The biggest free agent contract of the offseason (and the biggest contract in franchise history) was the highlight of a very busy winter for the Blue Jays.
Major League Signings
- George Springer, OF: Six years, $150MM
- Marcus Semien: IF: One year, $18MM
- Robbie Ray, SP: One year, $8MM
- Kirby Yates, RP: One year, $5.5MM
- Tyler Chatwood, RP: One year, $3MM
- David Phelps, RP: One year, $1.75MM
- Total spend: $186.25MM
Trades & Claims
- Acquired SP Steven Matz from the Mets for SP Sean Reid-Foley, SP Yennsy Diaz, and SP Josh Winckowski
- Acquired RP Travis Bergen from the Diamondbacks for cash considerations
- Acquired C Juan Graterol from the Angels for cash considerations
- Acquired cash considerations/player to be named later from the Brewers for OF Derek Fisher
- Acquired cash considerations/player to be named later from the Reds for RP Hector Perez
- Claimed SP Anthony Castro off waivers from the Tigers
- Claimed RP Joel Payamps off waivers from the Red Sox
- Sent 1B/OF Ryan Noda to the Dodgers (player to be named later from August trade for Ross Stripling)
Notable Minor League Signings
- Joe Panik (contract will be selected, guaranteeing $1.85MM salary), A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone, Tyler White, Richard Urena, Forrest Wall, Francisco Liriano (released)
- Taijuan Walker, Jonathan Villar, Matt Shoemaker, Ken Giles, Anthony Bass, Travis Shaw, Chase Anderson, Shun Yamaguchi, Caleb Joseph
“The Blue Jays have shown interest in…” were the seven most popular words on MLB Trade Rumors over the last five months, as for the second straight offseason, the Jays at least checked in on seemingly every free agent or trade candidate on the market. This aggression stood out in a winter marked by teams cutting payroll or trying to stand pat with their spending, as Toronto left no doubt that it was looking to augment its young core with some veteran upgrades.
This doesn’t mean the Jays went overboard, however. Besides a quick re-signing of starter Robbie Ray soon after the free agent period opened, the Blue Jays didn’t start swinging any major moves until January. The long wait could be attributed to some bigger-picture factors — all teams were being somewhat cautious until more information was available about the status of the pandemic and the 2021 season, and players and agents were being cautious about signing contracts until they had a full grasp of the potential market of suitors.
In the Blue Jays’ case, however, they faced a problem unique to MLB’s only Canadian team. In essence, the Jays’ usual free agent pitch went from convincing players to play in Canada to convincing players to play in multiple minor league ballparks in the United States and (potentially) in Canada in 2021. As manager Charlie Montoyo noted in December, “the No. 1 question is if we’re going to play in Toronto. That’s rightly so. Our answer is, ’Yeah, we’re hoping so.’ ”
As the 2021 season begins, the team’s answer is still TBD….as in, Toronto/Buffalo/Dunedin. The Jays will play home games at their spring site in Dunedin through at least the end of May, with team president/CEO Mark Shapiro recently suggesting that the club will then shift games to Sahlen Field in Buffalo in June to avoid playing outdoors in the Florida summer. Depending on the pandemic and the approval of Canadian government and health officials, the best-case scenario for the Jays would see them return to Rogers Centre at some point in July.
Amidst this uncertainty, the Jays’ willingness to spend ultimately allowed them to land a couple of major targets. George Springer’s six-year, $150MM contract easily topped the list of free agent contracts in total dollars (well ahead of J.T. Realmuto’s five-year, $115.5MM pact with the Phillies) and ranked second in average annual value, behind Trevor Bauer’s three-year, $102MM deal with the Dodgers. Marcus Semien wasn’t far behind on the AAV list, as his $18MM salary is just shy of the cost of the qualifying offer that the Athletics chose to not issue to their longtime shortstop.
The Mets were Toronto’s chief competition for Springer, as New York reportedly floated a six-year deal in the $120MM-$125MM range for the outfielder’s services before the Jays made the higher bid. It was a price Toronto was willing to pay to land a proven performer in both the regular season and postseason.
There is undoubtedly risk in making a six-year commitment to a player who is already 31 years old, and Springer has already hit a minor setback in the form of a Grade 2 oblique injury that will require an IL trip. Still, there isn’t much statistical evidence that Springer is slowing down as a top-level offensive performer, and his defensive numbers are still solid enough that the Blue Jays can count on him in center field for at least a few of those six years. And, for the inevitable questions about Springer and the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, his career numbers on the road are actually better than his career numbers in Houston.
While multiple teams were interested in Semien, his market was more complicated. Following a spectacular 2019 season, Semien’s numbers dropped off over 236 regular-season plate appearances in 2020, though he did start to heat up at the end of the season and through the Athletics’ postseason run. The number of other star shortstops available as free agents and trade candidates both this offseason and next offseason also seemingly made teams wary of a big commitment to Semien, and multiple clubs explored moving him off of shortstop entirely.
As it turned out, Semien will indeed take a change of position, as he will be Toronto’s new regular at second base. He hasn’t played the keystone since the 2014 season, though Semien is a solid enough defender at shortstop that there isn’t much doubt he can handle the new role. With Semien at second base, the Blue Jays won’t interrupt Bo Bichette’s development as the everyday shortstop — an option the Jays at least considered, as they too looked at the broader picture of the shortstop market.
