By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
As expected, the Toronto Blue Jays emerged as sellers ahead of Monday's non-waiver trade deadline, flipping both Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith to rival organizations while netting an impressive return on their outgoing assets.
In all, the team's decision makers feel as if they were able to strategically enhance both this year's club and the future of their organization.
"We feel like we did accomplish the goal of maintaining a team that can remain a relevant team in 2017 and we made our 2018 team better," said Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins via phone conference on Monday.
Liriano was the first to go as the Blue Jays and Astros came to terms on a deadline deal that sent the left-handed starter and cash to Houston in exchange for Norichika Aoki and Teoscar Hernandez.
Aoki, 35, is a left-handed batting corner outfielder who has slashed .272/.323/.371 with 15 extra-base-hits over 71 games as a member of the Astros in 2017. Signed to a two-year, $5.5-million contract, the native of Hyuga, Japan is owed a remaining $1.8 million for 2017 and joins the organization with an added year of team control.
"(Aoki) complements our team well with speed and contact and is someone that can play," said Atkins. "He can start a game, pinch run, pinch D... Come in and pitch hit. He's a Major League talent."
Should he stick in Toronto, Aoki's addition will help offset some of the pressure the Blue Jays will be faced with if they fail to exercise Jose Bautista's one-year, $17-million mutual option for 2018.
Hernandez, 24, was listed as Houston's No. 9 prospect according to MLB Pipeline and has slashed a robust .279/.369/.485 with 12 home runs over 79 games with triple-A Fresno in 2017.
Believed to be close to (if not already) major league ready, the right-handed hitting outfielder comes with 42 games of big league service time and will remain under team control through the 2022 season.
"Teoscar is a guy that we've liked for a while," admitted Atkins. "He's someone that we feel can make an impact in the short term and long term. If we had a need tomorrow, he could fill in immediately as an everyday Major League player and certainly moving forward will be an option for us."
"He's a well-rounded player that runs well, throws well, gets on base, has some power and can play all three outfield positions," added Akins. "It's extremely difficult to acquire talent that you can say all those this about and that you will have five-plus years of control on."
Poetically, the former international free agent launched his first of four major league home runs during his debut at Rogers Centre in August 2016. On the mound for the Blue Jays that day: Francisco Liriano.
Liriano, who, along with minor-league prospects Harold Ramirez and Deck McGuire, joined Toronto at last year's non-waiver trade deadline, made 26 starts with the Blue Jays over parts of two seasons with the club. Having accounted for a grand total of 28 appearances, the 33-year-old southpaw pitched to a cumulative ERA of 4.77 with 126 strikeouts and 59 walks through 132 frames split between 2016 and 2017.
It's believed that Houston, a team that currently boasts the lowest starters' ERA in the American League (3.97), will utilize Liriano as a reliever as the team attempts to stay on top of the junior circuit down the stretch.
Traded to Cleveland for a pair of minor leaguers in Thomas Pannone and Samad Taylor, Smith pitched in 38 games with Toronto in 2017, striking out 51 batters, while posting a 3.28 ERA through 35 2/3 innings.
Like Liriano, Atkins was appreciative of Smith's efforts in a Blue Jays uniform but understood that trading him for a pair of players with enhanced team control was best for the organization.
"Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith were great members of the organization, and certainly had significant impacts," said the Blue Jays GM on Monday. "Now we have more players with different years of control, with different upside and different positions that we didn't have yesterday. "
Pannone, 23, currently boasts an ERA of 3.13 across 420 1/3 minor league innings dating back to 2013. Pitching for both high-A Lynchburg and double-A Akron this season, the 6-foot lefty has gone 8-1 with 120 punch outs and a WHIP of .9555 through 110 innings on the year.
"Pannone is a pitcher that's performing very well and has not just objective predictors of success, but also has a lot of subjective predictors of success," explained Atkins. "(Pannone has) left-handed weapons as a starting pitcher, has been durable and is someone that could be a Major League starting pitcher."
Selected by Cleveland in the 10th round of last year's June amateur draft, Taylor, 18, has slashed .300/.328/.467 through 28 games as a shortstop with the Tribe's New York Penn League affiliate in 2017.
"Taylor is a young middle infielder that is an above average runner and has had some success already," said Atkins. "He's a very well rounded athlete that could complement a Major League team one day."
In an effort to bolster their current 25-man roster, the Blue Jays have called up a pair of southpaws in J.P. Howell and Brett Oberholzter from triple-A Buffalo.
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