- The Blue Jays signed Cuban right-hander Yosver Zulueta and Dutch right-handers Jiorgeny Casimiri and Sem Robberse in some late additions before the end of the 2018-19 international signing period, Sportsnet.ca’s Shi Davidi writes. Toronto acquired an extra $1.5MM of bonus pool funds in spring trades of Kendrys Morales to the A’s and Dwight Smith Jr. to the Orioles, which accounted for these three Jays signing (Zulueta received “the majority of their spending room,” as per Davidi).
Blue Jays Rumors
The Blue Jays have acquired right-hander Nick Kingham from the Pirates for cash considerations, as announced by both teams. Ryan Tepera has been shifted to the 60-day injured list to create room on Toronto’s roster.
Kingham was designated for assignment this week, effectively ending almost a full decade in Pittsburgh’s organization for the righty. Kingham was a fourth-round pick in the 2010 draft and has long been considered one of the more promising arms both in the Bucs’ farm system and in baseball as a whole, appearing on top-100 prospect lists prior to both the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Tommy John surgery in 2015 delayed his progress, though he still amassed a 3.46 ERA, 3.17 K/BB rate, and 7.7 K/9 over 766 1/3 career innings in the minors, starting 142 of his 147 games.
As a big-leaguer, Kingham flirted with history when he carried a perfect game into the seventh inning during his MLB debut back on April 29, 2018. Overall, however, Kingham has struggled to find consistency in the Show, posting a 6.67 ERA that has been boosted by 25 homers allowed over 110 2/3 innings, though he has a higher strikeout rate (8.2 K/9) in the majors than in the minors, albeit over a much smaller sample size.
Though the Pirates are far from deep in starting pitching options, it seems like they were simply ready to move on from the 27-year-old Kingham, who now gets a chance on a Blue Jays team that is in even more desperate need of rotation help. The Jays rank at or near the bottom of the league in most starting pitching categories, and will need even more starters on hand to fill the void if/when Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are both moved before the July 31st trade deadline. Kingham could get a shot in the rotation immediately (which could mean the end of struggling veteran Edwin Jackson’s time in Toronto) or he could throw out of the bullpen as a long man until a trade or until the Jays decide a change needs to be made.
4:50pm: Giles doesn’t expect to miss more than the 10-day minimum, tweets Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.
3:24pm: Blue Jays closer Ken Giles is headed to the 10-day injured list due to inflammation in his right elbow, per a team announcement. The Jays also announced that right-hander Clay Buchholz was moved to the 60-day IL to clear a 40-man roster spot for righty Jordan Romano, whose previously reported promotion from Triple-A is now official.
It’s a blow to the Blue Jays on the field but also an unwelcome development given that Giles is among the team’s best trade chips as the July 31 trade deadline looms. There’s no indication that Giles will require an especially lengthy absence at this point, but any sort of recent elbow issue will be cause for some degree of concern when teams are discussing Giles as a trade candidate next month.
The 28-year-old Giles has been nearly automatic in 2019, pitching 25 innings with a 1.08 ERA and a gaudy 42-to-7 K/BB ratio. He’s earning $6.3MM in 2019 and is all the more appealing to contending teams due to the fact that he’s controlled through the 2020 season.
In Giles’ absence, the Jays seem likely to turn to Joe Biagini in save opportunities. He’s worked the eighth inning on 17 occasions in 2019 and is tied for the team lead in holds (seven). Daniel Hudson would be another option should the club prefer a more veteran alternative, but he’s averaging nearly five walks per nine innings pitched.
The Blue Jays will select the contract of righty Jordan Romano, according to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca. It’s not yet clear how the team will create the necessary roster space, which includes a 40-man spot.
Romano, 26, is a 2014 tenth-rounder who hasn’t yet cracked the majors. That’s not to say he wasn’t on the MLB radar. The Canadian hurler was selected in the Rule 5 draft last winter, with the Rangers (who had acquired his rights from the White Sox) ultimately deciding to send him back to Toronto.
Through 31 frames at Triple-A this year, Romano carries only a 6.10 ERA. But most of the damage came during his early work as a starter and in one abysmal performance in mid-May. More importantly, Romano has trended up in the strikeout department, posting 12.5 K/9 against 3.8 BB/9 on the year.
