The Blue Jays’ quest to overhaul their pitching staff led to one of the biggest signings in franchise history.
Major League Signings
- Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP: Four years, $80MM
- Tanner Roark, SP: Two years, $24MM
- Travis Shaw, IF: One year, $4MM
- Rafael Dolis, RP: One year, $1MM ($1.5MM club option for 2021)
- Total spend: $109MM
- Shun Yamaguchi, SP/RP: Two years, $6.35MM (plus $1.27MM to the Yomiuri Giants as a transfer fee)
Trades And Claims
- Acquired SP Chase Anderson from the Brewers for 1B prospect Chad Spanberger
- Acquired cash considerations from the Reds for RP Justin Shafer
- Claimed RP Anthony Bass off waivers from the Mariners
Notable Minor League Signings
- Joe Panik (contract was selected to MLB roster, guaranteeing Panik’s $2.85MM salary), A.J. Cole, Justin Miller, Caleb Joseph, Marc Rzepczynski, Ryan Dull, Jake Petricka, Ruben Tejada, Brian Moran, Patrick Kivlehan, Andy Burns, Phillippe Aumont
The 2019-20 offseason represented a turning point in the Blue Jays’ rebuild process, as Toronto cast a very wide net in search of upgrades both large and small. The Jays were linked to just about every available pitcher, and also looked into such notable position player trade targets and free agents as Francisco Lindor, Yasmani Grandal, Didi Gregorius, Mike Moustakas, and former Toronto favorite Edwin Encarnacion.
It was a big push from a team coming off three consecutive losing seasons, and one that didn’t necessarily announce an intent to be a full-on contender in 2020. Back in February, Jays president/CEO Mark Shapiro stated that even a “.500 [record] would be a big step forward” for a club that only went 67-95 last season, yet it’s clear that management has a lot of faith that its young core of players can get the Blue Jays back into the playoff hunt sooner rather than later.
This set the stage for Hyun-Jin Ryu’s four-year, $80MM contract. It was the seventh-richest contract given to any free agent this winter in terms of total dollars, and it also marked the third-largest deal the Jays have given to any player. It was a big commitment to make to a 33-year-old pitcher with a lengthy injury history, though Ryu brings genuine top-of-the-rotation ability when healthy. Ryu’s 182 2/3 innings pitched in 2019 was the second-highest total of his career, and he finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting after posting a 2.32 ERA, 6.79 K/BB rate, and 8.0 K/9.
While $80MM is a sizeable expenditure for any team, Ryu’s deal is one the Blue Jays could somewhat comfortably afford to make, given their lack of long-term payroll commitments. By this token, it could be argued that the Jays could have made another splashy signing (or trade) beyond just Ryu, though the counter to that argument is that Toronto perhaps still wants to see what it truly has in its young players. As promising as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio are, the quartet has combined for only 418 Major League games — the four players have only appeared in the same starting lineup eight times. Between this lack of experience and the fact that the likes of Teoscar Hernandez, Danny Jansen, or Rowdy Tellez have yet to break out, it makes sense that the Jays didn’t want to go overboard in building around a foundation that may not yet be entirely stable.
That said, some extra willingness to build was required given the escalating prices in free agency, and the simple fact that the 2019-20 offseason moved at a much quicker pace than the previous two winters. As noted by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi back in February, GM Ross Atkins essentially changed tactics midway through the offseason, as failing to adapt to the changing marketplace would have left the Jays without the pitching help they so badly needed.
Ryu was the biggest addition, though Tanner Roark brings some more innings-eating veteran experience to the rotation. The Blue Jays also went overseas to add pitching, signing Shun Yamaguchi to a two-year contract after the right-hander was posted by the Yomiuri Giants. At the time of the COVID-19 shutdown, Yamaguchi was being targeted for the bullpen, though it could have been something of a long relief or swingman role to keep him stretched out for possible starts.
Between these three signings and Chase Anderson (acquired in a trade with the Brewers in early November), Toronto’s pitching situation looks far more solid than it did last season, when injuries and inexperience resulted in the Jays getting just 711 1/3 innings from their starting pitchers, the third-lowest total in baseball. None of Roark, Anderson, Yamaguchi, and Matt Shoemaker are controlled beyond the 2021 season, leaving a lot of flexibility within the rotation for younger pitchers to eventually move into the picture — most prominently, one of the sport’s best pitching prospects in Nate Pearson.
Yamaguchi’s availability in the bullpen helps strengthen a relief corps that also added Anthony Bass, A.J. Cole, old friend Marc Rzepczynski, and Rafael Dolis to the mix. Dolis was the only MLB signing of that trio, inking a $1MM deal to return to North America after four dominant years pitching out of the Hanshin Tigers’ bullpen.
