Much will come to light in the coming days now that the Yankees have officially given Gerrit Cole the largest deal in league history for a pitcher – but even now, mere hours from the revelation, the news is starting to sink in. The rest of the pitching market could unstick rather quickly, and the Blue Jays are having to factor in their new reality of having to face Cole four or five times a year for the next decade, writes Ben Nicholson-Smith of sportsnet.ca. Of course, what better way for Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and friends to push themselves to reach their massive potentials than by facing off with the best of the best. Of greater concern for Toronto is who will take the mound on their side in 2020. With the biggest names now off the board, interest will pick up for the next tier of free agent starters, guys like Hyun-Jin Ryu and Dallas Keuchel, in whom Toronto has shown interest. Those who missed out on Cole may up the ante for the next round, however, putting the Blue Jays’ realistic options more in the field of Tanner Roark, Rick Porcello, or Wade Miley. They could even lend a helping hand to the Yankees by taking back J.A. Happ if a prospect(s) came along with him. Let’s see what else folks are saying here in the wee hours of life in our bleak new post-Cole-sweepstakes reality…
Blue Jays Rumors
- Several teams appear to be in the market for reliever Craig Stammen. The right-hander’s most recent team, the Padres, as well as the Astros, Diamondbacks, Reds, White Sox, Blue Jays and Cardinals have all expressed interest, per Morosi (Twitter links). Stammen, whom MLBTR projects for a two-year, $10MM guarantee, has put together a strong career divided between Washington and San Diego. The 35-year-old logged a 3.29 ERA with 8.01 K/9, 1.65 BB/9 and a 50.8 percent groundball rate in 82 innings last season as a Padre.
DECEMBER 10: The Blue Jays have explored the possibility of a reunion with Happ, Andy Martino of SNY.tv reports (Twitter links). The Brewers are said to be among the National League clubs with some level of interest.
DECEMBER 9: Twelve months ago, the Yankees made veteran left-hander J.A. Happ one of their key offseason signings. After a solid 2018 divided between the Blue Jays and Yankees, New York re-upped Happ to a two-year, $34MM contract. Now, the club is “actively” seeking a taker on the trade market for the 37-year-old Happ, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports.
The fact that the Yankees want to get out of the Happ deal isn’t particularly surprising, considering he’s slated to count $17MM against the luxury tax next season. If the Yankees succeed in signing right-hander Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 free agent on the board and someone who has a shot at a $300MM-plus contract, moving some portion of Happ’s money could help them avoid the highest level of the luxury tax ($248MM). As things stand, it seems probable they’ll blow past the first level of $208MM and likely surpass the second penalty of $228MM, Sherman notes.
In moving Happ, the Yankees would obviously be selling low. While Happ has long been a quality starter in the majors, things didn’t go well last season. Even though Happ did close on a good note during the final month of the regular campaign, he still ended the year with a subpar 4.91 ERA/5.22 FIP and 7.81 K/9 against 2.73 BB/9 over 161 1/3 innings. Going forward, Happ’s contract includes a $17MM vesting option for 2021 if he totals 165 innings or 27 starts next year. With those factors in mind, the Yankees don’t figure to have an easy time finding someone to take Happ off their hands.
The Blue Jays are weighing a pair of familiar names for their first base/DH vacancy, as Sportsnet.ca’s Ben Nicholson-Smith (Twitter link) reports that Edwin Encarnacion and Justin Smoak are “getting consideration” from the club. The Jays also continue to be “intrigued” by Japanese free agent Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, though it “certainly doesn’t seem like they’re close on anything” with the slugger.
A fractured right wrist and a strained oblique limited Encarnacion to only 109 games and 486 plate appearances in 2019, his lowest totals in either category since the 2010 season. When Encarnacion was healthy, however, he still wielded a formidable bat, hitting .244/.344/.531 with 34 homers for the Mariners and Yankees. Encarnacion turns 37 in January and would likely be used mostly as a DH in Toronto, owing to both his age, the Rogers Centre’s artificial surface, and the Jays’ desire to see what they have in first baseman Rowdy Tellez.
With a market likely limited to American League teams and a relative lack of DH openings among those teams, Encarnacion could likely be had on a one-year deal, which is surely attractive to a rebuilding Jays team. Bringing Encarnacion back would also undoubtedly be well-received by Toronto’s fans, as Encarnacion was a very popular figure while hitting 239 homers (the third-highest total in club history) for the Jays from 2009-16.
Smoak was another fan favorite for his five solid seasons with the Jays, most notably his 38-homer outburst in 2017. Despite being perhaps the unluckiest hitter in baseball in 2019, Smoak still managed a slightly above-average (101 wRC+ and OPS+) offensive showing of .208/.342/.406 with 22 homers over 500 PA. We haven’t heard much news on the 33-year-old Smoak this winter, though there was some indication after the season that the Blue Jays were thinking about a potential reunion as they weighed their first base options.
