The Blue Jays have been linked to such high-profile names as Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Juan Soto, and others on the free agent and trade markets, yet the team isn’t only focusing on these top-tier names to address their roster needs. According to Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi, the Jays have interest in free agent outfielders Michael Brantley and Joc Pederson, as well as utilityman Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
These names have long been on the radar of Jays GM Ross Atkins, who has at least explored the possibility of acquiring all of the trio in the past. Kiner-Falefa was targeted at the last trade deadline, Pederson was targeted during his last stint in free agency during the 2021-22 offseason, and Brantley reportedly seemed on the verge of signing with Toronto in the winter of 2020-21 before opting to return to the Astros at something of the eleventh hour.
To some extent, Brantley or Pederson could be seen as backup plans if Toronto didn’t acquire Soto, since left field is the primary defensive spot for all three players. A world exists where the Blue Jays could trade for Soto and then sign one of the other two outfielders, with an eye towards using Brantley or Pederson primarily as a designated hitter (with Soto or George Springer also getting some DH time for partial rest days). Such a scenario might somewhat run counter to the Jays’ focus on defense over the last year, though Daulton Varsho would still be anchoring center field, and the Jays might be willing to sacrifice some glovework to boost their middling lineup.
In the bigger picture, none of Brantley, Pederson, or Kiner-Falefa would really be obstacles to any bigger-name acquisitions the Blue Jays might have in mind. The three veterans are all likely to be had on one-year contracts, similar to Toronto’s signings of Kevin Kiermaier or Brandon Belt last winter.
Pederson hit .235/.348/.416 with 15 home runs over 425 plate appearances for the Giants last season, as his 111 wRC+ was still quite respectable but a big step down from the 146 wRC+ posted in 2022. It was something of an unusual year for Pederson in 2023, as he cut back on his strikeouts and increased his walk rate, but seemingly at the cost of a good chunk of his usual power. Pederson still had some of the best hard-contact numbers of any player in the league, and a .268 BABIP and a big gap in his wOBA (.331) and his xwOBA (.366) indicates that the 31-year-old might’ve been somewhat unlucky to post only a 111 wRC+.
That said, 2022 does stand out as something of an outlier amongst Pederson’s last four seasons, and even his career in general. Without much baserunning or defensive value, Pederson projects best as a DH (or part-time left fielder or first baseman), and limiting him to plate appearances against only right-handed pitching is preferable given his career splits.
Brantley would also have to be considered a part-time option due to his health, as shoulder surgery and recurring soreness kept Brantley out of action from June 2022 until August of last season. He amassed 89 total PA with the Astros during the regular season and postseason, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Brantley’s eventual contract contains a lot of incentive clauses tied to playing time. The former five-time All-Star showed only flashes of his old self at the plate in 2023, though it is possible another full offseason of rest and rehab might get Brantley back into something closer to his past form.
Kiner-Falefa is in some ways the easiest player to project of the trio, as the 28-year-old has pretty firmly established himself as a light-hitting jack of all trades who can provide at least respectable defense at a wide variety of positions. A Gold Glove winner with the Rangers as a third baseman in 2020, IKF could be viewed by the Blue Jays as a potential glove-first replacement for Matt Chapman at the hot corner, with the Jays then presumably looking to add bigger bats to fill their other holes at second base, left field, or DH. If Toronto doesn’t think enough of Kiner-Falefa’s bat to merit a semi-starting role, he could simply be a top utility option off the bench, giving the Blue Jays some flexibility in how hard they need to push on any one of their particular positions of need.
As usual, Atkins is seemingly keeping tabs on just about every prominent player on the market, and Davidi hears from player agents that the Blue Jays are “planning to shift quickly if needed” should their attempts at a superstar acquisition fall short. In terms of Ohtani specifically, Davidi is doubtful the two-time AL MVP will ultimately land in Toronto, yet the Jays aren’t really costing themselves by exploring the possibility since the position-player market is moving quite slowly. It could be that several teams and players are in the same boat as the Blue Jays in waiting on Ohtani’s decision to open up the market to a fuller extent.