Semien’s $18MM price tag again represented an outbid of the market for the Jays, though it hardly counts as an onerous investment for a player who is undoubtedly motivated to bounce back from 2020 and prove himself worthy of a big multi-year contract. If the qualifying offer system isn’t altered once the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in December, the Jays are eligible to issue a QO to Semien next offseason, putting Toronto in line for a compensatory draft pick if Semien rejects the offer and signs elsewhere.
The one-year deal for Semien also continued the Jays’ winter strategy of not quite going all-in on new acquisitions, as aggressive as the team was in pursuing talent. Springer was the lone player signed to a multi-year deal, and he is one of only four Jays — along with Hyun Jin Ryu, Randal Grichuk, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — who are officially under contract beyond the 2021 season. With so many intriguing young players in the pipeline or with only a bit of Major League experience, the Blue Jays are still something of a work in progress.
Giving a multi-year commitment to Semien or another prominent infielder like DJ LeMahieu, for example, would have closed off an infield spot for a team that already has Bichette, Rowdy Tellez, Cavan Biggio and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on the big league roster, and top-50 prospects Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans maybe a season away from the Show. (There was room, though, for another minor league deal with Joe Panik, who will return as the club’s chief utility infielder.)
Likewise, the Blue Jays had some interest in Realmuto, but he was a luxury on a team that already had Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk, and multiple other promising catchers in the minors. Springer was targeted in part because the outfield depth chart isn’t quite as crowded, though Grichuk, Gurriel, and Teoscar Hernandez are all on hand for at least the next two seasons (barring a trade) and both Martin and Biggio can also play the outfield.
A similar story applied to the pitching staff, as Ray (who will begin this year on the IL with an elbow bruise) was signed to a one-year deal, and trade acquisition Steven Matz is eligible for free agency next winter. Younger arms like Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch, Simeon Woods Richardson and Alek Manoah could start playing larger roles in the Toronto rotation as early as this season, so Ryu remains the only long-term veteran piece of the pitching staff.
The rotation, however, now looms as the Blue Jays’ biggest concern. This is the flip side of the Jays’ active offseason — when a team is “in on everyone,” it becomes easy to second-guess the moves that they did make. If Springer or Semien don’t produce, the argument will be made that the Jays should have instead traded for Francisco Lindor, or pushed to sign Realmuto, LeMahieu, Justin Turner, Ha-Seong Kim, or Michael Brantley (who Toronto had seemingly agreed to sign before Brantley decided at the last minute to rejoin the Astros).
One acquisition has unfortunately already backfired on the Jays, as Kirby Yates will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery. Yates missed most of the 2020 campaign after undergoing surgery to remove bone chips from his throwing elbow, and though Yates’ offseason physicals revealed more concerns about his elbow, the Blue Jays still took the risk of a one-year, $5.5MM deal on a reliever who posted elite numbers in 2018-19.
Whiffing on the Yates contract won’t make or break Toronto’s payroll by any means, and with so many other internal bullpen candidates on hand (to say nothing of possible contributions from veterans Tyler Chatwood or David Phelps), it’s possible the Jays might not even miss Yates. Still, while every other team also decided against picking Brad Hand off the Indians’ waiver wire in October, the Jays’ pass stands out since they already knew they’d have some level of spending capability, and Hand would’ve also represented just a one-year commitment.
While Yates’ season-ending injury is by far the most serious problem, Nate Pearson will begin the season on the IL due to a groin injury, Thomas Hatch is out with elbow inflammation, and Ray will miss at least one start due to a bruised elbow. The injuries further thin out a pitching mix that is already relying on a lot of youngsters to establish themselves, and a lot of veterans to bounce back.
In Ray, Matz, Tanner Roark, and Ross Stripling, the Jays are putting a significant amount of faith in four pitchers who simply weren’t very good in 2020, though Ray and Matz both impressed this spring in Grapefruit League play. While walks and homers were always some type of an issue for Ray throughout his career, those issues became dire problems during the southpaw’s disastrous 2020 season, possibly due to an arm-slot change Ray made prior to the year. For Matz, he stands out as a rebound candidate just by dint of being healthy and getting a change of scenery after over a decade in the Mets organization.
Ryu was excellent in 2020, but as a 34-year-old pitcher with a long injury history, he’ll have to be monitored over the course of a 162-game season. Pearson is one of the sport’s top prospects, yet with only 18 MLB innings to his name, it may be a tall order to expect him to deliver on his potential this early in his career. While the additions of Springer and Semien will help a lineup that was already pretty strong, a case can certainly be made that a more proven arm was necessary to bolster the rotation.
In fairness to the Blue Jays front office, it’s not as if they didn’t try. Sticking to just the top names on the market, Toronto at least had some talks with Bauer, had interest in Jake Odorizzi throughout Odorizzi’s extended free agent stint, and made an offer to Tomoyuki Sugano before Sugano decided to remain in Japan. Early in the offseason, the Jays’ entire winter could have been reshaped if Kevin Gausman had taken Toronto’s reported three-year in the $40MM range rather than stay with the Giants by accepting their qualifying offer.
The Blue Jays won’t have the luxury of three extra playoff spots to work with as they pursue more October baseball, but there is certainly enough talent here to make a viable run at a wild card berth or the AL East title itself. And, given how GM Ross Atkins left no stone unturned this winter, it could be that some groundwork was laid for potential in-season moves if the Jays need a boost at the trade deadline.
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