The Blue Jays Get José Berríos, Their ’21 and ’22 Pitching Solution

If it feels like the Blue Jays have been on the cusp of breaking through for years, that’s because they have. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and crew have put together a fearsome offense (with some help from the friendly confines of Dunedin and Buffalo). Hyun Jin Ryu and Robbie Ray have provided some pitching, but not enough; only three teams have gotten fewer innings out of their starters, and the Jays’ bullpen has been no great shakes either.

To compete this year, Toronto needed another starter, and now it has one. Per Ken Rosenthal, the Jays have acquired José Berríos from the Twins in exchange for prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson, a move that will have implications for both teams for years to come.

As is customary when prospects of such lofty stature are involved, Kevin Goldstein and Eric Longenhagen will cover the specifics of the two in a separate piece. In this one, you’re stuck with me, and we’ll try to assess how this trade affects the two squads without diving into the nitty-gritty of what Martin has been doing with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

The Jays have conflicting interests at this deadline. They’re 4.5 games out of the second wild card spot and had a 25.9% chance of reaching the playoffs before adding Berríos to the mix. That’s a great reason to go for it, but it also merits caution; the team is so stacked and so young that this might be the worst Toronto squad of the next three or four years, not the best. Trading for a bevy of rentals two years too early would hardly be a crippling blow, but with such a talented roster, building for the future and the present would beat doing only one or the other.

Enter Berríos, who has posted the best FIP, xFIP, and ERA of his career this year, and it’s not like he was a slouch in previous seasons, either. Every indicator is pointing up: He has his highest career strikeout rate, his second-lowest walk rate (a sterling 6.5%), and highest ground-ball rate. At this point, you should think of him as a workhorse, too: He made 32 starts in 2018 and ’19, a full 12 in ’20, and has made 20 starts already this year.

That’s not to say there aren’t warning signs; there are always warning signs if you look at a pitcher long enough. A 10.2% swinging-strike rate is below league average, which makes you wonder how sustainable the strikeouts are. Since the June 21 enforcement of grip-enhancing substances, his four-seam fastball has had less bite, though it’s missed just as many bats; it’s never been a swing-and-miss monster at the top of the zone, so he’s perhaps less affected than most by losing some ride.

Luckily, Berríos has an easy counter: lean harder on his sinker, which is the better of the two fastballs in any case. It misses nearly as many bats as the four-seamer and results in weaker contact when hitters put a bat on it. Perhaps most importantly, he’s a surgeon with the pitch, spotting it to both sides of the plate with aplomb. Thanks for playing, Amed Rosario, but you can take a seat now:

In fact, his sinker does a better job getting from two strikes to three than his four-seamer despite inducing fewer whiffs, because he gets a ton of looking strikeouts — 14 out of the 142 sinkers he’s thrown in two-strike counts this year, a top-20 rate in baseball. That makes up for his relative inability to miss bats with the two fastballs; the reason analysts drool over swinging strikes instead of called strikes is because it’s hard to get strike three looking, but Berríos doesn’t have that problem.

He also has a two-plane curveball and a mid-80s changeup that he’s increasingly leveraged against lefties of late; he throws it between 20 and 25% of the time to them and mostly avoids using the pitch against righties. Four pitches and a heaping helping of control gives him a high floor, and he delivers that over an enviably large workload; his six-plus innings per start ranks ninth among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 innings this year.

Oh, and Berríos will be back for next year’s campaign as well. He’ll go through the arbitration process one more time before hitting free agency after the 2022 season, which gives the Jays two bites at the postseason apple with him in tow. With most of their hitters under team control for a while — only Marcus Semien and rental Corey Dickerson are eligible for free agency this upcoming offseason — bolstering the pitching staff for the future was always at the top of Toronto’s to-do list.

In fact, I’d argue that the team is priced into negotiating an extension. It’s not that the Jays have to, but with Guerrero, Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Alek Manoah, and plenty more players still on pre-arbitration or early arbitration contracts, there’s space on the payroll to use for pitching. Pitchers like Berríos (and Ray, should they retain him) would suit their needs perfectly: they’re good right now and still young enough to compete for years alongside the team’s young core.