Perhaps the biggest reliever-related headline for the Blue Jays was a move that didn’t happen, as Ken Giles is still in a Toronto uniform. The closer was widely expected to be dealt over the winter, though a lack of early interest seemed to carry through the entire offseason. It could also be that the Jays changed their view on trading Giles after the Ryu signing raised expectations for a competitive season, or at worst, the club figured they could still move him at the trade deadline.
Now, of course, that plan has been entirely altered since we don’t know when a 2020 trade deadline could fall, or whether the 2020 season will be played whatsoever. If the season is indeed cancelled, Giles will still be eligible for free agency as scheduled, leaving the Jays in danger of losing him for nothing. (The Jays could receive a draft pick if Giles rejected a qualifying offer, or Giles could even accept a QO and stay with Toronto, though it remains to be seen if the club would want to pay Giles such a hefty one-year salary.)
Given the flirtations with the likes of Lindor and Moustakas, Travis Shaw could certainly be seen as an underwhelming choice as the Blue Jays’ most notable new position player. Shaw is coming off a terrible 2019 season, though the Jays are betting that year was an aberration considering Shaw’s track record over his previous four MLB campaigns. Shaw will essentially replace Justin Smoak as the regular first baseman, though Shaw’s ability to play third base and second base gives manager Charlie Montoyo the ability to shuffle his lineups.
Multi-position versatility was a stated priority for Atkins heading into the offseason, which also led to Joe Panik being brought aboard to add depth at shortstop and second base. Except for Tellez, the catchers, and maybe Guerrero (who could yet eventually be a first base option), every player on the Blue Jays’ projected roster can play multiple positions, be it an outfielder who can play at least two positions on the grass, or a player like Biggio who could be used all over the diamond.
The catch, however, is that while the Jays have several players who can handle multiple positions, it’s still an open question as to how many can play well at any position. Shaw and Randal Grichuk are coming off rough seasons, while Panik and Brandon Drury have been replacement-level players or worse in each of the last two seasons. As mentioned earlier, the developmental path of so many of Toronto’s young players is still an unknown, so it doesn’t create much of a safety net if the veterans all continue to struggle.
Of the bigger-name position players on the Jays’ target list, Moustakas is perhaps the one that seemed reasonably closest to becoming a reality. Grandal would likely have only been heavily pursued if the Jays had found a good offer for Jansen or Reese McGuire, Toronto’s plan to have Gregorius play second base might not have appealed to the long-time shortstop, and there isn’t much evidence that the Jays’ pursuit of Lindor amounted to anything besides due diligence. (Acquiring Lindor would have also significantly accelerated the Blue Jays’ timeline for contention, since Lindor is only under contract through the 2021 season.)
With Moustakas, however, the Jays were reportedly the second-highest bidder, offering the infielder a three-year, $30MM deal that far surpassed the one-year deals Moustakas had been forced to settle for in the last two free agent markets, and also topped MLBTR’s projected two-year, $20MM contract for him this winter. Considering the Reds went above and beyond all expectations to sign Moustakas to a four-year, $64MM deal, it’s hard to fault the Blue Jays for being outbid by such a massive splurge. Still, if not Moustakas himself, the Jays’ lineup would look a lot more solid had one more proven, above-average hitter been brought into the mix to augment the still-developing younger hitters, rather than just hoping that Shaw can bounce back.
2020 Season Outlook
If some games are played in 2020, there’s a chance a shorter season could be to the Jays’ benefit in terms of actual on-field results. Theoretically, a younger roster could be more suited to handling a compacted schedule with many unusual aspects (regular double-headers, games in minor league or Spring Training parks, etc.) that could be a harder adjustment for a veteran team that is more set in its ways. Also, while it didn’t seem likely that the Blue Jays could hang with the Yankees or Rays over 162 games, keeping pace over something like an 81-game sprint isn’t as far-fetched.
With so many question marks still surrounding the roster, however, the threat of a shortened or altogether canceled 2020 season is particularly tough on the Blue Jays. Not only could all of these questions be kicked down the road into 2021, a reduced or lost season also wipes out invaluable development time for youngsters at both the MLB and minor league levels, and erases the year that the Jays could have most directly counted on as a prime Ryu season.
One significant question that was answered this offseason is that we now have evidence that the Jays are willing and able to make an expensive impact in the free agent market, which was a criticism often directed by Toronto fans towards both club ownership and the Shapiro/Atkins regime. It would have been easy for the front office to respond to the market’s rising price tags by stepping back and making only lower-level signings since the Jays were still in a rebuild phase, yet the team felt the time was right to make the big strike. The Ryu contract is a hint at future aggressiveness down the road, when the Blue Jays are even better positioned to challenge for the postseason.
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