullpen candidate, just last night. It still seems likely that the Jays, who have been connected to countless free agents this winter as one of the few clubs actually willing to spend significant money, will make further additions in the bullpen even if a deal with Yates ultimately does come together. Notably, starters-turned-relievers Anthony Kay and Ryan Borucki are the only lefties in the Toronto bullpen. While Borucki is likely to make the club due to a lack of minor league options, Kay struggled to an ERA north of 5.00 thanks to a bloated 14 percent walk rate in 2020 and does have minor league options remaining.