As MLB trade deadline looms, how many more starts will Yusei Kikuchi make for the Blue Jays?

SAN FRANCISCO — With each passing Yusei Kikuchi start, the question becomes, how many more times will he pitch for the Toronto Blue Jays?

The Blue Jays continued to sink into sure-sellers status after another gutting loss on Tuesday. The San Francisco Giants came back to beat the Blue Jays 4-3 on a walk-off wild pitch from Trevor Richards in the ninth inning at Oracle Park. Richards was filling in for the unavailable Chad Green, who threw on back-to-back days in Seattle.

The loss against San Francisco spoiled an otherwise brilliant outing from Kikuchi and sunk the Blue Jays to 9 1/2 games back of an American League wild-card spot. Even with 16 games to go until July 30’s trade deadline, Toronto is all but out of contention, and the Blue Jays will be best served admitting the 2024 season is a goner and selling at the deadline to plan for the future.

In a trade market expected to be saturated with buyers as the extra wild-card spots keep more teams engaged in competing for longer — especially in the National League — the Blue Jays could stand out as one of the few attractive sellers, given the level of talent they could dangle.

Starting pitching is always a commodity at the deadline and the Blue Jays have a few quality arms they could deal away. The most obvious candidate is Kikuchi, who will be a free agent after this season, making him a pure rental. On Tuesday, Kikuchi showed exactly why he could be a valuable addition to a club readying for a playoff push.

The 33-year-old left-hander was excellent against the Giants, fanning 13 batters over 7 1/3 innings, a new career-high. The Giants’ only runs off him came via a pair of solo home runs from All-Star centre fielder Heliot Ramos in the fourth inning and shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald in the eighth inning. Otherwise, Kikuchi limited the Giants to six hits in what Blue Jays manager John Schneider called, “if not the best, one of the best outings he’s had with us.”

“He was on from the get-go,” Schneider said. “He had a great fastball, a good mix. Fastballs really stood out, just putting it past hitters, and some really good hitters, too.”

The outing lowered Kikuchi’s season ERA to 4.00 and after a dip in his performance through June, the left-hander has been sharper in his last two starts, which is convenient timing for the Blue Jays’ sake.

While Kikuchi is still prone to dud outings from time to time, he’s transformed into a far more convicted and confident pitcher during his two-and-a-half years in Toronto. He said that he’s learned to take a breath, reset and refocus after giving up runs or hard contact, something he did on Tuesday after giving up the home runs. His status as a hard-throwing lefty with a 26.1 percent strikeout rate this season makes him an attractive option, especially for a team looking for a short-term fix for their rotation.

With three weeks until the trade deadline, Kikuchi could potentially make a few more starts for the Blue Jays and he said his focus will be on those, rather than stressing over the possibility of being moved.

“For me personally, I don’t look at social media or news out there about myself,” Kikuchi said through his interpreter Yusuke Oshima. “All I’m doing is just getting ready for my next start which is (in) the D-backs series. So, just looking forward to that and making sure I’m preparing for that game.”

Kikuchi is the Blue Jays’ most likely starter to be dealt, but possibly not the only one. If the Blue Jays decide to dig in on a sell-off, moving Chris Bassitt or Kevin Gausman could be an option.

Bassitt, who starts on Wednesday, has raised his stock lately with a 2.19 ERA in his last six starts. The right-hander is signed through 2025 when he’s due to make $22 million, so teams would be acquiring a pitcher for perhaps two playoff runs. If the Blue Jays are willing to move him, he could fetch a bigger package than a rental like Kikuchi.

As for Gausman, who will pitch against his former team on Thursday, the right-hander is having a down season, by his standards. His 4.64 ERA is the highest since 2019, the same season he was DFA’d by the Atlanta Braves before his career renaissance started.

Gausman is signed through 2026, so there is no urgency to move him, and considering his uncharacteristic performance, it probably doesn’t make strategic sense since his value is at a low point. Keeping Gausman also means the Blue Jays hold onto a pillar of their rotation for next season — someone who could help lead a young group including Yariel Rodríguez and, potentially, prospect Ricky Tiedemann.

But if the Blue Jays are willing to dangle Kikuchi, and maybe even Bassitt, they could have a long list of teams calling them. Among teams in need of starting pitching at the deadline are the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have encountered several pitching injuries and just sent All-Star Tyler Glasnow to the 15-day IL. The Houston Astros, similarly, have been hit hard by injuries to starters and could be in search of reinforcements at the end of the month.

Other teams that could be in the market for starting pitching at the deadline include the Cleveland Guardians, San Diego Padres, Minnesota Twins, St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox could use starting pitching help, as well, but trading within the division isn’t common, although it’s not unheard of. In 2018, the Blue Jays dealt pending free-agent starter J.A. Happ to the New York Yankees.

For now, it’s hard to predict where Kikuchi or other Blue Jays pitchers could be playing by next month, but because this season has had too many losses like Tuesday’s, it’s become a near inevitability that it won’t be with Toronto.

“It’s difficult because we’re all going in there, trying to win every ball game, so we’re all thinking about what to do every game to win that ball game all the time,” Kikuchi said. “Obviously, frustrating loss, but all we can do is prepare and just continue thinking about what we can do to win ball games.”

(Photo: Lachlan Cunningham / Getty Images)

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