What could hurt both Encarnacion and Smoak, however, is that they are only first basemen, whereas GM Ross Atkins has a stated preference for first base “alternatives that are more flexible, can play other positions as well.” Tsutsugo has an advantage in this regard, as he has primarily played outfield for the last several seasons for the Yokohama DeNA BayStars while also having some first base and third base experience in his past. While Tsutsugo isn’t considered to be particularly adept defensively at any position, the Blue Jays might not mind since he’d be slated for a good chunk of DH time anyway.
The 28-year-old Tsutsugo has an impressive .285/.382/.528 slash line and 205 home runs over exactly 4000 PA during his 10 seasons in Nippon Professional Baseball. Major League teams have until December 19 to negotiate a contract with Tsutsugo, and clubs will then have to pay an additional posting fee (as determined by the size of the contract) to the BayStars under the MLB/NPB posting system.
Free agent left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu “is emerging as one of the Blue Jays’ prime targets” in the team’s wide-ranging search for pitching, Sportsnet.ca’s Shi Davidi writes. With other major pitchers like Stephen Strasburg and Zack Wheeler already off the board, however, the Jays will face a lot of competition to land Ryu, particularly from teams that come up short on signing Gerrit Cole or Madison Bumgarner. Should the Dodgers fail to sign Cole, Davidi notes, Los Angeles would seem like a prime candidate to pursue re-signing a known quantity in Ryu — indeed, we’ve already heard reports that the Dodgers have Ryu in their sights.
“Right now, the Blue Jays seem determined to not block themselves out of a possible run at Ryu by doing something else,” Davidi writes in a separate piece. Aside from the acquisition of Chase Anderson from the Brewers, however, the Jays haven’t done much to upgrade a rotation that was the team’s chief offseason priority. It could be that the Jays’ deliberate methods of pursuing and evaluating every possible arm on the market are leaving them behind other teams who make a more direct push for a specific pitcher at the top of their list. In the view of one agent, talks with the Blue Jays “are 90 per cent due diligence that doesn’t go anywhere.”
To this end, Davidi wonders if the Jays are really willing to spend “outside their comfort zone” to sign Ryu if he is their top choice, since if not, missing out on Ryu could also in Toronto missing out on several other pitchers who could sign elsewhere in the interim. For instance, Davidi notes that “one path the Blue Jays are particularly keen on” would see Ryu and Tanner Roark both sign with the Jays, after the Dodgers leave the Ryu sweepstakes due to a Cole signing. If this is the case, I’d argue there’s no reason the Jays couldn’t go out of their way to sign Roark now, as he wouldn’t require nearly the price tag of the top pitchers on the free agent market. (MLBTR projected Roark for a two-year, $18MM deal, and in fact predicted he’d end up signing with the Jays.) Toronto is nowhere near any kind of payroll crunch, given the team’s lack of financial commitments both in 2020 and in future seasons.
That said, the Blue Jays have done more than just talk, as the club made multiple contract offers to Kyle Gibson, as manager Charlie Montoyo told MLB.com’s Keegan Matheson and other reporters. The right-hander ended up going to the Rangers on a three-year, $28MM deal. “You hate to lose guys like Gibson. I was there when we made the offers and they were pretty good offers, just somebody else made a better offer,” Montoyo said.
Kevin Gausman is another free agent hurler who doesn’t appear to be coming to Toronto. Davidi reports that the Jays had interest in the recently non-tendered righty, but Gausman is likely going to sign elsewhere this week.
- Free-agent infielder Travis Shaw, on the market since the Brewers let him go at the non-tender deadline a week ago, has garnered interest from the Blue Jays, Jon Morosi of MLB.com relays. Additionally, Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com relays that the third baseman/second baseman has expressed a willingness to return to the Red Sox, his first MLB team, though it’s unclear if they’re open to a reunion. Shaw, whom the Red Sox traded to the Brewers in December 2017, had a pair of highly productive years in Milwaukee before his numbers fell off a cliff this past season. That caused the Brewers to move on from Shaw, leaving the 29-year-old as a buy-low candidate this winter.
Before Jordan Lyles signed his two-year, $16MM deal to join the Texas Rangers rotation, there was no shortage of interest in the big righty. Though we don’t know which (if any) of these teams made official offers, we do know that the White Sox, Blue Jays, Brewers and Twins were among the teams with interest, per MLB Network Insider Jon Heyman (via Twitter). Without financial specifics, it’s presumptuous to assume much in regards to the interest level of these four clubs, but the size of the contract inked by Lyles at least hints at a low-scale bidding war for the back-end rotation arm.