- The Blue Jays have signed 20 picks, including second-rounder Kendall Williams (No. 52), Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reports. The high school right-hander from Florida will get $1,547,500, which is more than the recommended slot value of his selection ($1,403,200), per Jim Callis of MLB.com. Callis and colleague Jonathan Mayo ranked Williams as the draft’s 54th-best prospect entering the proceedings, calling the 6-foot-6 hurler “the quintessential projectable high school right-hander.” Despite Williams’ size, he doesn’t have much trouble throwing strikes, according to Callis and Mayo, who note the hurler’s able to touch 94 mph with regularity and suggest he has serious upside. Williams had committed to Vanderbilt before the draft, but his signing will take him out of the Commodores’ plans.
7:56pm: “The Yankees might not be enamored enough with Bumgarner to pay the necessary price,” MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand writes. The potential return of Severino could also impact the Yankees’ deadline plans, though as one executive points out, it wouldn’t be surprising if Severino has some rust after his long layoff, so the Yankees might not have enough time before the deadline to evaluate if they can rely on him to be the rotation help they need.
11:28am: The Yankees are known to be looking into starting pitching options, and their explorations have included two of the arms most likely to be moved before the July 31st trade deadline. According to the New York Post’s Ken Davidoff, the Yankees have been in touch with the Blue Jays about right-hander Marcus Stroman, and have also had scouts watching Madison Bumgarner’s outings for the Giants.
Virtually every aspect of the Yankees’ roster has been hit hard with injuries this season, with the rotation being no exception. Luis Severino has yet to pitch this season and won’t be back until after the All-Star break, while James Paxton, C.C. Sabathia, and (just today) Domingo German have all spent time on the injured list. Between these issues and some struggles at the back of their bullpen, Davidoff figures that the Yankees will prioritize pitching upgrades as the deadline approaches.
To this end, New York has undoubtedly done some preliminary evaluation (whether it’s scouting or direct conversations with rival front offices) about many pitchers beyond just Stroman and Bumgarner. It remains to be seen if the Yankees’ inquiries represent due diligence or a genuinely strong interest, though these two pitchers naturally stand out due to their high-profile nature, and each would come with some interesting factors to consider before any deal is completed.
Stroman has bounced back nicely this season following an injury-plagued down year in 2018, and isn’t a rental piece, as he is under team control through the 2020 season. While he’ll be in line for an arbitration raise on his $7.4MM salary for this season, Stroman will still bring a ton of value to any rotation if he keeps pitching at his current level. If Stroman did end up in the pinstripes, this extra year of control would make him a natural candidate to replace the retiring Sabathia in next season’s rotation, and thus the Yankees would have one less item to address on their offseason to-do list.
That said, Toronto will demand a big return for Stroman’s services. MLBTR’s Connor Byrne recently explored the Stroman trade market, with the Yankees cited as one of a whopping 22 teams who could be plausible fits for the right-hander — Stroman’s extra year of control makes him a target even for clubs like the White Sox, Diamondbacks, or Reds, who might not be contenders this season but are looking ahead to 2020.
Though the Blue Jays and Yankees are division rivals, the two teams combined for a high-profile pitching swap last summer when J.A. Happ was dealt to New York for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney. Since Happ was a pending free agent at the time of that trade, and is over eight and a half years older than Stroman, the Jays figure to ask for quite a bit more from the Yankees in trade talks this summer.
Bumgarner’s situation is quite a bit different, as the former World Series MVP is a pure rental, headed to free agency after the season. Many of the same teams looking to acquire Stroman will also be in the hunt for Bumgarner (as Connor outlined in another post), though even with only two-plus months and potential postseason innings on offer, the Giants are likely to aim high in their trade demands. With so many of their other high-priced veterans struggling, battling injuries, or limited by full or partial no-trade clauses, Bumgarner represents San Francisco’s best chance of adding some solid prospects as the team looks to get younger.
Bumgarner himself has some no-trade protection, with the ability to block trades to eight teams. The Yankees are one of the teams on that list, though this doesn’t mean that the southpaw would necessarily reject a potential trade to the Bronx, but rather that Bumgarner was simply giving himself some extra leverage (perhaps in the form of a cash bonus to waive his clause) in the event that a trade offer emerged from one of those eight clubs.
