CHICAGO -- The Blue Jays insist they aren't rebuilding but the retooling phase of the organization officially began Monday afternoon with a pair of deals prior to the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano was the first to leave town when he was traded to the Astros for veteran Norichika Aoki and Minor League outfielder prospect Teoscar Hernandez early Monday afternoon. A couple of hours later, reliever Joe Smith was sent to Cleveland for low-level prospects Thomas Pannone and Samad Taylor.
"We would prefer to be buying and making a push for the pennant, but having said that ... we feel like we were prepared to pivot at the opportunities that presented themselves to make the organization better," Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins said.
"Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith were great members of the organization and certainly had significant impacts. Now we have more players with different years of control, with different upsides, at different positions, that we didn't have yesterday."
Hernandez was ranked Houston's No. 9 prospect by MLBPipeline.com and he cracks Toronto's list at No. 5. He's a 24-year-old corner outfielder who is batting .279 with 12 homers and 44 RBIs in 79 games for Triple-A Fresno. Hernandez made his big league debut in 2016 and homered three times in his first 10 games, but he eventually cooled off and appeared in just one game for Houston this season.
Per MLBPipeline, Hernandez has plus speed and is viewed as a potential 20-homer/20-steals threat in the Majors. Atkins believes Hernandez is ready for the big leagues but the Dominican native will have to wait a little bit longer for his opportunity. Toronto currently has a crowded outfield with Jose Bautista, Kevin Pillar, Steve Pearce, Ezequiel Carrera and soon Aoki on the active roster.
"Teoscar is a guy that we've liked for a while," Atkins said. "He's someone that we feel can make an impact in the short term and the long term. If we had a need tomorrow, he can 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 and has some power."
Pannone was not ranked as one of Cleveland's top prospects by MLBPipeline.com but he cracks Toronto's list at No. 21. He's in the midst of a solid season for Double-A Akron with a 2.62 ERA over 14 starts. The 23-year-old has low-90s velocity on his fastball with a breaking ball and changeup that led to 81 strikeouts over 82 1/3 innings with a 1.07 WHIP this season.
Atkins had a rather unique perspective on these trade negotiations. He was Cleveland's director of player development when Pannone was taken in the ninth round of the 2013 MLB Draft. Taylor, a 19-year-old second baseman who is batting .300/.328/.467 in 28 games at the low class A New York-Penn League, didn't join the Indians until after Atkins left town.
"He's a great athlete," Atkins said of Pannone. "He was a position player and obviously someone that, not only myself, but the organization has history with. It just so happens that our professional scouts, information insight, analytical department, our baseball operations staff, their thoughts and opinions aligned with the things I learned about him when I was in Cleveland."
Aoki likely was included in the Liriano deal for financial reasons more than anything else. The 35-year-old is earning $5.5 million this season and is eligible for arbitration at the end of the year, but with an escalating salary Aoki is a prime candidate to be non-tendered this offseason. Aoki is batting .272 with a .323 on-base percentage and joins a crowded Toronto outfield.
Atkins admitted the Blue Jays discussed the possibility of moving right-hander Marco Estrada and Bautista but it appears as though neither was particularly close to being moved. Bautista has a mutual option on his deal for 2018 but is expected to become a free agent at the end of the season. As a player with at least 10 years' service time and five with his current team, Bautista had the right to veto any trade.
"We kept him in the loop and talked about, with him, the potential of what could happen, or could not happen," Atkins said. "Nothing came to fruition where we had to say, is this something you would do or not do? But we did include him in the process. Not on specific deals but more out of respect for him as a person, a human being and what he has accomplished as a member of this organization."
Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.