Between Berríos, Ryu, a suddenly strike-throwing Ray, and Manoah, the Jays should be able to assemble a solid postseason rotation. They’re still a bit light on fifth starters — Steven Matz has been hit-or-miss, Ross Stripling has mainly been miss — but the 2022 rotation could add Nate Pearson (relief-only this year as he returns from injury) and get truly fearsome. With the firepower it can bring to bear, Toronto mainly needs competence and innings out of its pitching staff, and pairing Berríos and Ryu at the top gives it a solid shot at just that.

You have to spend money to make money, as the saying goes, and the Jays shipped out two legit prospects to bring Berríos into the fold. Kevin and Eric will have more expansive coverage, but for our purposes, they’re both 50 FV types (Martin is down since our preseason report) and borderline top-100 names with relatively short paths to the majors — 2022 for Martin, ‘22 or ‘23 for Woods Richardson. They could have contributed to the next great Toronto team, but they might also not be ready in time, or never be ready, and Berríos is definitively good right this minute.

“Right this minute” matters less to the Twins, which makes this return a solid one from their perspective. They’re completely out of the hunt this year, but would still like to compete in 2022 and beyond; Byron Buxton, Alex Kirilloff, Max Kepler, and Miguel Sanó highlight a team with plenty of offensive talent, and it would surprise no one if they brought Nelson Cruz back for another tour of duty when his contract expires this winter. Martin could fit into their plans at shortstop or in center field if Buxton leaves, though he still doesn’t have a clear defensive position.

Woods Richardson is a pitcher, so who knows! It’s hard to figure out when minor league pitchers will figure into the big league club’s plans. Given the Twins’ designs on competing for a number of years to come, however, he seems like a good fit; he’s not a tooled-up 18-year-old who won’t hit the scene until 2025, but he’s enough of an unfinished product that there’s still a chance for a velo uptick or some other boost to his stock.

If we’re scoring trades for one side or another, I like this trade for the Twins more than for the Jays. To my eyes, Berríos made so much sense in Toronto that they almost had to make the highest bid for him, and the Twins used that to get a solid prospect haul. That said, the Blue Jays really needed a durable pitcher who was controllable beyond this year, and they got their man. Given the extreme league-wide prospect-hugging of the past two years, I thought they might be able to surrender less of a haul to get it done, but Minnesota seemed to have diamond hands in the negotiation and got a nice return for its troubles. It’s a win-win, but the Twins won more, in my first estimation.

Between this trade and last night’s Dodgers/Nationals barn-burner, top-100 prospects seem to be back on the menu. That makes a lot of sense to me; teams who are currently competing should be shifting future resources to the present more than they have in recent years. Berríos will probably be the second-most-desirable player moved at this deadline (after Trea Turner), and these two trades are setting the market for stars with team control that extends past the current year. Want a controllable stud? You’ll have to hand over some valuable prospects to do it, and some of the most analytical front offices in the game are increasingly willing to do so.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Wow, this was a lot to give up for 1.5 years of Berrios. Especially since their best case scenario is a 2nd wild card for this year and they are 4.5 games out with three teams ahead of them. They’ve gotta fix the bullpen now, right? Adding just Hand isn’t going to be enough. Hand is nice, but he’s not a savior for that bullpen. Berrios will help a lot though and will be a good #2 behind Ryu next year.

The Yankees don’t really have an equivalent to this since they don’t have a pitching prospect as good as Woods-Richardson or an infield prospect as good as Martin, though Martin might be an OF. But how about Volpe, Medina, and Waldichuk? That’s in the neighborhood at least. Don’t think I would do that. Minnesota got a really good deal here.

1 year ago
Reply to  steveo

The equivalent package for this in the Yankees system would be something Anthony Volpe, Deivi Garcia, and Oswald Peraza. This is a very large return for 1.5 years of Berrios. It’s an overpay but there are just no starters you feel comfortable throwing out there in the playoffs that were both available in trade and under team control in 2022. So the supply is just nowhere near the demand.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I guess I’m higher on Volpe and lower on Martin than you. I like Martin plenty, but he’s probably a corner outfielder long-term. A good one, but a corner outfielder. I think Volpe and Martin have similar value and Oswald Peraza and Woods-Richardson have similar value. So I think Deivi is excessive here. I think you’re in the ballpark, but I think that offer from the Yanks would top the Jays offer.

1 year ago
Reply to  steveo

Yes, probably, but it’s pretty close.

In any case, if you’re a Yankees fan I do not think you want your team to try and top this offer. Andrew Heaney will be fine.