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Where could the Blue Jays look for next year’s Steven Matz?

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As the Toronto Blue Jays’ off-season begins in earnest, one of its most interesting figures in the early going is Steven Matz.

While it will be fascinating to see what the Blue Jays do about the potential departures of free agents Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien, in the immediate term the course with them is clear. On Sunday, the team will offer each a qualifying offer in expectation of seeing both decline to safeguard draft pick compensation if they sign elsewhere. It would be foolish for the Blue Jays to do anything but tender the offers and it would be foolish of the players to do anything but turn them down.

Matz is creating more intrigue because there are legitimate arguments to be made for both offering and not offering the southpaw a QO. Last year, the left-hander posted 2.8 WAR with 150.2 innings of 3.82 ERA ball, which FanGraphs valued at $22.1 million. If he repeats those numbers, he’d be good value on a qualifying offer and considering his age (30) there’s no reason to expect a precipitous decline.

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That said, 2021 was Matz’s best season. He managed just 2.1 WAR in the prior four seasons combined, despite pitching over 400 innings. The former New York Met would likely accept a qualifying offer, and tendering one to him would be buying him at the price reflecting one of his best possible outcomes, when players are normally valued closer to their median projection.

Although payroll flexibility can feel more like a buzzword than a tangible concept at times, the way the Blue Jays value it also factors in. With Hyun-Jin Ryu and George Springer on the books — plus Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Teoscar Hernandez looking at significant raises through arbitration —it’s harder to come by for Toronto these days. That makes it hard to see the club putting nearly $20 million aside for Matz.

Instead of locking down the 30-year-old, it seems more likely the Blue Jays will be in the market for a new Matz (who doesn’t preclude them from pursuing a higher-end starter). If Toronto wants to strike gold with a back-of-the-rotation starter again it could look to find someone with someone of the qualities Matz brought to the table prior to 2021, which include:

• A rough prior season that brings the price tag down (Matz posted a 9.68 ERA in 30.2 innings in 2020)

• Limited team control (if any) to ensure they’re available

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• Some track record of success, as at least a back-of-the-rotation starter

• Young enough that their recent struggles aren’t likely to be caused by age-related decline

• Something intriguing in their repertoire (like Matz’s high-velocity sinker and above-average changeup)

Here are three guys who could fit the bill:

Dylan Bundy

Age: 28

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Throws: Right

Contract status: Free agent

2021 stats: 8.34 K/9, 3.38 BB/9, 1.99 HR/9 with a 6.06 ERA and 5.51 FIP in 90.2 IP for 0.0 WAR

What went wrong last season: Basically everything. Bundy saw an across-the-board decline in 2021 after providing 65.2 exceptional innings in a shortened 2020. The right-hander’s contact management was particularly poor. After suppressing hard contact across the board in 2020…

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… Bundy couldn’t recreate any of that magic in 2021:

Bundy saw his command and control waver in 2021 as his walk rate rose and he struggled with keeping his changeup and sinker down — leading to power spikes against those pitches.

Why he could be a Matz-type: Although Bundy’s raw stuff has declined significantly since he was a Baltimore Orioles wunderkind nearly a decade ago, it didn’t change much between 2020 and 2021. Now a soft tosser, Bundy actually picked up 0.7 mph on his fastball last year (up to a modest 90.7), and he still has four different pitches with above-average vertical movement and 89th percentile spin rate on his fastball.

He’s clearly not overpowering, but his stuff is compelling in its own way. It’s not hard to imagine him finding a level of success with it somewhere between the form that saw him rack up 2.0 WAR in just 11 starts in 2020 and the struggles that got him booted from an unimpressive Los Angeles Angels rotation last year.

Vince Velasquez

Age: 29

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Throws: Right

Contract status: Free agent

2021 stats: 9.64 K/9, 4.67 BB/9, 2.19 HR/9 with a 6.30 ERA and 5.88 FIP in 94.1 IP for -0.3 WAR

What went wrong last season: Much like Bundy, Velasquez got hit around in 2021.