- The Blue Jays have agreed to a deal with second-round pick Kendall Williams, as per MLB.com’s Jim Callis (via Twitter). The high school right-hander will receive a bonus of $1,547,500, a bit above the $1,403,200 recommended price attached to the 52nd overall pick and perhaps some necessary extra incentive to get Williams to break his commitment to Vanderbilt. MLB.com was most bullish on the 6’6″ Williams, ranking him 54th on their top 200 prospects list and describing him as “the quintessential projectable high school right-hander,” with a promising and still-developing arsenal of four pitches.
The Blue Jays have agreed to terms with first-round draft choice Alek Manoah, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network (Twitter link). It’s an at-slot, $4,547,500 deal for the 11th overall pick.
Manoah, a junior out of West Virginia University, was selected right in range of where he was ranked by draft pundits. ESPN.com’s Keith Law was highest, grading him ninth overall, while MLB.com had him right at the draft position. Baseball America and Fangraphs each ranked Manoah the 13th-best prospect available.
A massive right-handed hurler, Manoah is said by the MLB.com team to be “a rare college pitcher with projection.” He increased his stock this year by improving his strike-throwing ability, though BA notes his command is still a work in progress. In addition to that needed refinement, Manoah will need to gain confidence in an infrequently-utilized changeup to go with his fastball/slider combo.
The final two top-tier free agents are finally off the board — it only took until June! — but most clubs have long since begun to reap the benefits of their offseason additions from the open market. That includes those who partook in the annual grab bag of minor league contracts.
Each year, there are dozens upon dozens of recognizable names who settle for non-guaranteed pacts — perhaps more in this past winter’s frigid free-agent climate — and while most fail to yield dividends, there’s always a handful of gems unearthed. The Rangers, Reds and Pirates did particularly well in terms of signing players on minor league contracts this offseason, but there have certainly been other deals of note. It’ll merit revisiting this bunch after the season is over to see who maintained their pace and who stepped up in the final two thirds of the 2019 campaign, but to this point in the year, here’s a look at the most productive minor league signees of the winter.
Much was made of Hunter Pence’s efforts to revamp his swing while playing winter ball in the offseason. Frankly, it’s not uncommon to hear of veteran players perhaps in the twilight of their career making alterations in an effort to stick around a bit longer. What is uncommon is for the results to be this eye-opening.
Pence hasn’t simply bounced back from a pair of awful seasons to close out his Giants tenure — he’s given the Rangers one of the best offensive performances of his 13-year Major League career. The 36-year-old has posted a resplendent .288/.341/.583 batting line with a dozen home runs, 10 doubles and a triple through 179 plate appearances. His 47.6 percent hard contact rate lands in the 91st percentile of big league hitters, per Statcast, and his average exit velocity of 92.6 mph is in the 96th percentile. Defensive metrics are down on Pence, which isn’t a huge surprise for a 36-year-old corner outfielder, but he’s hitting at a star level without benefiting from a gaudy BABIP (.299). If he can maintain this pace, he’ll have no trouble landing not just a 40-man roster spot this winter — but a solid salary to go along with it.
Pence alone would make for a terrific minor league add, but the Rangers are also getting the best form of Logan Forsythe we’ve ever seen (.299/.404/.472 through 172 PAs) and a strong showing from Danny Santana (.291/.333/.465 in 139 PAs). Those performances are a bit more dubious, as the pair improbably sports matching .388 averages on balls in play. But, Forsythe is walking at a 14 percent clip that he’s never previously approached outside of a 2017 season in Los Angeles where he logged ample time hitting eighth in front of the pitcher (with a 21 percent walk rate in such plate appearances). Santana can’t boast that same plate discipline — to the contrary, his longstanding inability to draw a walk is as pronounced as ever — but he’s making hard contact more than ever before while also stealing bases with great efficiency (7-for-8). Both Forsythe and Santana can move all over the diamond as well.
Cincinnati has gotten even more production out of its minor league deals than Texas, although the two player the Reds landed on non-guaranteed contracts both came as a surprise. Even after Dietrich was effectively non-tendered by the Marlins, he was expected to get a big league deal. Iglesias enjoyed a solid season at the plate and has long been regarded as a stellar defender at shortstop. The Tigers jumped on a one-year deal with Jordy Mercer worth $5MM in early December, seemingly believing Iglesias would command more.
