- Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins has spoken previously about making a high-impact addition to the roster. He reiterated that desire when speaking with Jim Duquette and Jim Bowden of MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (Twitter link). Toronto indeed plans to make a run at elite talent this offseason, Atkins stated. That’s easier said than done, of course. Atkins also spoke of a desire to improve the team’s overall run prevention numbers. Trevor Bauer is handily the top free agent pitcher on the market, but the Jays could also look for a high-end defender to keep runs off the board.
- Atkins also addressed the Blue Jays’ 2021 stadium situation during his MLB Network Radio interview (Twitter link). The current hope is the team returns to the Rogers Centre after playing their 2020 home games at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. Atkins also left open the possibility of starting the 2021 season outside Toronto and returning to their home city at a later date. No one knows what the COVID-19 rate will look like next April, of course, so the organization is preparing “contingency plans” in case international travel continues to be restricted next year.
Blue Jays Rumors
The Blue Jays are prepared to make impact moves this offseason, but they’re also preaching patience, per Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca. If they do make a move early – beyond what they’ve done so far – GM Ross Atkins thinks it will be a significant one. Per Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca, Atkins said, “If we were to move earlier, the impact would be significant. And that doesn’t take us out of significant impact later.” If you’re sensing a theme, you’re not imagining it: The Jays are dreaming big this winter. One of the biggest names available is catcher J.T. Realmuto. The former Phillie would fit the mold described above, but Atkins also says they are “extremely satisfied” with Toronto’s catching situation. And why shouldn’t they be? With Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire and Alejandro Kirk all contributing at the big-league level, they have affordable depth and upside in the form of Kirk, who hit .375/.400/.583 in a 24-at-bat cup-of-coffee in 2020. Still, that depth can be repurposed to make room for a star like Realmuto, especially in the American League where the DH provides opportunity for diversified playing time.
The Blue Jays looked into acquiring Andrelton Simmons prior to the August 31 trade deadline, and now that the shortstop is a free agent, veteran reporter Bob Elliott tweets that Toronto is again interested in Simmons’ services.
Simmons ended up playing in only 30 games in 2020, as he spent time on the injured list with a sprained ankle and also opted out of the season on September 22. Over the small sample size of 127 plate appearances, Simmons hit pretty well (.297/.346/.356, 99 wRC+ and 95 OPS+), and the Jays or any team would happily take that sort of league-average offense in combination with Simmons’ usual excellent defense. It’s worth noting that 2020 was by far the worst defensive season of Simmons’ career, though it’s fair to assume that his bad ankle contributed to his -1 Outs Above Average, -2 Defensive Runs Saved and +4.0 UZR/150.
That said, Simmons was also bothered by ankle problems in 2019, and has played in only 133 of a possible 222 games over the last two seasons. In ranking Simmons 17th on our list of the offseason’s top 50 free agents, MLBTR projected that the 31-year-old Simmons might have to take just a one-year contract this winter, as teams will be wary of making multi-year offers given his recent injury history and any potential questions about his glovework going forward.
A one-year deal would certainly seem to fit the Blue Jays’ plans, as the team still considers Bo Bichette to be its shortstop of the future but a short-term defensive upgrade is still very much a need. Signing Simmons would indirectly fix the Jays’ need at third base, since Bichette or Cavan Biggio could play the hot corner while the other plays second base. Simmons doesn’t have the offensive upside of other rumored Jays shortstop targets as Francisco Lindor or Didi Gregorius, but he might have the lowest price tag — Gregorius is surely looking for a multi-year contract after taking a one-year deal with the Phillies last winter, while the Jays would have to pay a hefty trade return to pry Lindor away from the Indians.
The Blue Jays made one of the first strikes of the offseason when they re-signed southpaw Robbie Ray to a one-year, $8MM deal next week. That certainly doesn’t sound as though it’ll be the only rotation addition for Toronto this winter, however. General manager Ross Atkins told reporters in a Zoom call yesterday that he plans to remain active in his pursuit of rotation upgrades.
“I feel good about acquiring another free agent — I can tell you that — in the starting pitcher market,” Atkins said (Twitter thread via the Toronto Star’s Gregor Chisholm). “That doesn’t mean it will happen, but I feel like we have a chance to do it. … If that doesn’t happen, we’ll turn to the trade market. But we’re working on them simultaneously.”
