After three losing seasons, the Blue Jays both topped the .500 mark and returned to the playoffs in 2020. Now that the corner has seemingly been turned on the team’s rebuild, could a full-fledged push towards contention be on the way?
- Hyun Jin Ryu, SP: $60MM through 2023
- Randal Grichuk, OF: $29MM through 2023
- Lourdes Gurriel Jr., OF: $13.4MM through 2023
- Tanner Roark, SP: $12MM through 2021
- Shun Yamaguchi, RP: $3.175MM through 2021
- Rafael Dolis, RP: $1.5MM through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- A.J. Cole – $800K
- Teoscar Hernandez – $2.7MM
- Travis Shaw – $4.5MM
- Ross Stripling – $2.7MM
- Non-tender candidates: Shaw
- Chase Anderson, SP: $9.5MM club option, $500K buyout (declined)
- Rafael Dolis, RP: $1.5MM club option (exercised)
- Anderson, Taijuan Walker, Ken Giles, Matt Shoemaker, Robbie Ray, Jonathan Villar, Joe Panik, Anthony Bass, Caleb Joseph, Wilmer Font
A 32-28 record under the wholly unique circumstances of the 2020 season doesn’t exactly mean that the Jays can suddenly start thinking about the World Series. That said, this year’s results were definitely a positive development, and indicative of this roster’s potential — so much of the team’s young core is either still early in their MLB careers or not even in the majors yet, but the Blue Jays have already shown that they’re able to win.
It makes for a potentially fascinating offseason in Toronto, especially considering that the Jays might be one of the few teams who could have the ability to spend. More will be known on this front once Jays management meets with the Rogers Communications ownership group for a budget meeting later this month, but on paper, the Blue Jays would seem to have some extra payroll capacity. The team has roughly $81.25MM in committed salary for 2021, and less than $37MM on the books in both 2022 and 2023, with only three players (Hyun Jin Ryu, Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr.) under contract beyond the coming season.
Since the Jays came into 2020 with a pre-pandemic payroll of around $93.2MM, there is some room for GM Ross Atkins to maneuver even if ownership doesn’t okay much or any new spending. The club already carved out some extra space by declining Chase Anderson’s $9.5MM club option, and Travis Shaw’s projected arbitration salary makes him a non-tender candidate given his lack of production last season.
Is another Ryu-esque signing in the cards? Atkins didn’t rule out the possibility, telling reporters last month that “I think we are in a position where we could add to this team with talent that is condensed in one player and a super high impact.” While Toronto is far from being the proverbial “one player away” from a championship, it seems plausible that the Jays could try to duplicate their 2019-20 offseason by making one big-ticket acquisition and then a few other, more moderately-priced pickups.
Pitching is the most obvious need for a club whose rotation was in flux for much of the season. Ryu and Tanner Roark were the only real constants, though Roark struggled in his first season in Toronto and now figures to slot into the back of the rotation. Ross Stripling also didn’t pitch well as a Blue Jay after being acquired from the Dodgers at the trade deadline, though after years of being shifted in and out of the Los Angeles rotation, Stripling should get a clear-cut chance at being a full-time starting pitcher in 2021. Nate Pearson battled some elbow problems and tossed only 18 innings in his rookie season, so while his prospect ceiling is very high, he can’t yet be counted upon as a front-of-the-rotation type.
Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch, and other young arms are on hand to compete for a starting job or provide depth, but adding certainly one and potentially two experienced starters would go a long way towards solidifying the starting staff. Reunions with free agents Taijuan Walker, Matt Shoemaker, Anderson, and Robbie Ray will be considered, with Walker likely to receive the most attention from other teams given how well he pitched in 2020, particularly after joining the Blue Jays after the trade deadline.
Walker did speak quite highly of his time with the Jays, noting that “they did such a great job of making us comfortable in Buffalo.” This could be an underrated factor in the team’s offseason planning, as pitchers like Walker or the other Jays free agents could be prioritized since they’re already familiar with conditions at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. A decision on whether or not the Blue Jays will be able to play in Toronto in 2021 likely won’t be known for at least a few months, so external free agents might be wary of potentially spending a year at a hitter-friendly minor league ballpark.