That neither player found his asking price met by the time mid-February rolled around has been nothing short of a godsend for the Reds, who scooped up both on minor league pacts. Cincinnati couldn’t have known that a spring injury to Scooter Gennett would create even more at-bats for this pair early in the season, but Dietrich and Iglesias have each been sensational in capitalizing on the opportunity for unexpected levels of playing time.
Dietrich has already pounded a career-high 17 home runs despite accruing only 157 plate appearances. Detractors will point to his new hitter-friendly home park, but Dietrich has a .377 on-base percentage, .541 slugging percentage and six home runs on the road this year. Besides, it’s not as if every member of the Reds has belted 17 home runs simply by virtue of playing games at Great American Ball Park. Dietrich has a career-best 9.4 percent walk rate and career-low 20.4 percent strikeout rate as well.
Iglesias, meanwhile, has batted .294/.335/.421 with four homers and a characteristically low strikeout rate (13.5 percent) in 2019 plate appearances. He’s already tallied seven Defensive Runs Saved with a +3.3 Ultimate Zone Rating in 477 innings at shortstop, making Detroit’s decision to move on from look all the more egregious, considering they went out and signed a different veteran to man the position anyhow. He’s not running like he did in 2018, but Iglesias has been a flat-out steal.
Cabrera has been forced into minor league deals in each of the past two offseasons and will turn 35 later this summer, but the Melk Man just keeps on hitting. Injuries to Corey Dickerson, Gregory Polanco and Lonnie Chisenhall created an opening for Cabrera, and he’s responded with a .335/.376/.467 line through 179 plate appearances. It’s true that he’s benefited from a .366 average on balls in play, but Cabrera’s 11.7 percent strikeout rate is excellent and represents a continuation of the elite bat-to-ball skills he’s demonstrated throughout his career. The defense isn’t pretty — it never really has been — but Cabrera’s bat has been a huge plus for the Bucs.
The Astros tried Liriano in the bullpen down the stretch in 2017 and weren’t able to get the results they’d hoped. Liriano returned to a starting role with the Tigers in 2018 and found middling results, but he’s been reborn in the Pittsburgh bullpen in his second go-around at PNC Park. In 29 1/3 innings, Liriano has a 1.21 ERA with 32 punchouts, 12 walks and a 47.3 percent grounder rate. He won’t maintain a 96 percent strand rate or a .233 BABIP, but Liriano’s 14.7 percent swinging-strike rate is the best of his career. Even if he takes what seems like an inevitable step back, FIP pegs him at 3.08 while SIERA checks in at 3.82. While the game’s highest-paid free-agent relievers have largely flopped, Liriano looks every bit the part of a viable bullpen option.
Others of Note
There have been successful minor league signings outside of Arlington, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, of course. Eric Sogard, he of the former #FaceOfMLB and #NerdPower hashtag fame, has been a superlative pickup for the Blue Jays, hitting at a .290/.365/.481 pace with a career-high five homers in just 151 plate appearances. With several injuries and poor performances around the Toronto infield, his presence has been a boon to an otherwise disappointing lineup.
Sogard’s former teammate and fellow Oakland cult hero, Stephen Vogt, thought his career could be over at this time a year ago. Instead, he’s back in the Majors and enjoying a solid showing at the plate with the Giants. In 66 plate appearances, Vogt has hit .250/.318/.417, and Buster Posey’s recent placement on the injured list will only create more opportunity for playing time. The Giants cycled through an all-you-can-sign buffet of veteran catchers earlier this spring, and Vogt is the last man standing.
As far as other catchers go, Matt Wieters landed the role of baseball’s most seldom-used backup: the Cardinals’ second option to iron man Yadier Molina. Wieters has just 50 plate appearances on the year through June 6, but he’s going to see an uptick in playing time with Molina on the injured list for a bit. In his 50 trips to the dish, Wieters has connected with three long balls and slashed a very solid .277/.300/.511. His 15 strikeouts against just one walk could very well be a portent for struggles to come, but some more frequent playing time could also help the veteran find his rhythm.
