After scoring big in last year’s free agent market, the Blue Jays have some major holes to fill as they look to take the next step forward for a playoff berth.
- George Springer, OF: $118MM through 2026
- Hyun Jin Ryu, SP: $40MM through 2023
- Randal Grichuk, OF: $18.66MM through 2023
- Lourdes Gurriel Jr., OF: $9.9MM through 2023
Arbitration-Eligible Players (salary projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Ross Stripling – $4.4MM
- Jose Berrios – $10.9MM
- Teoscar Hernandez – $10.0MM
- Adam Cimber – $1.5MM
- Trevor Richards – $1.1MM
- Ryan Borucki – $800K
- Danny Jansen – $1.5MM
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – $7.9MM
- Tim Mayza – $1.2MM
- Trent Thornton – $900K
- Cavan Biggio – $1.7MM
- Non-tender candidates: Thornton
- Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, Corey Dickerson, Joakim Soria, Jarrod Dyson, David Phelps, Rafael Dolis, Kirby Yates
Despite winning 91 games, the Blue Jays still finished fourth in the stacked AL East, as the Red Sox and Yankees each won 92 games and earned wild card berths. While so many things went right for the club in 2021, falling just a game shy of the playoffs leads to a thousand “if only…” scenarios. Since the division doesn’t figure to get any easier next year, the Blue Jays are now challenged to not only get back to that 91-win threshold, but likely to bank a few more victories and break through to the postseason.
Fortunately for Toronto fans, the Jays already started preparing for 2022 even while in the midst of last year’s pennant race. Acquiring Jose Berrios, Adam Cimber, and Trevor Richards not only helped the Blue Jays bolster their in-season pitching needs, but all three hurlers came with extra years of control (Berrios through 2022, Cimber/Richards through 2023). That gave the Jays a jump on solidifying a bullpen that struggled badly in the first half, and Berrios adds another front-of-the-rotation arm to a starting five that might lose two arms to free agency.
Robbie Ray was one of the bargains of the 2020-21 offseason. The southpaw quickly re-signed with the Jays for a one-year, $8MM pact, and then delivered a season that may yet result in a Cy Young Award. Steven Matz’s contributions also shouldn’t be overlooked, as Matz battled with his consistency from time to time but still posted a solid 3.82 ERA over 150 2/3 innings.
Bringing back either of these pitchers is a distinct possibility. Ray will require perhaps the priciest contract given to any free agent pitcher this winter, though he has spoken highly of his time with the Jays and the coaching staff’s help in unlocking this new level of production. As a common matter of business, Ray will receive and reject a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays, though the team is also reportedly thinking about issuing Matz the QO. That would be a bold move since $18.4MM is likely well beyond what the Jays would normally feel comfortable giving to Matz in average annual value. However, if Matz accepted the one-year deal, the Jays could cross one big need off their checklist very early in the offseason.
And, if Matz rejected the QO, that would put the Jays in line for compensatory draft pick. That would make it as many as three extra picks for Toronto if Matz, Ray, and Marcus Semien all rejected qualifying offers and signed elsewhere. With this bonus draft-day stockpile, the Jays could feel more comfortable about surrendering another pick in order to ink another “qualified” free agent. (Caveat: this assumes some type of similar qualifying offer/compensatory pick system will continue to be in place in the next collective bargaining agreement between the league and players.)
Berrios, Hyun Jin Ryu, and rookie star Alek Manoah are currently lined up to fill the top three spots in Toronto’s 2022 rotation. The Blue Jays hope that Nate Pearson can stay healthy and have a Manoah-esque breakout, though the club might also use Pearson in the bullpen. Doing so would help to monitor his innings, which could be necessary considering how Pearson has pitched only 187 total innings in five seasons of pro ball. Ross Stripling will also return to make starts at the back end of the rotation or work as a long reliever, while younger arms like Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, or (if he isn’t non-tendered) Trent Thornton provide more starting depth.
If not Ray or Matz, some type of additional help is needed for this rotation mix. The signings of Ryu and George Springer over the last two seasons are evidence that the Jays are comfortable shopping at the top of the market, so pretty much any member of the free agent starter class is a possibility. The Jays could target the bigger names, or perhaps go after one big-ticket pitcher and then a lower-tier arm in search of a rebound year (essentially, the next Ray or Matz).
The same could also be true of the bullpen market, though traditionally, the Jays haven’t spent much on relief pitching since Ross Atkins became general manager. The club’s $5.5MM deal with Kirby Yates last winter counted as a big investment by that standard, yet that contract quickly became a bust since Yates missed the entire year due to Tommy John surgery.
Yates’ bad elbow was one of many injuries that ravaged Toronto’s bullpen early in the season. While the sheer volume of maladies is maybe unlikely to happen again, Atkins may focus on stockpiling bullpen depth to guard against a repeat scenario. This could manifest itself in a flood of minor league deals or low-cost MLB deals, or the front office might aim higher on the reliever market and look to someone in the Corey Knebel/Collin McHugh tier to join with Cimber, Richards, Tim Mayza, Julian Merryweather, and closer Jordan Romano.
Besides just free agents, the Blue Jays can always look to add arms via trade. The Jays has already parted with notable talent (Rowdy Tellez for Richards; top prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson for Berrios) to land pitching, so this is another instance where multiple compensatory picks could factor into the team’s decision-making. If the Jays know they’ll have two or three extra picks to reload the farm in the next draft, they might be more willing to swap another significant youngster this winter.