Toronto already has a fairly deep crop of rotation options. Ray joins Hyun Jin Ryu, Nate Pearson, Tanner Roark and Ross Stripling as likely rotation pieces, with depth pieces including Trent Thornton, T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay, Jacob Waguespack, Sean Reid-Foley and others. Because they already have a number of options in place to soak up innings, Atkins made clear that his goal in future additions is not to simply bolster that depth but improve the options at the top of the staff. Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith tweets Atkins adopted a quality-over-quantity attitude when talking about the club’s continued pitching pursuits.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Jays are committed to acquiring an ace and nothing else. Adding a solid mid-rotation piece would still be prudent, given that each of Ray, Roark, Stripling and Pearson struggled to varying extents in 2020. If the Jays do want to put the pedal to the metal, so to speak, it’s worth noting that Atkins and club president Mark Shapiro came over from the Indians organization where top free agent Trevor Bauer has spent the bulk of his career.
Lower-risk but still-solid options include the likes of Kevin Gausman, Jake Odorizzi, Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Quintana, among many others. Old friend Marcus Stroman is also on the open market, although he had some harsh words for the front office after being traded in 2019. The possibilities on the trade market are too plentiful to count, although the Jays reportedly came close to striking a deal for Pirates righty Joe Musgrove prior to the Aug. 31 trade deadline.
Fresh off their first playoff season since 2016, the up-and-coming Blue Jays may be in position for an aggressive winter. With that in mind, they’re already showing interest in a couple of the game’s premier free-agent outfielders. The Astros’ George Springer and longtime Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. are on the Blue Jays’ radar, according to Jon Heyman of MLB Network (h/t: Tim Kelly of WEEI.com).
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Either Springer or Bradley could take over in center for Toronto, which relied on Randal Grichuk in 2020. Grichuk had a nice offensive season, hitting .273/.312/.481 (112 wRC+) with 12 home runs in 231 plate appearances. However, Grichuk had difficulty in the outfield, where he managed minus-eight Defensive Runs Saved and a minus-three Ultimate Zone Rating. With Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the corners, Toronto could either try to trade Grichuk, who’s due $29MM through 2023, or move him around the outfield/DH if it signs either Springer or Bradley.
Of Springer and Bradley, the former will command the far richer contract. MLBTR predicts a five-year, $125MM contract for Springer, who has blended high-end offense with very good defense throughout his career. There’s a case that the 31-year-old Springer is the No. 1 position player on the open market (it’s him or catcher J.T. Realmuto). With the Astros having given Springer an $18.9MM qualifying offer, which he’s sure to reject, the Blue Jays would have to surrender draft compensation to add him.
Bradley isn’t on Springer’s level, but JBJ has been a valuable player during his career, in which he has combined fantastic defense with passable offense. This past season, although abbreviated, was one of the 30-year-old’s best at the plate. He wound up with a strong line of .283/.364/.450 (119 wRC+), seven homers and five steals across 217 PA. MLBTR expects Bradley to land a two-year, $16MM contract before the 2021 campaign, but the Jays or another team will have to beat out the likes of the Red Sox and Astros, who have shown interest early this offseason.
The Blue Jays brought back Robbie Ray on a one-year, $8MM deal today, but recent history suggests they could still add more to the rotation writes Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca. Davidi notes that the Jays struck early last year in signing Chase Anderson, but that certainly didn’t slow their free agent activity. The Jays do seem to be fairly well stocked in the rotation, with Hyun Jin Ryu, Nate Pearson, and Tanner Roark more-or-less guaranteed to hold down rotation spots. Ross Stripling can also hang in the rotation, while Anthony Kay could get a look at some point, as could a whole host of arms from their Triple-A corps. The bullpen is stocked with former starters who can handle multiple innings at a time, which could allow someone like Pearson to see some time out there if he struggles to stay healthy while taking on more innings. That sort of strategy would make room for another arm or two if the Blue Jays like the price.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has every intention of playing third base in 2021, per Emily Sadler of Sportsnet.ca. Guerrero understands why the move was made, but the decision to move Vlad Jr. to first was in part to protect him from a knee injury that contributed to his struggles at the hot corner in 2018. With the injury behind him, Guerrero apparently has some newfound fervor to turn himself into a viable option at third. Vlad’s defensive marks at first in 2020 were similar to his DRS and UZR at third base in 2019, which is to say they weren’t great (-4 DRS, -13.8 UZR/150). To his credit, Vlad took responsibility for letting himself fall out of shape during the pandemic shutdown.
