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Blue Jays acquire Taijuan Walker to bolster depleted starting staff

Injuries have hurt Toronto’s playoff push, and Walker will provide the much-needed depth.

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Seattle Mariners v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In an effort to further their playoff push, the Blue Jays made a move for an additional starting pitcher. On Thursday, Toronto acquired righty Taijuan Walker from the Mariners in exchange for a player to be named later. This player, per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, is not currently on the Blue Jays’ 60-man roster.

The Blue Jays have certainly been among the beneficiaries of the expanded playoff system, and with this move, they are hoping to capitalize. At 15-14, the team would currently hold the eighth seed in the American League playoffs, but they’re only four-and-a-half games behind the AL East-leading Rays and just two behind the second-place Yankees. FanGraphs put their playoff odds at 66.5 percent into games on Thursday.

Relatedly, as Rosenthal wrote in an Aug. 21 column in response to the Phillies’ trade with the Red Sox, “the expanded postseason format offers a rare opportunity for some long-suffering teams” to buy, with the Phillies and Padres mentioned as prime examples. Toronto might not necessarily fall into the “long-suffering” box, given that they made the postseason as recently as 2016. However, they’d certainly be more motivated to push their luck in this bizarre year than some of baseball’s leaders, like the Dodgers or Yankees, who are near-locks to contend during more traditional years in the future. This motivation for more fringe contenders could remain a theme among buyers throughout this trade deadline season, as Rosenthal suggested.

To solidify their odds, the Jays pretty clearly needed another arm. Hyun-jin Ryu, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson sit atop the staff, but the team lost the majority of its depth to injuries over the last couple of weeks. Starters Nate Pearson, Matt Shoemaker and Trent Thornton all have landed on the Injured List in the last 10 days. Thornton, moved to the 45-day IL in response to this move, has been officially ruled out for the year. Both Pearson and Shoemaker could theoretically return at some point, though exact timelines are still unknown. The remaining cast of arms would have been pretty thin for a potential contender: Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch and Julian Merryweather, all mentioned as potential fill-ins, have a combined 48 13 major league innings.

Thus the move for Walker. After only pitching 14 innings in the last two years due to a 2018 UCL tear and subsequent Tommy John surgery, he left the Diamondbacks and returned to the Mariners on a one-year, $2 million contract last offseason. That was prorated to roughly $720,000 over the shortened season, and the Blue Jays will be on the hook for the roughly $344,000 left. He’s been solid, making five starts thus far to the tune of a 4.00 ERA, 4.94 FIP and 4.77 xFIP. What’s promising is that Walker’s strikeout and walk rates of 22.3 percent and 7.1 percent, respectively, are roughly in line with his career averages.

The peripherals are there even despite the diminished velocity from early in his career. He averaged at least 95 mph on the fastball in both 2013 and 2014, and was around 94 mph in his most recent full season, 2017. This year, however, he has sat at 93 mph, though Walker has seen an encouraging start-to-start trend of late. He’s been up to an average of 93.3 mph on the four-seamer in each of his last two outings, after sitting as low as 92.7 mph in his second start. In the wake of the decreased velocity, Walker has upped the usage of non-four-seamers; he has only thrown his four-seamer 35 percent of the time. In its place, he’s thrown his cutter and splitter more, despite neither of those pitches really generating a ton of whiffs compared to average.

Regardless, even if Walker continues to present as a league-average starter, that’s a huge addition to a Blue Jays team that would have needed to piece together quite a few turns of the back of the rotation.

Ultimately, for Toronto, the trade makes total sense in a vacuum, especially considering the price likely wasn’t too high to acquire him. It is notable, though, that the team is dealing a player not on their 60-man roster. And though we will not find out who that player is until at least the offseason, it is also worth noting that Toronto has kept quite a few of their top prospects off of the 60-man roster roster, opting in favor of adding players who would more likely be immediate major league contributors as depth pieces. Steve Adams at MLB Trade Rumors noted that Ruben Tejada, Caleb Joseph, Jake Petricka, and Justin Miller would all fit the bill here. This has led to some speculation as to who the PTBNL may be, with Kevin Shockey of Sports Radio 950 KJR in Seattle listing 17 Blue Jays prospects not currently on their 60-man roster.

Regardless, the Blue Jays want to capitalize on their increased odds of playing in October, and with their move to acquire Walker on Thursdays, they did just that. Shoring up their rotation will go a long way in helping bring playoff baseball back to... Toronto, Buffalo, or wherever the postseason may be played this year.

Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.