Then again, that might be just the kind of thing that would appeal to an unconventional free agent like Trevor Bauer. Atkins and Jays president/CEO Mark Shapiro were part of the Cleveland front office that brought Bauer to the Indians back in December 2012, and while landing Bauer would be much more costly this time around, Bauer’s stated openness to shorter-term or even one-year contracts could make him a particular fit for the Jays. Such a contract would keep Bauer in the fold during the window of Ryu’s prime and still give the Blue Jays future payroll flexibility, while also allowing more time for Pearson, Kay, or Simeon Woods Richardson to develop.
Whether the Blue Jays are prepared to make quite that big a splash in pursuing Bauer remains to be seen, though given how aggressively the team went after pitching last offseason, it can’t be ruled out. If the Jays are allowed to stretch their payroll, that gives them a leg up on virtually every other team in baseball in this post-pandemic offseason, and puts Toronto in play for conceivably any free agent. A case can be made for the Jays to pursue the likes of Bauer, J.T. Realmuto or (as MLBTR did in our Top 50 Free Agents list) DJ LeMahieu, or perhaps rather than shop in the upper tier of the market, the Blue Jays could spread their money around in the second tier. If Bauer is to command upwards of $30MM in average annual value, that $30MM+ could also cover, say, Walker and Masahiro Tanaka in the rotation and Justin Turner at third base.
Besides free agents, the Jays could also look to acquire talent in a trade, especially if rival teams are more willing to unload quality players in the name of cost-cutting. Beyond just the obvious Cleveland connection with Shapiro and Atkins, Francisco Lindor is a player that would make some sense for the Jays, particularly since they have looked into acquiring him in the past. The Indians would certainly have a high asking price for even one year of Lindor, yet considering salary concerns just led the Tribe to cut ties with a valuable player in Brad Hand, getting Lindor’s salary off the books might be a bigger concern for Cleveland than fully maximizing a trade return.
Installing Lindor at shortstop for a year also solves the third base question, assuming Shaw is non-tendered — Bo Bichette would be moved off shortstop to play either third or second base, with Cavan Biggio handling the other position. Acquiring a position player on a shorter-term deal might be the optimal move for a Jays team that has Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans in the prospect pipeline, and seems mostly set around the diamond in the present. The core of Gurriel, Grichuk, and Teoscar Hernandez in the outfield, Danny Jansen behind the plate, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Rowdy Tellez as the first base/DH duo, Bichette at shortstop and Biggio at second base (or multiple positions) is solid from an offensive standpoint, but the Jays were one of the league’s weaker defensive teams.
Inserting a premium defender like Andrelton Simmons or Kolten Wong into the one open infield spot would certainly help in this regard, though if the Blue Jays wanted to go bigger, they could explore trading Grichuk or Tellez. Such moves would allow for the acquisition of a more traditional center fielder to patrol the outfield, or free up the DH spot so the Jays could keep some of their lesser defenders in the lineup.
As they did last offseason, it seems likely that the Jays will continue to target multi-position players, in order to upgrade a bench that didn’t provide much help when injuries arose during the season. Biggio is developing nicely as a super-utilityman, but getting another reliable player who can play several positions could be another path towards helping the defense, at least in a late-game capacity.
The Jays haven’t traditionally spent much on relief pitching under Atkins, and that strategy might continue this winter even though the bullpen didn’t post good numbers in 2020. Toronto relievers were asked to throw a lot of innings in support of the shaky rotation, so things could stabilize simply with a more normal workload, plus several good young arms (i.e. Jordan Romano, Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather) delivered strong results.
It’s possible the Jays don’t have a traditional closer at all next season, or if they do, Romano or Rafael Dolis could get more consideration than an external pitcher. But since the Jays will presumably look to add at least one veteran reliever, they could check into pitchers with past closing experience. As the Indians’ decision to decline Hand’s option might indicate, this could be a particularly volatile market for relief pitching, leaving the Blue Jays with many opportunities to acquire a significant bullpen piece at perhaps something of a bargain price.
There is no shortage of possibilities open to the Blue Jays this winter, making a team to watch both this winter and in 2021, when the young cornerstones and (presumably) some new additions could gather to again make the Jays postseason factors.