Unlike Bundy, Velasquez missed some bats along the way, but he also walked far too many batters. The combination of putting hitters on, then letting them make hard contact, was deadly and by the end of the year, he was toiling in a barren San Diego Padres rotation more than a month after the Philadelphia Phillies released him. He’s struggled with control and contact management at times throughout his career, but never as badly as he did in 2021.

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Why he could be a Matz-type: Velasquez’s career numbers don’t jump off the page (particularly his 4.95 ERA), but he’s got two seasons of 2-plus WAR under his belt, and his 9.75 K/9 as a starter ranks 24th league-wide since 2015 — in between Luis Castillo and Noah Syndergaard.

His fastball is a particularly strong pitch with respectable velocity (93.2 mph), strong vertical movement (plus-13 percent above average) and excellent spin rate (75th percentile). As Devan Fink of FanGraphs pointed out in September, there’s reason to believe he could improve if he leaned on it more. Velasquez also has a biting slider with significantly above-average horizontal run (plus-22 percent):

The tools are there with Velasquez, but the Phillies were never able to help him convert them into consistent production. Perhaps another team employing a pitching coach with a growing reputation would have more luck.

Chad Kuhl

Age: 29

Throws: Right

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Contract status: One year of team control with the Pittsburgh Pirates (projected arbitration salary $3 million)

2021 stats: 8.40 K/9, 4.71 BB/9, 1.46 HR/9 with a 4.82 ERA and 5.31 FIP in 80.1 IP for -0.1 WAR

What went wrong last season: After a mediocre start to the year, Kuhl was bumped from the rotation. The right-hander’s walk-to-strikeout ratio of 1.66 as a starter was well below league-average, eroding the Pirates’ faith in him (2.88) despite some superficially acceptable results. Once in the bullpen, he performed even worse (6.75 ERA and 6.31 FIP) on the way to a lost season.

Why he could be a Matz-type: Kuhl last strong season came in 2017, but he has a couple of factors in his favour. The right-hander pairs a solid fastball (67th percentile velocity) with a hard slider in the high 80s, touching the 90s at times:

That’s been his top strikeout pitch in each of his five MLB seasons. It’s never induced a whiff rate below 33.5 percent, and has been worth minus-38 runs since 2017 according to Statcast. Although it’s seldom used, he also wields a curveball with average movement but a gaudy spin rate (79th percentile).

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There’s not a lot in Kuhl’s recent numbers to like, but his arsenal is intriguing. It’s no sure thing that it could be unlocked outside the confines of Pittsburgh, but considering the Pirates’ lacklustre reputation for developing pitching lately — and the modest price tag that would be attached to Kuhl — he’s the sort of guy who it could pay to pry loose.



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As Raptors navigate slumps, upcoming winnable matchups could be cure

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TORONTO — The simplest way for the Toronto Raptors to solve their problems — and they have a few — is to win some games, maybe three in a row or something.

Their chance might be at hand: sure the Lo Angeles Lakers visit Wednesday as one of the hottest teams in the league having won eight of their last 10 (as of Monday), riding the MVP-level play of Anthony Davis and the return to health of LeBron James.

But the Lakers will be arriving from Cleveland playing on the second night of a back-to-back in the middle of a six-game road trip. They are still a sub-.500 team. There is a win there if the Raptors can take it.

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And after that Toronto heads to Orlando for a pair of games against a Magic team that is young, short-handed, and focused on the draft lottery, as the Raptors saw for themselves with an easy win over Orlando on Saturday. As long as the Raptors pay attention to the job at hand, sweeping Florida is a reasonable expectation.

The point being: things can change quickly in the NBA. Just when things are looking bleak, they can turn around, the Lakers being a perfect example. After a 2-10 start that looked disastrous they strung some wins together — helped along by a friendly schedule — and things don’t seem so bad for the moment.

The Raptors can’t say the same thing, having been blown out twice on the road last week by good teams and — after a comfortable win over Orlando — punting an otherwise winnable game against the Boston Celtics, who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and missing two starters and their sixth man.

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The Raptors think highly of themselves: “I think we’re a really good team. I think we’ve got a lot of talent, we got good players,” said Fred VanVleet. “But there’s a level that you have to get to with consistency and execution and attention to detail. And those are things that we’re struggling to know right now.”