If Guerrero succeeds, the Blue Jays could broaden their free agent search to include a full-time first baseman or second baseman. Cavan Biggio could move to first base full-time, leaving Toronto to explore pacts with Kolten Wong, DJ LeMahieu, or Cesar Hernandez, suggests Shi Davidi of sportsnet.ca. Of course, that probably presumes not only that the Jays are comfortable with Vlad at third, but that they are comfortable committing to him there for a couple of seasons. They have the designated hitter to play with as well, and Biggio’s versatility serves as a safety net of sorts, but it’s still worth a consideration. Travis Shaw is the incumbent at third, but he’s not likely to return as the full-time starter (.239/.306/.411 in 2020).
Timing might be an even bigger factor than Guerrero’s progress at the third for Toronto, depending on how quickly the hot stove shapes up. There are a number of high-profile third baseman available via trade should the Jays choose to go that route. This year’s platinum glove winner Nolan Arenado could theoretically be available via trade from the Rockies, as is Kris Bryant of the Cubs. Bryant can move around the diamond a bit as well, so even a star acquisition at third doesn’t preclude manager Charlie Montoyo from utilizing Vlad at both infield corners. Beyond LeMahieu, World Series champ Justin Turner is probably the best option at third base, though we here at MLBTR predict Turner to return the Dodgers.
The Blue Jays have announced that free agent left-hander Robbie Ray has been re-signed. ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan (Twitter link) was the first to report that the southpaw will receive a one-year contract worth $8MM.
It was a tough season overall for Ray, who posted a 6.62 ERA, 11.8 K/9, 2.3 HR/9, and a 7.8 BB/9 (highest of any pitcher in baseball with at least 50 innings pitched) over 51 2/3 combined innings for the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays. If there is a silver lining, Ray’s numbers over his 20 2/3 innings with the Jays were better than his numbers with the D’Backs, though even a 4.79 ERA, 6.1 BB/9, and 1.7 HR/9 with Toronto is nothing to write home about.
Still, the Jays clearly saw enough to welcome Ray back into the fold and line him up for a spot in Toronto’s rotation. Passan notes that the Blue Jays intend to use Ray as a starting pitcher, adding him to a rotation mix that includes Hyun Jin Ryu, Nate Pearson, Tanner Roark, and Ross Stripling. It’s safe to assume that the Jays aren’t done exploring the pitching market, given how Ray, Roark, and Stripling all didn’t pitch well in 2020 and Pearson also struggled (and had some injury problems) in his first MLB season.
Home runs have always been an issue for Ray over his seven-year career, though his control went from being a concern to a full-on problem in 2020. The one constant, however, has been strikeouts, as Ray has an 11.1 career K/9 and even led the league in that category in 2017 (12.1). That season was Ray’s peak, as he finished seventh in NL Cy Young Award voting and seemed to be blossoming as a front-of-the-rotation starter. However, Ray was more okay than spectacular in 2018-19, as his walk totals crept upwards, his ground-ball numbers declined, and batters began to generate more hard contact against his arsenal.
Ray’s fastball velocity also dropped by almost two miles an hour, from a 94.3mph average in 2017 to a 92.4 average in 2019. His velocity clicked back up to 93.7mph last season, and while there wasn’t much to like about Ray’s Statcast metrics in 2020, he still finished in the 80th percentile in fastball spin rate.
Ray is still only 29, and the one-year commitment gives the Blue Jays a chance to take a longer look at Ray without sacrificing any flexibility in future payrolls. Toronto is thought to be one of the few teams who has some spending capacity this offseason, and this early strike to re-sign Ray (when most clubs reportedly have yet to even figure out their 2021 budget situations) indicates that the Jays could be aggressive players as they look to build on their wild card berth from the past year. MLBTR ranked Ray 36th on our list of the winter’s top 50 free agents, correctly predicting him for a one-year contract but for only $6MM.
