The Blue Jays are designating reliever Brad Hand for assignment, relays Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet (Twitter link). Catcher Danny Jansen is being activated from the 10-day injured list in a corresponding move. Hand’s designation also creates a vacancy on the 40-man roster, which now sits at 38.
It’s a rather surprising move, as Toronto acquired Hand from the Nationals the week of the trade deadline. That proved to be a rather significant misstep. The hope was that Hand could serve as a stabilizing force for a Blue Jays’ bullpen that struggled throughout the season’s first half. But his time north of the border proved brief and unproductive, as Hand was tagged for ten runs (seven of them earned) in 8 2/3 innings. He struck out five batters, issued three walks and served up three home runs.
To make matters worse, young catcher Riley Adams — whom the Jays sent to the Nats in exchange for Hand — has been on a tear since landing in Washington. The 25-year-old has hit .341/.442/.568 with a pair of homers in 52 plate appearances. That’s an extraordinarily small sample and public prospect evaluators have long suggested Adams is likelier to wind up a quality backup than a true regular catcher. But swapping Adams for Hand is unquestionably a move the Jays’ front office wishes it had back after just a few weeks.
While Hand’s tenure in Toronto didn’t pan out, he figures to latch on elsewhere rather quickly. Hand broke out upon a move to the bullpen with the Padres in 2016 and remained one of the game’s best late-inning arms up through last season. Over that five-year run, the southpaw posted a 2.70 ERA/2.92 FIP across 320 innings split between San Diego and the Indians.
His results were strong as ever in 2020, when Hand pitched to a 2.05 ERA/2.80 SIERA over 22 frames with Cleveland. He’d seen a worrying dip in velocity, though, and the Indians waived Hand before declining a $10MM club option on his services. That actually worked in his favor financially, as Hand picked up a $1MM buyout before signing a $10.5MM guarantee with Washington upon hitting the market.
Hand’s velocity has bounced back this season, though. After dipping from a 92.7 MPH average four-seam in 2019 to 91.5 MPH last season, the 31-year-old is averaging 93.3 MPH on his heater in 2021 (per Brooks Baseball). His slider velocity hasn’t gotten back to peak levels, although that too is up relative to last season’s mark. And Hand was still fairly productive during his early-season run in Washington, where he posted a 3.59 ERA over 42 2/3 innings.
That’s not to say he was at peak form. Even during his time with the Nationals, Hand’s strikeout rate had dipped from 33.7% last season to 23.1%. His swinging strike rate had dropped from 10.5% to a subpar 7.3%. That declining swing-and-miss was a red flag, but Hand’s track record and continued decent results were enough to attract interest on the trade market just a month ago.
It stands to reason some other club will look past Hand’s terrible past few weeks and give him another look. Claiming him off waivers would require assuming the remainder of his $10.5MM salary (approximately $1.9MM). That might prove too pricey given Hand’s recent struggles, but any team that signs him after he clears waivers would only have to pay the prorated portion of the league minimum while leaving the Jays on the hook for the bulk of the remaining money.