Photo credit:© Gerry Angus-USA TODAY Sports
Looking back at the best moves of the Ross Atkins era
2 months ago
Ross Atkins has made a lot more good moves than bad since taking over in 2016.
Earlier, we looked at moves that didn’t/may not work out in the Blue Jays favour. In this article, we’ll look at the moves that have helped this team big time.
Let’s start with one of the best trade trees in franchise history.
Drew Hutchison trade tree:
Anytime I get to write about the Drew Hutchison trade tree, you know I’m grinning from ear to ear.
On August 1, 2016, the Blue Jays traded struggling starter Hutchison to the Pittsburgh Pirates for main roster starter Francisco Liriano, Reese McGuire, and Harold Ramírez. Liriano didn’t have a great season with the 2016 Pirates, but finished the season with the Jays and had a 2.92 ERA and a 3.98 FIP in 49.1 innings, before being moved to the Houston Astros for Teoscar Hernández and Nori Aoki.
McGuire was Pittsburgh’s fifth-ranked prospect at the time, and he had an okay career with the Jays, slashing .248/.297/.390 with nine homers in 400 plate appearances (with plus defence) before being traded for Zack Collins.
Ramírez never played for the Jays as he left the team after the 2018 season. However, he’s carved together a solid big league career, as he’s slashing .289/.329/.419 with 36 homers in 1687 plate appearances for a 108 wRC+ and a 2.8 fWAR in five seasons.
Moving on to phase two of the trade tree, Hernández was fantastic for the Jays, especially after returning to the big league team in 2019. From June 5, 2019 to the November 16, 2022 trade for Erik Swanson and Adam Macko, Hernández slashed .277/.332/.525 with 96 home runs in 1660 plate appearances for a 131 wRC+. The thing is, the Jays have a chance to bring the fan-favourite outfielder back, as he’s now a free agent.
Aoki didn’t last long with the Jays, slashing .281/.294/.594 with three homers in 34 plate appearances for a 126 wRC+ before being released for some odd reason. The 2017 season was the 41-year-old’s last in the big league, but he still plays in Japan!
Like Aoki, Collins’ time with the Jays was limited, as he slashed .194/.266/.417 with four homers in 79 plate appearances with the Jays for a 94 wRC+. He was designated for assignment and picked up by the Pirates in September 2022, most recently playing for Cleveland in 2023.
Phase three of the Hutchison Trade Universe is currently underway, and it features the two pitchers the Jays acquired for Hernández. Swanson regressed from his 1.68 ERA and 1.85 FIP in 53.2 innings pitched with Seattle in 2022, but still had a good 2023. In his first season with Toronto, Swanson had a 2.97 ERA and a 3.51 FIP in 66.2 innings pitched, along with a 28.6 K% and an 8 BB%, being one of the Jays most important relievers.
On the surface level, Macko’s 4.81 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 86 innings pitched with the High-A Vancouver Canadians wasn’t great. However, he stayed healthy (he only pitched 95 innings in four seasons before 2023) and his BB% dropped from 12% to 10.8%. Not just that, but from July 26th to the end of the season, Macko had a 2.51 ERA and a 2.50 FIP in 32.1 innings pitched, which featured a 39.7 K%. He was added to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft.
It’s to be seen if this trade tree continues, but this was by far Ross Atkins’ best move as the Jays general manager.
Starting in the 2019-2020 off-season, the Blue Jays made a string of key signings.
First was signing Hyun Jin Ryu to a four-year, $80 million deal. While the contract may not have aged well due to poor performance in 2021 and Tommy John surgery in 2022, Ryu finished third in Cy Young voting in 2020. It also signified that the Blue Jays were going to be big players on the market.
In the 2020-21 off-season, the Blue Jays signed George Springer to a six-year, $150 million deal, which remains the largest in franchise history. This was the same off-season where they signed Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien, but more on that in the next section.
The 2021-22 off-season brought the Blue Jays current ace, Kevin Gausman, who signed to a five-year, $110 million deal, a contract that has aged incredibly well. They were also able to re-sign José Berríos to a seven-year, $131 million before he was eligible to head to free agency. They also made a big splash by trading for Matt Chapman, but more on that later as well.
Compared to the previous seasons, the 2022-23 off-season was tame in terms of signings. The biggest deal they handed out was Chris Bassitt’s three-year, $63 million deal. However, they signed guys like Brandon Belt and Kevin Kiermaier, two key parts for the Jays in 2023.
