Steve Phillips: What the Toronto Blue Jays need most as the trade deadline approaches

No team is as good as they look when they are at their best, or as bad as they look when the play their worst. The month of July has been a bit of a roller coaster for the Toronto Blue Jays. Remember, in this month alone, the Jays have lost nine of 10 games and won nine of 10 games. They have looked their best and their worst. So, will the real Toronto Blue Jays please stand up!

With the trade deadline just a few days away, general manager Ross Atkins is hunting for ways to improve his club. Not only to get to the playoffs, but win once they arrive as well. Nothing about their recent hot streak will dissuade him from making moves to improve his team. The losing streak is still fresh in his mind. He knows how quickly things can turn.

The team needs have not changed much during the month of July. In order of priority, the Jays need: another starting pitcher, bullpen depth and one big bat. The pitching needs are most critical.

Ideally, they would trade for a front-of-the-rotation guy who could take the ball in a playoff series and win a big game. If they don’t land an ace, then they need a second-tier starter who can predictably give them a chance to win every outing. If they settle for a lesser starter, then they should focus on acquiring stronger relievers. They could really use another left-handed reliever who can get big outs in the 8th or 9th innings. They need a veteran reliever who can save the game at any point of the game. Sometimes games need to be saved in the 6th and 7th innings. This lefty would be a complement to Jordan Romano in high-leverage situations.

Offensively, Toronto could use another big bat in the lineup. Realistically, that hitter would mostly serve as a designated hitter. Ideally, he would bat left-handed to better balance the lineup, which is a bit right-hand dominant. Or, even better, he would be a switch-hitter. But mostly, they just need him to be a good professional hitter.

Reading the trade market

When general managers are making their calls this time of the year, they are juggling a number of parallel negotiations. GMs have to have a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D for each need they are looking to fill. So, Atkins has to identify who the best starter, reliever and hitter may be for this team. But the reality is that no team has the prospect capital, financial flexibility or good fortune to get the best available players in multiple areas of need. In their conversations with other clubs, general managers are gauging the fit for the players they are considering acquiring: the cost of the acquisition and the timing of when a deal can happen.

It is a juggling act trying to stay involved in all of the discussions while navigating for the best outcome of 6:00 pm ET on Aug. 2.

Atkins will have to weigh his ability to get Reds ace Luis Castillo or A’s starter Frankie Montas for the starting rotation. Knowing that if he gets one of them it will cost so much that he will have to likely settle for less relievers and offensive help. If he can’t get one of the aces, then he will have to make sure he gets a stronger tandem and hitter reliever. If he gets a lesser starter and can’t land the relievers he would prefer, then the quality of the hitter should be higher. There are a bunch of moving parts that call for the general manager to be nimble and smart. There is an art to keeping every deal alive and calculating what is the best combination of players to acquire and at what cost.

It is critical that the Jays makes moves to address their needs. Have you ever sat in a car in a traffic jam and experienced a feeling like you were rolling backwards, but it was just an illusion because the movement was actually the cars next to you rolling forward? That’s what it feels like at the trade deadline when the teams around your club in the standings are making deals and improving and you are not. It feels like you have gotten worse. General managers recognize that feeling and its impact. Players want to see effort and commitment from their front office. As a general manager, I couldn’t throw a pitch or hit the ball. But at the trade deadline it was my time to compete.

I wanted to win the deadline.

I knew there were other good teams and aggressive general managers, but I believed a GM who made the right deals could manipulate the roster in a way to get his club to the playoffs and win. Look at the Atlanta Braves last season. Former Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos added four outfielders at the deadline (Adam Duval, Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson and Jorge Soler) and shortly after they passed the Mets, who had been in first place for over 100 days. They rode the wave of momentum all the way to a World Championship.

Demand exceeding supply this year?

The expanded playoff format adds another interesting twist to the trade deadline. There are now six teams in each league that will make the playoffs; the three division winners and three wild cards. The top two division winners by record get a bye in the first round while the third division winner plays the third wild card club and the first and second wild card teams play each other. The higher seeded teams will host all of the games in a best-of-three series.

The law of supply and demand applies to baseball like it does to the economy. The more teams that are in the playoff chase, the greater the demand for player acquisitions at the trade deadline. The asking price by sellers will be marginally higher for talent this year because of the greater opportunity to play in October.

An example is the Yankees’ acquisition of Royals outfielder Andrew Benintendi Wednesday night. The Yankees need starting pitching and bullpen hitting help and a left-handed outfielder. There was speculation that they would be all-in on Nationals outfielder Juan Soto. Instead, Yankee GM Brian Cashman made a pre-emptive strike to get Benintendi. Cashman realized his greater need is pitching over offence (they have scored the most runs in baseball). So, rather than putting all his eggs in the Soto basket, he made a deal to get his Plan B option. He moved quickly before some of the teams on the bubble decide whether they are buyers or sellers.

Cashman read the supply and demand scale in the market. He also had to prioritize his needs. By making the deal for the Plan B outfielder, he still has impact prospects to put toward pitching upgrades. Now there is one less outfielder on the market, so as the supply drops, the price will go up for others to acquire a bat. In the meantime, Cashman can use his remaining trade chips in the pitching market.

Whatever team wins the World Series in 2022, trade deadline acquisitions will likely be a big reason why they were successful. I can’t wait to see which moves prove to be the most impactful.

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