It’s probably unlikely that Toronto would move such blue-chip prospects as Gabriel Moreno, Jordan Groshans, or Orelvis Martinez, yet moving Martin a year after drafting him fifth overall also didn’t seem likely until it happened. If the right controllable star player is available, Atkins has shown that he is willing to take the big plunge on the trade front. For instance, to land a premium position player like Ketel Marte or (past Jays trade target) Jose Ramirez, the Jays could be more amenable to giving up a major prospect.
Alternatively, trading an infielder like Groshans or Martinez could be more palatable if the Jays knew Semien would be in the fold for years to come. After betting on himself with a one-year, $18MM deal last winter, Semien hit the jackpot with a huge 45-homer campaign. With two MVP-caliber performances in his last three seasons, Semien is now set to receive one of the bigger contracts of any free agent this winter, even in an offseason that features so many other elite shortstops.
Of course, Semien didn’t play much shortstop during his year in Toronto, instead working as the everyday second baseman alongside shortstop Bo Bichette. Since Bichette’s defense improved as the year went on, a Jays/Semien reunion would likely hinge on whether Semien is open to remaining at second base. Semien has the leverage to call his own shot at this point, so if he is prioritizing a return to shortstop or (as some reports suggest) a return to the West Coast, the Blue Jays may be out of luck.
The Jays’ lineup still has a lot of pop even without Semien. Bichette, a healthier Springer, Teoscar Hernandez, and MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. form a strong nucleus. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has shown to be incredibly productive when on one of his hot streaks. Catchers Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen were similarly up-and-down amid injury-hampered 2021 seasons but still finished as above-average offensive contributors by measure of wRC+.
Santiago Espinal also surprisingly emerged to deliver some quality hitting from the third base position, which helped counter Cavan Biggio’s down year. Heading into 2022, the Espinal/Biggio combination could work as a platoon at third base or second base, depending on how the Blue Jays fill Semien’s spot. Espinal can handle either position from a defensive perspective, while a move to second base might be preferable for Biggio since his glovework struggled at the hot corner. Prospect Otto Lopez is another super-utility option who made his MLB debut in 2021 and could be ready for a longer look on Toronto’s bench next year.
Still, this flexibility allows the Jays to explore all options at either infield position. They could try to land a longer-term star (e.g. re-signing Semien, trading for Jose Ramirez, signing Corey Seager), or maybe obtain a veteran stopgap (e.g. Kyle Seager) to act as a bridge to Groshans or Martinez. Signing a multi-position player like Chris Taylor would only further increase their roster’s versatility, but with so many right-handed hitters already in the fold, a lefty or switch-hitter could be preferable.
Without a regular DH on the roster, the Blue Jays have enough space in the lineup to find at-bats for the outfield core of Gurriel, Springer, Hernandez, and Randal Grichuk. That said, although Grichuk has some power and can at least fill in at all three outfield spots, he also has just 1.5 combined fWAR since the start of the 2019 season. He seems like an expendable piece if the Jays can find a taker for the $18.66MM remaining on his contract.
Gurriel is cheaper and has more trade value, but he also has more value to the Jays. Toronto might rue moving Gurriel if he should develop as a consistent hitter in another team’s lineup. If one of Gurriel or Grichuk was dealt, the Blue Jays could explore re-signing Corey Dickerson, a left-handed bat who hit pretty well after being obtained from the Marlins.
With so many possibilities open to the Blue Jays this winter, it’s worth wondering just how much payroll space will be available to the club. Toronto has a deep arbitration class that is projected to be worth more than $40MM, factoring in big raises for Berrios, Hernandez, and Guerrero. Ryu and Springer take up big chunks of the guaranteed money on the books, though overall, the Jays have roughly $112.4MM to $114.5MM (as per Cot’s Baseball Contracts and Roster Resource) committed to their 2022 payroll.
Team president Mark Shapiro has already indicated that the Jays are prepared to spend more next season than they did in 2021, which means an increase from the roughly $140.6MM Roster Resource calculated as the club’s 2021 expenditures. Not all of these extra funds could be spent specifically in the offseason, as the Blue Jays will likely want to keep some money free for any necessary in-season transactions. However, since Toronto’s payroll topped the $165MM threshold (as per Cot’s) as recently as 2017, the Jays might have quite a bit of cash on hand to swing transactions assuming ownership is fine with a return to that level of spending. Acquiring a new high-salaried player or re-signing one of Semien or Ray would alone take up a big portion of those extra funds, so the Blue Jays might look to trim some of their existing costs through trades.
It is also worth noting that Springer is the only player on the books beyond the 2023 season, so the Jays could get creative in signing players to backloaded contracts. This future salary space will also come in handy as the team starts thinking about extensions. Berrios is the most pressing concern entering his final year of control, while Hernandez has two years of control remaining. Some long-term mega-deals will be required if the team hopes to lock up Bichette and especially Guerrero at this point.
The 2021 season has to be considered something of a missed opportunity for the Jays, considering how Semien and Ray performed beyond expectations, Manoah delivered the rookie breakout that was expected for Pearson, and Guerrero emerged as one of baseball’s best hitters. Still, the team heads into 2022 with a lot of momentum, and a return to normalcy has already been established now that the Jays are officially back in Toronto (as opposed to Buffalo and Dunedin). The Blue Jays would’ve loved to have cap off that homecoming with some playoff games this October, but they’ll now need to do some work this offseason to make that dream a reality next fall.