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The Yankees signed second baseman DJ LeMahieu to a two-year, $24MM contract going into 2019, but the division-rival Blue Jays were also after him then, Shi Davidi of Sportsnet reports. Speculatively, with LeMahieu set to hit the open market again, it seems possible the Jays will circle back to him. He greatly upped his value in his two seasons in New York, leading MLBTR to predict he’ll receive a four-year, $68MM payday this offseason. MLBTR even chose Toronto as LeMahieu’s destination this offseason.
After three losing seasons, the Blue Jays both topped the .500 mark and returned to the playoffs in 2020. Now that the corner has seemingly been turned on the team’s rebuild, could a full-fledged push towards contention be on the way?
- Hyun Jin Ryu, SP: $60MM through 2023
- Randal Grichuk, OF: $29MM through 2023
- Lourdes Gurriel Jr., OF: $13.4MM through 2023
- Tanner Roark, SP: $12MM through 2021
- Shun Yamaguchi, RP: $3.175MM through 2021
- Rafael Dolis, RP: $1.5MM through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- A.J. Cole – $800K
- Teoscar Hernandez – $2.7MM
- Travis Shaw – $4.5MM
- Ross Stripling – $2.7MM
- Non-tender candidates: Shaw
- Chase Anderson, SP: $9.5MM club option, $500K buyout (declined)
- Rafael Dolis, RP: $1.5MM club option (exercised)
- Anderson, Taijuan Walker, Ken Giles, Matt Shoemaker, Robbie Ray, Jonathan Villar, Joe Panik, Anthony Bass, Caleb Joseph, Wilmer Font
A 32-28 record under the wholly unique circumstances of the 2020 season doesn’t exactly mean that the Jays can suddenly start thinking about the World Series. That said, this year’s results were definitely a positive development, and indicative of this roster’s potential — so much of the team’s young core is either still early in their MLB careers or not even in the majors yet, but the Blue Jays have already shown that they’re able to win.
It makes for a potentially fascinating offseason in Toronto, especially considering that the Jays might be one of the few teams who could have the ability to spend. More will be known on this front once Jays management meets with the Rogers Communications ownership group for a budget meeting later this month, but on paper, the Blue Jays would seem to have some extra payroll capacity. The team has roughly $81.25MM in committed salary for 2021, and less than $37MM on the books in both 2022 and 2023, with only three players (Hyun Jin Ryu, Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr.) under contract beyond the coming season.
Since the Jays came into 2020 with a pre-pandemic payroll of around $93.2MM, there is some room for GM Ross Atkins to maneuver even if ownership doesn’t okay much or any new spending. The club already carved out some extra space by declining Chase Anderson’s $9.5MM club option, and Travis Shaw’s projected arbitration salary makes him a non-tender candidate given his lack of production last season.
Is another Ryu-esque signing in the cards? Atkins didn’t rule out the possibility, telling reporters last month that “I think we are in a position where we could add to this team with talent that is condensed in one player and a super high impact.” While Toronto is far from being the proverbial “one player away” from a championship, it seems plausible that the Jays could try to duplicate their 2019-20 offseason by making one big-ticket acquisition and then a few other, more moderately-priced pickups.
Pitching is the most obvious need for a club whose rotation was in flux for much of the season. Ryu and Tanner Roark were the only real constants, though Roark struggled in his first season in Toronto and now figures to slot into the back of the rotation. Ross Stripling also didn’t pitch well as a Blue Jay after being acquired from the Dodgers at the trade deadline, though after years of being shifted in and out of the Los Angeles rotation, Stripling should get a clear-cut chance at being a full-time starting pitcher in 2021. Nate Pearson battled some elbow problems and tossed only 18 innings in his rookie season, so while his prospect ceiling is very high, he can’t yet be counted upon as a front-of-the-rotation type.
Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch, and other young arms are on hand to compete for a starting job or provide depth, but adding certainly one and potentially two experienced starters would go a long way towards solidifying the starting staff. Reunions with free agents Taijuan Walker, Matt Shoemaker, Anderson, and Robbie Ray will be considered, with Walker likely to receive the most attention from other teams given how well he pitched in 2020, particularly after joining the Blue Jays after the trade deadline.
Walker did speak quite highly of his time with the Jays, noting that “they did such a great job of making us comfortable in Buffalo.” This could be an underrated factor in the team’s offseason planning, as pitchers like Walker or the other Jays free agents could be prioritized since they’re already familiar with conditions at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field. A decision on whether or not the Blue Jays will be able to play in Toronto in 2021 likely won’t be known for at least a few months, so external free agents might be wary of potentially spending a year at a hitter-friendly minor league ballpark.
