The Blue Jays made the playoffs for the third time in the past four years but each trip resulted in a hasty 2-0 playoff sweep. The club’s president/CEO Mark Shapiro spoke to the media today, with Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet among those to relay the information. While Shapiro touched on a number of topics, the key takeaways broadly involve continuity, with the club planning to retain Ross Atkins as general manager and keep the 2024 payroll at a similar level to 2023.
The 2023 Jays club was constructed differently than the 2022 version. Offensive outfielders Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. were traded as glove-first players Kevin Kiermaier and Daulton Varsho were brought in. This had the expected result of the club faring better at run prevention but often struggling to score runs. In 2022, they finished fourth out of the 30 clubs in terms of plating runs but fell to a tie for 14th this year. But in terms of keeping runs off the board, they went from 13th to fifth. The overall effect was close to net neutral, as the club’s win tally fell from 92 to 89 but was still strong enough to get them back to the postseason, with the aforementioned quick exit.
It seems the club is satisfied enough with the regular season results to allow Atkins to continue in his role as general manager, a job he has held since the end of 2015. The club made the playoffs in 2016, advancing as far as the ALCS, before undergoing a quick rebuild with three losing seasons from 2017 to 2019. They started pushing their top prospects to the majors in that time, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette the most highly touted.
That led to the club making the playoffs in the shortened 2020 season, narrowly missing in 2021 despite winning 91 games, before getting back to the playoffs in the two most recent years. The lack of postseason success is surely frustrating for some fans, but the regular season results have been quite strong for four straight years in arguably the toughest division in the league, making it fairly logical that the club isn’t leaning towards huge changes.
“Ross needs to get better, but he’s done a good job,” Shapiro said today, adding that offense and baserunning are areas for potential improvement, as well as “communication of transparency” with players and staff.
Adding offense this winter will be a challenge since the free agent class is heavy on pitching and generally lighter on impact bats, but it sounds like the Jays should have some resources to attack the problem. Roster Resource calculates their 2023 payroll at $214MM and their competitive balance tax number at $248MM, their first time paying the luxury tax. There are some notable contracts coming off the books, including those of Hyun Jin Ryu, Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt and Kiermaier, with Whit Merrifield likely to be departing as well since mutual options are rarely picked up by both sides.
RR estimates the club’s 2024 payroll at $115MM right now, though a hefty arbitration class could add about $60MM to that and put them in the $175MM range. If they are willing to spend at similar levels nest year as Shapiro suggested, that should give them roughly $40MM or so to spend, perhaps a bit more if they end up non-tendering a couple of players from their arb class.
That money gives them some the potential to pursue various avenues this winter but, as mentioned, the free agent class skews towards pitching. The Jays are in good position in that department, with Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi all still under contract next year and the departure of Ryu opening one spot. The giant unknown right now is how much the Jays believe in Alek Manoah’s ability to bounce back next year, though they also have top prospect Ricky Tiedemann knocking on the door of the majors. The bullpen was also a strength this year and the club figures to retain Jordan Romano, Erik Swanson, Tim Mayza, Yimi García, Génesis Cabrera and others.
But more offense is certainly required and the club will have to replace the production of Chapman, Kiermaier, Belt and Merrifield just to break even in that regard. Belt had a wRC+ of 138 this year, though in a part-time/platoon role. The other three finished with a wRC+ between 110 and 93 but each brought some speed and/or defense to the table. The Jays could get some internal help from key prospects like Orelvis Martinez or Addison Barger but it’s fair to expect them to pursue external options as well.
Chapman is the top free agent third baseman and could be brought back to man the hot corner, but they could also pursue someone like Jeimer Candelario at a lower price point. Merrifield is one of the best second baseman available but the club could perhaps give Davis Schneider and Cavan Biggio some run there after some encouraging results this year.
Varsho could perhaps slide over to take Kiermaier’s spot in center, allowing the club to pursue a bat-first corner outfielder like Michael Conforto or Jorge Soler, or perhaps reuniting with an old friend like Gurriel or Hernández. Belt was in the designated hitter spot most days, so there’s any number of ways the club could go with that spot. Time will tell what specific targets the club has in mind but it seems they will have the ability to reload for what should be another fiercely competitive year in the American League East.