Their buy-low players have panned out well the past four seasons:
I mentioned Robbie Ray in the previous section. The left-handed pitcher actually came to the Jays via a trade for Travis Bergen at the 2020 trade deadline. He was fine in 2020, but the Jays re-signed him to a one-year, $8 million deal. Ray then had a 2.84 ERA and a 3.69 FIP in 193.1 innings pitched, winning the 2021 American League Cy Young and earning the Jays a compensation pick.
The 2021 off-season also saw them pick up Semien, who had a great season in 2019 when he slashed .285/.369/.522 with 33 homers in 747 plate appearances for a 138 wRC+, the only time he’d ever had a wRC+ above 100 in his career. Well, that is until the Blue Jays signed him, and he proceeded to slash .265/.334/.538 with 45 homers in 724 plate appearances for a 131 wRC+ and a third placed finish in American League MVP voting. Like Ray, the Jays gave Semien a qualifying offer, which he declined and promptly signed with the Texas Rangers. Kind of wish they kept him, but alas.
Heading into the 2022 season, the Jays signed Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year, $36 million deal. The first season, as you may know, was horrendous as he had a 5.19 ERA and a 5.62 FIP in 100.2 innings pitched, eventually moving to the bullpen on August 16. Well, Kikuchi returned to the rotation in 2023, and posted a career-best 3.86 ERA and a 4.12 FIP in 167.2 innings pitched. Definitely a good deal.
Want to know which Blue Jays player with more than 150 plate appearances finished first in wRC+? Well, it was actually Brandon Belt, who signed a one-year, $9.3 million deal. The veteran first baseman/designated hitter finished the season slashing .254/.369/.490 with 19 homers in 404 plate appearances for a 138 wRC+, which is incredible given the fact he slashed .161/.235/.274 with a homer and a 44.1 K% in 68 plate appearances from March 30 to May 1.
Kevin Kiermaier was also a “small” signing, agreeing to a one-year, $9 million deal. The 33-year-old had one of his best offensive seasons, slashing .265/.322/.419 with eight homers in 408 plate appearances. This was on top of winning his fourth Gold Glove in centre field, where he had 18 Defensive Runs Saved and 13 Outs Above Average.
So if the Jays sign a player to a one-year deal, expect that player to be one of the Jays’ best hitters.
Rapid fire time:
Like in the last article looking at the worst moves of the Atkins era, we’ll look at the best moves they’ve made in far less detail than the other three sections.
The José Berríos trade was a definite win, as they moved former fifth-overall pick Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson for the starting pitcher. Woods Richardson, only 23, struggled in 2023, and Austin Martin has yet to live up to his potential. Berríos on the other hand, is on a great contract and had a 3.65 ERA and a 3.99 FIP in 189.2 innings pitched in a great comeback year.
The Matt Chapman trade was another win for the Jays, as they moved Gunnar Hoglund, Kevin Smith, Zach Logue, and Kirby Snead. Only one player is still with Oakland, and Hoglund had a 6.05 ERA and 5.09 FIP in 61 innings pitched in Single-A, High-A, and Double-A with the Athletic’s organization. Chapman on the other hand, had a 7.7 fWAR in two seasons before hitting free agency
The Taijuan Walker trade is often forgotten about because he only pitched 26.1 innings with the Jays, but he had a 1.37 ERA and a 4.14 FIP and helped the Jays reach the playoffs in 2020 for the first time since 2016. The prospect they gave up was Alberto Rodriguez, who actually had a good year in the Mariners organization where he slashed .300/.380/.504 with 14 home runs for a 136 wRC+ in 524 plate appearances.
The Ross Stripling trade is a big reason why the Blue Jays made the playoffs in 2022, even though it came two seasons after the trade. With Berríos and Kikuchi struggling in 2022, Stripling stepped up and had a 3.01 ERA and a 3.11 FIP in 134.1 innings pitched. Had he not performed the way he did, I’m not sure they would have made the playoffs in 2022. The Jays sent Ryan Noda and Kendall Williams to the Dodgers in exchange for Stripling at the 2020 deadline.
So yeah, the Blue Jays have won a lot more trades than they’ve lost in the Ross Atkins era. Some of the trades they’ve lost were inconsequential, such as the Jonathan Villar trade and the Brad Hand trade. Moreover, the jury is still out on the Mitch White trade and the Daulton Varsho trade, as they’re no clear winner just yet, although they may end up being a bad trade for the Jays.
Hopefully, Atkins can make a big splash heading into the 2024 season.
As always, you can follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and Threads @Brennan_L_D.
Recent articles from Brennan Delaney