No one wants to put a finger on exactly what the problem is, but you don’t have to read too deeply between the lines to ascertain that yes, there are issues: tactics, personnel, vibe — something seems off.

“We’re losing, it’s not fun. We don’t like losing,” said Pascal Siakam Monday. “This organization’s not about losing and not winning games is not part of who we are. So obviously you know the mood’s gonna be a little different … we don’t want to just let the losses kind of take us down and take the mood and fun out everything. Just gotta keep it fun. And keep working because (we) believe that’s what’s going to get us out of it.”

In the meantime, the spotlight keeps searching for a scapegoat. Recently it was Gary Trent Jr. and his shooting woes that got examined, with the shooting guard eventually being moved to the bench where he’s been productive.

Then rookie Scottie Barnes was under the glare after a long stretch of poor play. The upbeat, bouncy, 20-year-old rookie energy that made him such a darling last season seems to have gone into hiding along with his ability to finish.

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Barnes also made a brief visit to the bench and subsequently had a private meeting with Raptors brass in New York on Friday. Barnes’ defence still needs to pick up, but he’s at least converting offensively on a more simplified shot menu with a greater emphasis on getting to the rim. He’s averaging 18.3 points and 10 rebounds on 61.7 per cent shooting in his last three games.

Right now it’s VanVleet’s turn to be poked and prodded. A year ago VanVleet was in the midst of the best stretch of his career. Over a torrid 34-game period beginning in late October until he cooled off in early January, VanVleet averaged 23 points a game while shooting 42.5 per cent from three on over 10 attempts a game. He became an all-star.

But unless something changes dramatically, VanVleet will have all-star weekend off come February. He’s heading into Wednesday’s game shooting just 5-of-28 from three over his last four games and shooting just 34 per cent from three for the season, a career low. Making things worse, the 28-year-old is struggling to finish in the lane, which has never been a strong point for the six-footer. This season he’s shooting just 48.6 per cent at the rim — his worst since becoming a regular — compared with 64.9 per cent last season, which was a career-best. He’s averaging 16.3 points a game compared to 20.3 last season.

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VanVleet is normally as plain-spoken as they come, but he didn’t want to elaborate too much on his struggles — which go back to last season given he shot just 29 per cent from three after the all-star break.

“I mean there’s a lot going on. I mean, like, a lot going on all across the board,” he said when asked if teams were covering him differently recently. “I’m not really going to run down the list with you guys, I’ll just play better and then you’ll have better things to talk about. But there’s definitely a lot of reasons for the situation that I’m in. I’m going to continue to keep working, being professional and giving everything I’ve got when I step out there. So hopefully I’ll turn it around soon.”

He also said he felt his shooting slump was mostly in his head at this point: “Once you’re in it it’s all just mental. There’s nothing really more to it.”

Later on head coach Nick Nurse said the data gathered by the analytics system the Raptors have at their practice facility shows that VanVleet’s ball flight is a little wonky. “Normally his numbers on his right/left, his straightness, are off the charts,” said Nurse. “…that’s the one that is got a little bit of a wrinkle for him right now that he’s got to get ironed out.”

It probably doesn’t help that with VanVleet finishing in the lane so poorly teams can be more aggressive crowding him at the three-point line — another element Nurse touched on — making life more difficult for VanVleet there, too.

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But whatever the Raptors’ issues — be they as simple as their best three-point shooter being in a deep slump or something possibly deeper and more systemic — the easiest way to put them to rest in the short term is to string together some wins.

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The Raptors were 11-13 at the same stage last season and in 12th place and were still at .500 in late January before finishing the season with a 25-11 push and moving all the way up to fifth place.

“I know it doesn’t feel like [it] … because maybe expectations are so much higher or whatever, but I would say we are really on the right track,” said Nurse. “We are making some progress … we have had a rough year injury-wise. So I think on one hand you can look at it and say we are doing ok. We are hanging in here with a lot of tough breaks and if we just hang in there and keep improving a little bit, we will get things squared away and be really tough to beat.”

That’s the optimistic view and quite possibly the proper view. But it will be a lot easier to sell with some wins — something a return to form by VanVleet would help with — and the sooner the better.

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