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Bullpen on radar as Blue Jays prepare ‘full steam’ for start of free agency

LAS VEGAS — There’s little use in trying to predict the pace of the baseball off-season, which can range from excruciatingly slow to exhilarating depending on the year.

Until MLB’s quiet period ends Thursday at 5 p.m. ET, club executives are limited in what they can do with no formal offers permitted unless the player finished the season on their team. But teams can still use this five-day window to their advantage by communicating interest to key free agents. By Thursday evening, the offers will start coming in.

The way GM Ross Atkins framed things Wednesday, the Blue Jays plan to move aggressively on select free agents as they’ve done in the past with the likes of Robbie Ray. It takes two for a deal to come together, of course, but the Blue Jays are ready for those conversations to intensify.

“We’ll look to do it for sure,” Atkins said. “It just depends on the situation, the magnitude and if the opportunities are there for us. But day one, we’ll be full steam ahead.”

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As usual, expect the Blue Jays to operate on many fronts. With rival teams “extremely interested” in their three young catchers, they’ll consider any deals that improve the big-league team. Whether or not Ross Stripling re-signs, the Blue Jays need rotation help. And alongside those needs, the Blue Jays are emerging as a team to watch on the relief market, reaching out to some of the most in-demand arms available in the early days of the off-season.

Now, that’s hardly surprising considering the Blue Jays have been eyeing swing-and-miss relievers for over a year now. In fact it would be more surprising if they weren’t active on relievers, but they’ve shown interest in Robert Suarez and some other coveted relievers this week, including players sure to land multi-year deals.

Speaking in general terms, Atkins expressed interest in finding another high-upside reliever to contribute in high-leverage.

“In an ideal world we’re adding someone to complement (Jordan) Romano, (Tim) Mayza and Yimi Garcia at the back end of (the bullpen),” he said Tuesday.

In an interesting development, Atkins also noted that teams have expressed trade interest in their existing relievers, a group that includes Anthony Bass, Adam Cimber, Trevor Richards, Zach Pop, Julian Merryweather, Nate Pearson and Trent Thornton along with the aforementioned Romano, Mayza and Garcia.

That’s a solid group, so as much as the Blue Jays would like to augment the bullpen, it’s not as though they need to remodel things completely. Collectively, the Jays combined for middle-of-the-pack relief results last year, ranking 18th among MLB teams in ERA (3.77), 14th in strikeout rate (23.6 per cent) and sixth in walk rate (8.3 per cent) while struggling with home run prevention (25th in MLB, 1.16 HR/9).

With everyone from the ’22 bullpen set to return except for David Phelps, one or two additional relievers should be enough, as long as they offer enough upside. On that front there’s ample selection.

Suarez, for instance, posted a 2.27 ERA for the San Diego Padres in 2022 thanks to a fastball that averaged 97.9 m.p.h. and an effective change-up. He struck out 31.9 per cent of the hitters he faced, well above the MLB average of 22.1 per cent, and now seems poised to land a multi-year deal.

Now that Edwin Diaz has re-signed with the New York Mets, the top of the relief market features the likes of right-handers Kenley Jansen, Chris Martin, Rafael Montero and David Robertson along with left-hander Taylor Rogers. At least two of those relievers — Martin and Robertson — were on the Blue Jays’ radar this summer, but it’s not clear if free-agent talks have taken place.

It stands to reason that the Blue Jays will have interest in Martin, who leads free-agent relievers in FIP (2.18), strikeout rate (32.9 per cent) and walk rate (2.2 per cent). Those numbers mean there’s sure to be plenty of competition for the 36-year-old, who pitched for the Cubs and Dodgers in 2022.

One way or another, there’s some depth to this market should the Blue Jays’ top choices land elsewhere. Of course their best-case scenario includes internal development as well as outside acquisitions and there’s renewed optimism around Nate Pearson, who has pitched nine scoreless innings in the Dominican Winter League, striking out 11 while walking just three.

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While the Blue Jays haven’t completely ruled out the possibility that Pearson starts, they’d be equally pleased if he becomes a bulk pitcher who contributes 100 innings, the majority of which likely come out of the bullpen.

“Nate is at a point right now where he wants to be on a major league roster,” Atkins said. “He’s excited about his stuff and he’s excited about his ability to make an impact. We’ve seen the benefits of that. So the spectrum of him being a starting pitcher for us versus a relief pitcher has obviously changed over the course of the last three years. I don’t think Nate wants to take starting pitching out of the equation, but the likelihood of him impacting us as a reliever has increased over the years.”

Even if all goes well, it’ll be months before Pearson gets the chance to prove himself against more advanced competition. In the meantime, the Blue Jays will continue exploring free agency here in Las Vegas. And if they get their wish, those reinforcements might even come sooner than later.

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