Then again, that might be just the kind of thing that would appeal to an unconventional free agent like Trevor Bauer. Atkins and Jays president/CEO Mark Shapiro were part of the Cleveland front office that brought Bauer to the Indians back in December 2012, and while landing Bauer would be much more costly this time around, Bauer’s stated openness to shorter-term or even one-year contracts could make him a particular fit for the Jays. Such a contract would keep Bauer in the fold during the window of Ryu’s prime and still give the Blue Jays future payroll flexibility, while also allowing more time for Pearson, Kay, or Simeon Woods Richardson to develop.
Whether the Blue Jays are prepared to make quite that big a splash in pursuing Bauer remains to be seen, though given how aggressively the team went after pitching last offseason, it can’t be ruled out. If the Jays are allowed to stretch their payroll, that gives them a leg up on virtually every other team in baseball in this post-pandemic offseason, and puts Toronto in play for conceivably any free agent. A case can be made for the Jays to pursue the likes of Bauer, J.T. Realmuto or (as MLBTR did in our Top 50 Free Agents list) DJ LeMahieu, or perhaps rather than shop in the upper tier of the market, the Blue Jays could spread their money around in the second tier. If Bauer is to command upwards of $30MM in average annual value, that $30MM+ could also cover, say, Walker and Masahiro Tanaka in the rotation and Justin Turner at third base.
Besides free agents, the Jays could also look to acquire talent in a trade, especially if rival teams are more willing to unload quality players in the name of cost-cutting. Beyond just the obvious Cleveland connection with Shapiro and Atkins, Francisco Lindor is a player that would make some sense for the Jays, particularly since they have looked into acquiring him in the past. The Indians would certainly have a high asking price for even one year of Lindor, yet considering salary concerns just led the Tribe to cut ties with a valuable player in Brad Hand, getting Lindor’s salary off the books might be a bigger concern for Cleveland than fully maximizing a trade return.
Installing Lindor at shortstop for a year also solves the third base question, assuming Shaw is non-tendered — Bo Bichette would be moved off shortstop to play either third or second base, with Cavan Biggio handling the other position. Acquiring a position player on a shorter-term deal might be the optimal move for a Jays team that has Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans in the prospect pipeline, and seems mostly set around the diamond in the present. The core of Gurriel, Grichuk, and Teoscar Hernandez in the outfield, Danny Jansen behind the plate, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Rowdy Tellez as the first base/DH duo, Bichette at shortstop and Biggio at second base (or multiple positions) is solid from an offensive standpoint, but the Jays were one of the league’s weaker defensive teams.
Inserting a premium defender like Andrelton Simmons or Kolten Wong into the one open infield spot would certainly help in this regard, though if the Blue Jays wanted to go bigger, they could explore trading Grichuk or Tellez. Such moves would allow for the acquisition of a more traditional center fielder to patrol the outfield, or free up the DH spot so the Jays could keep some of their lesser defenders in the lineup.
As they did last offseason, it seems likely that the Jays will continue to target multi-position players, in order to upgrade a bench that didn’t provide much help when injuries arose during the season. Biggio is developing nicely as a super-utilityman, but getting another reliable player who can play several positions could be another path towards helping the defense, at least in a late-game capacity.
The Jays haven’t traditionally spent much on relief pitching under Atkins, and that strategy might continue this winter even though the bullpen didn’t post good numbers in 2020. Toronto relievers were asked to throw a lot of innings in support of the shaky rotation, so things could stabilize simply with a more normal workload, plus several good young arms (i.e. Jordan Romano, Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather) delivered strong results.
It’s possible the Jays don’t have a traditional closer at all next season, or if they do, Romano or Rafael Dolis could get more consideration than an external pitcher. But since the Jays will presumably look to add at least one veteran reliever, they could check into pitchers with past closing experience. As the Indians’ decision to decline Hand’s option might indicate, this could be a particularly volatile market for relief pitching, leaving the Blue Jays with many opportunities to acquire a significant bullpen piece at perhaps something of a bargain price.
There is no shortage of possibilities open to the Blue Jays this winter, making a team to watch both this winter and in 2021, when the young cornerstones and (presumably) some new additions could gather to again make the Jays postseason factors.