The Brewers interest is not surprising, given they acquired Lyles around the deadline in each of the past two seasons and he pitched to a 2.45 ERA (4.42 FIP) to close out 2019. Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out that the Brewers have now lost the bidding on each of their free agent targets thus far (except Justin Grimm!), suggesting either limited payroll flexibility or disciplined judiciousness on the part of GM David Stearns. Of course, Lyles signed for more than most would have guessed, and Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas signed for a combined 8-years, $137MM, a stratum the Brewers were hardly expected to reach. On the plus side, should the Rangers scuffle and Brewers stay in the race, we could see the rare baseball trade turkey, when a team successfully strikes for the same player at the deadline for three consecutive seasons.
The Twins and White Sox are two of the more eager starting pitching hunters this offseason, so their inclusion on this list is no surprise either. Both teams are likely to sign a couple of veteran free agents before the winter is out. As for the Blue Jays, they have less urgency given their timeline, though Lyles certainly fits the mold of the type of free agent they are likely to target.
Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins chatted with reporters yesterday about his club’s place in the offseason transactional carousel, as Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic (subscription link) was among those to cover.
Atkins emphasized that the organization has been “aggressive” on the free agent market, especially with regard to starting pitching. While there isn’t a deal to show for it just yet, there’s obviously ample time remaining and a slew of appealing options still on the market.
What of the top options available? “There’s not a free agent that we haven’t touched base with,” he said. It’s tough to see the Toronto organization as a serious player for any of this winter’s super-premium free agents, but Atkins certainly suggested that the front office has at least seen cause to check in on all the possibilities. Whether or not it’ll happen is far from clear — the guess here is it won’t — -but Atkins says the Blue Jays have the capacity to go into nine-figure territory for the right player.
It’s still anyone’s guess which arms the Jays will come away with. But Atkins did strongly suggest the team is likelier to make significant moves via free agency than trade. He expressed a disinclination to part with youthful “players that we’re really excited about” in order to acquire a compelling new MLB hurler.
One possibility: Hyun-Jin Ryu. We haven’t heard much about where the market is headed for the standout southpaw, but Jon Heyman of MLB Network tweets that the Jays are “in” on him. Just how to interpret that isn’t clear, particularly in light of the Atkins declaration that the team has cast an exceedingly wide net, but it sounds as if there’s at least some real interest on the part of the Toronto organization.
There’s still ample opportunity left for the Jays on the market. And the team is offering notable opportunity for free agents — a selling point in and of itself for certain hurlers. Atkins said that the Jays don’t feel fully committed to any starters other than Chase Anderson for 2020. That’s not to say that four more additions will be forthcoming, but it speaks to the team’s internal uncertainty and willingness to compete jobs.
If the Blue Jays are indeed taking an aggressive stance on open-market arms, Pineda would be a good place to start. He’s not expected to secure anything like the big money destined for the very top options, so inking him shouldn’t be overly committing. At the same time, Pineda comes with a blend of recent durability, relative youth, and perhaps some remaining upside that would make good sense for the still-building Jays. That combination will also hold appeal to many other organizations.
We haven’t heard much in the way of early development in the Pineda market. Perhaps some teams will write him off due to his recent PED-related suspension. But it’s otherwise possible to imagine rather broad interest, so a dedicated early pursuit might help the Toronto organization pull off the sometimes-difficult task of luring the hurler north of the border. The Jays are surely still interested in adding multiple rotation pieces even after landing Chase Anderson, so the club is also involved in the markets of quite a few other established starters.
There has been some early action on the starting pitching market. Jake Odorizzi accepted a qualifying offer from the Twins, filling one of their openings on a limited commitment. The Cardinals brought back Adam Wainwright. Chase Anderson went to the Blue Jays in a trade. The Rangers made Kyle Gibson their annual surprise three-year contract recipient. Those moves helped set the stage for some of the biggest free agents, who are now engaged with multiple suitors. We’ve recently covered the latest on hot commodity Zack Wheeler and high-end veteran Stephen Strasburg, who has held meetings with the Dodgers and Yankees.
- The Blue Jays are “as aggressive as any team” in pursuit of open-market starters, per MLB.com’s Jon Morosi (via Twitter). It’s anyone’s guess just how to interpret that characterization. The Toronto faithful are by now a bit jaded at such assurances, having grown frustrated with a string of losing seasons and minimal investment in the MLB roster. Perhaps this is all part of the setup for explaining that the club just couldn’t quite get a deal done despite its best efforts. Then again, there’s plenty of reason to think the Jays can and should be prepared to re-enter the fray in a big way. The club has cleaned up its future balance sheets and graduated many of its best prospects to the majors. Perhaps the Toronto front office will end up making significant rotation improvements over the course of the winter.