TORONTO — Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins went into Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline looking for young, controllable talent that could help Toronto both immediately and in the future.
What the Blue Jays received — a major league outfielder, a triple-A talent that’s well on his way to permanent major league status and a couple of lower-level prospects, for good measure — pretty much summed up exactly what Atkins had planned. And it only took two trades to get there.
Toronto dealt left-hander Francisco Liriano and cash considerations to the Houston Astros for outfielder Nori Aoki and minor-league outfield prospect Teoscar Hernandez, then traded right-handed reliever Joe Smith to the Cleveland Indians for a pair of minor-league prospects, second baseman Samad Taylor and left-handed pitcher Thomas Pannone.
“Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith were great members of the organization who made significant impacts and now we have four players with different years of control, with different upsides at different positions we didn’t have yesterday,” Atkins said on a conference call.
“So we feel good about the process, we feel good about the work that went into the trade deadline.”
Aoki, a 35-year old native of Hyuga, Japan who batted .272 in 71 appearances with Houston this season, will immediately slide into Toronto’s roster. But from the Blue Jays perspective, Hernandez is considered the central piece of that trade.
The 24-year-old batted .279 with 12 home runs and 44 runs batted in over 79 games with triple-A Fresno this season. He has made 42 career appearances with the Astros over the last two seasons, batting .230 with four homers and 11 RBIs.
Atkins said the Jays had their eyes on Hernandez “for a while.” He’ll report to triple-A Buffalo with a promotion in September likely, though Atkins also said Hernandez could play regularly for Toronto’s major league team before that if needed.
“He’s a well-rounded player who runs well, throws well, gets on base, has some power, can play all three outfield positions,” Atkins said. “It’s extremely difficult to acquire talent that you can say all those things about that you will have five-plus years of control of and can potentially be someone you can count on year in and year out.”
The return on the Smith deal is less obvious as of now with neither prospect ranking high on the Indians top lists.
But Atkins, who worked in Cleveland’s organization for 15 years before joining Toronto, was excited about their upside.
“In regards to where they’re ranked, that certainly is a factor that I wouldn’t dismiss but it’s more about acquiring the talent you think can make an impact,” Atkins said.
Taylor batted .300 with four homers and 19 RBIs this season with Mahoning Valley of the short-season single-A New York-Penn League, while Pannone was 6-1 with a 2.62 ERA with double-A Akron.
The Blue Jays acquired Liriano from Pittsburgh at last season’s trade deadline. He had a 2-2 record in eight starts in Toronto’s 2016 playoff drive with a 2.92 earned run average and 52 strikeouts.
He came out of the bullpen to pick up the win in Toronto’s 5-2, 11-inning victory over Baltimore in the 2016 American League wild-card game. He made just one appearance after that in the post-season, allowing two earned runs over a third of an inning in the Blue Jays’ 5-3 win over Texas in the AL Division Series.
He had an up-and-down 2017 for the Blue Jays, posting a 6-5 record with a 5.88 ERA over 18 starts.
Liriano will add pitching depth to an Astros team that had the best record in the American League (68-36) before Monday’s games.
Smith, an Ohio native returns to Cleveland, where he was a big part of the team’s bullpen from 2009-13. He signed as a free agent with Toronto in February and had a 3-0 record with a 3.28 ERA in 38 relief appearances with the Jays.
Pending free agent right-hander Marco Estrada, who had been brought up in trade rumours for days leading up to the deadline, stayed put. Atkins was OK with that.
“We’re in the business of making this organization better and if the deal doesn’t present itself to do so then we’re happy to keep Marco Estrada a Blue Jay,” Atkins said. ”We’ll start thinking about not only how he impacts us now but how he could potentially impact us beyond 2017.”
Toronto recalled left-handers Brett Oberholtzer and J.P. Howell before Monday’s game in Chicago against the White Sox to fill up the roster spots vacated by the trades.