The Blue Jays enter the offseason in search of starting pitching, with a few names of note trickling out in the early going. Jon Morosi of MLB.com listed the Jays as a suitor for NPB star Kodai Senga earlier this week, and Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reports that southpaw Andrew Heaney is also of interest (Twitter link).
That’s hardly a surprise, as the Jays were one of the teams known to have pursued Heaney when he was a free agent last winter. The former first-rounder instead jumped early to join the Dodgers, inking an $8.5MM deal a few days into the offseason. Heaney will handily beat that sum this time around, as he showed immense promise during what may be his lone season as a Dodger.
Heaney pitched to a 3.10 ERA this past season, striking out an eye-popping 35.5% of batters faced. He’s always blended solid swing-and-miss stuff with decent control, but this year’s strikeout rate was on another level. Heaney also got a swinging strike on an incredible 16.8% of his offerings, the highest rate of any major league pitcher to top 70 innings.
It’s fairly easy to identify reasons behind that success, as he overhauled his pitch mix on the heels of a 5.83 ERA showing in 2021. Heaney developed a slider that instantly became one of the best offerings of its kind, and he turned to that as his go-to secondary offering. He scrapped his curveball and scaled well back on the use of his changeup, and the results were excellent. Heaney did still give up a fair bit of hard contact — an issue that has plagued him throughout his career — but he missed so many bats he managed an ERA just above 3.00 despite serving up 1.73 home runs per nine innings.
Of course, the black mark on Heaney’s ledger was a pair of injured list stints related to discomfort in his throwing shoulder. Those kept him to 16 appearances (14 starts) and 72 2/3 innings, roughly half a season’s workload. Had Heaney stayed healthy the entire season, he’d quite likely have received a qualifying offer from L.A. The Dodgers were concerned enough with his lack of innings they opted against making a QO, even as they extended the offer to fellow offseason signee Tyler Anderson.
That decision does boost Heaney’s free agent stock for other clubs as he enters his age-32 campaign. Signing him won’t cost a team any draft choices and/or international signing bonus space. He’s already gotten hits from a few rotation-needy teams, with the Jays joining the Mets and Red Sox as clubs known to have checked in.
Certainly, Heaney will be one of a number of players under consideration for the Jays this offseason. General manager Ross Atkins told reporters at this week’s GM meetings the team was looking to add to both the starting rotation and the relief corps (link via Keegan Matheson of MLB.com). That could obviously come via free agency or trade, with the team’s catching surplus sure to be a topic of frequent discussion.
Meanwhile, Nicholson-Smith tweeted this week the team has been in touch with Ross Stripling’s camp to express interest in bringing the swingman back. Stripling, who turns 33 this month, bounced back from rough 2020-21 seasons to unexpectedly emerge as one of Toronto’s more reliable arms this year. He started 24 of 32 outings, working to a 3.01 ERA with a slightly below-average 20.7% strikeout rate but a sterling 3.7% walk percentage across 134 1/3 innings. The veteran right-hander is a first-time free agent and looks to have pitched his way to a multi-year deal.
Toronto’s rotation will be anchored by one of the league’s top 1-2 punches: Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah. The final three spots are question marks to varying degrees. José Berríos will occupy a rotation spot but will look to bounce back from a surprising 5.23 ERA showing. The internal favorites for the fourth and fifth spots appear to be Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White, but neither should be a rotation lock for a hopeful contender. White was battered in 10 outings after being acquired from the Dodgers at the trade deadline, while Kikuchi pitched himself out of the rotation in a dreadful first season of a three-year free agent deal.