Speaking of players who’ve succeeded in minimal playing time, right-hander Mike Morin has given the Twins 10 1/3 innings of terrific relief since having his contract selected in early May. He’s punched out seven hitters, hasn’t allowed a walk, is sitting on a career-high 56.7 percent ground-ball rate and has limited opponents to just one run (a solo home run). He’ll need to miss more bats, as he’s not going to maintain a .172 BABIP and will eventually walk a batter, but Morin’s newfound knack for keeping the ball on the ground is encouraging. (For those wondering where Ryne Harper is, he was technically signed in the 2017-18 offseason and is in his second year with the organization.)
In a similarly small sample of work — four games, 20 1/3 innings — left-hander Tommy Milone has given the Mariners some competitive starts to help out in their beleaguered rotation. Milone is sitting on a 3.10 ERA and 3.84 FIP, and while he’s never been one to miss bats in the past, he’s punched out 20 hitters against only five walks. His velocity hasn’t changed, but Milone is throwing more sliders at the expense of his four-seamer and changeup.
Over in Atlanta, the Braves have enjoyed their own bullpen find, as Josh Tomlin has pitched a team-high 32 innings of relief. Tomlin’s 3.94 ERA doesn’t exactly stand out, and fielding-independent metrics all suggest a mid-4.00s mark is more realistic, but he’s been a relief workhorse for a team whose rotation and bullpen have struggled mightily for much of the year. The 32 innings Tomlin has already soaked up have been vital for the Braves.
Elsewhere in the NL East, former Pirates and Blue Jays prospect Harold Ramirez is doing his best to continue earning playing time with the Marlins. He’s hit .329/.368/.427 through 87 plate appearances, and while that line has been buoyed by a .394 average on balls in play, Ramirez is making solid contact and isn’t striking out much. He batted .320/.365/.471 in 120 games with Toronto’s Double-A affiliate last season and .355/.408/.591 in 31 Triple-A games with the Marlins in 2019, so he’s earned a look at the game’s top level.
The Blue Jays have signed general manager Ross Atkins to a contract extension, Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet reports. The exact length of the deal is unknown, but it’ll keep Atkins in place through “at least” the 2020 campaign, according to Nicholson-Smith.
Toronto’s in its fourth season with Atkins, a former Indians executive who joined the Blue Jays in December 2015. He assumed his post a few months after the Blue Jays hired Mark Shapiro as their president. Atkins and Shapiro previously worked together in Cleveland, and they were at the helm of a Toronto franchise which earned a playoff berth in their first season at the controls. The Blue Jays, who were coming off an American League Championship Series bid in the prior season, made it back to the ALCS in Atkins’ first year with the franchise. However, they’ve gone into a rebuild since and are all but guaranteed to extend their playoff drought to three years in 2019.
In the Jays’ first four offseasons under their current regime, they made noteworthy free-agent investments in J.A. Happ, Kendrys Morales, Marco Estrada, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Jose Bautista, Steve Pearce, Jaime Garcia, Curtis Granderson and Freddy Galvis. Each of those players secured at least $5MM in guaranteed money, but as you’d expect with free-agent signings, some of those moves didn’t work out. Gurriel, who was a much-ballyhooed international prospect when the Blue Jays signed him, and Galvis are the only players from that group who are on Toronto’s 2019 roster.
Gurriel’s one of many promising young players whom the Jays have developed during Atkins’ run with the organization. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the most obvious example, though he signed with the organization shortly before Atkins and Shapiro came aboard. Seven of the team’s other top 10 prospects at MLB.com – including Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio – have joined the Jays since Atkins did, and the club now boasts one of the majors’ highest-rated farm systems.
Aside from Guerrero and Biggio, all of Toronto’s absolute best prospects are in the minors. It’s anyone’s guess how the team’s big league roster will look when more members of its system start pouring into the majors. Atkins & Co. may ship out key veterans Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Smoak and Ken Giles this summer, as all are potentially valuable trade chips with dwindling club control. With the exception of Giles, whom Toronto acquired from Houston last summer for disgraced closer Roberto Osuna, all of those players were in the organization well before Atkins came on the scene. He did help oversee a shrewd extension for Smoak in 2016, though.
In other notable moves under Atkins, the Jays acquired outfielder Randal Grichuk in a January 2018 trade with the Cardinals, picked up righty Trent Thornton in a deal with the Astros last November, and sent third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Indians last August. To this point, the five-year, $52MM extension the Blue Jays gave Grichuk in April ranks as the largest financial commitment they’ve made to a player since Atkins’ hiring.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.