Blue Jays franchise-changing off-season begins
Competing for championship in ’24 essential to support renovations
If the Blue Jays were to make zero personnel changes between now and opening day, this team as constructed would be hard-pressed to win 75 games, despite a deep rotation and a solid bullpen. Thankfully, this current roster is viewed by the front office merely as the foundation upon which to build a contender in 2024.
There will surely be multiple changes and upgrades on the five-month journey towards Opening Day, March 28, 2024. That Jays building process has begun with preliminary discussions this week at the GM Meetings in Arizona. It’s getting real.
You can break winning baseball down to its three basic components, pitching, hitting and defence, or in simpler, terms, preferred by analytics-oriented front offices, run production and run prevention. The Jays in ’23 were high in all MLB rankings in run prevention, with three Gold Glove awards and a tremendous defensive outfield, but run-production was the surprising Achilles Heel. The Jays were mainly offensive in ‘21 and ‘22 then overcompensated in ‘23. Now they have a chance to find balance.
President Mark Shapiro at his year-end press conference, in October, suggested the Jays will come in with roughly the same payroll in ’24 that ownership offered them last year. The Jays, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, on Opening Day, ranked seventh among the 30 teams, in ’23, with a $210-million payroll. That being said, given departures and built-in raises with existing contracts and projected arbitration figures, there will be about $27-million available to spend, elsewhere.
Blue Jays departures in free-agency include 2B Whit Merrifield ($6.5M), 3B Matt Chapman ($12M), CF Kevin Kiermaier ($9M), DH Brandon Belt ($9.3M) and, on the pitching side, LH Hyun Jin Ryu ($20M). The combined salaries for that quintet equalled $56.8-million. The existing contracts and expected raises leave a balance.
The indication from GM Ross Atkins is that among the four undermanned positions, the club will look to add 2-3 position players via free agency or trade. Since four players are leaving the lineup, it would make sense that either second base or third base can be filled internally, while DH, one outfielder with more pop than Kiermaier and either second or third base could be added.
Following is a summary of what fans might look for this winter in terms of replacing those position players on the way out. This shopping list is a combination of information available in the public forum, details that we have found first-hand at GriffsThePitch, and other well-thought-out suggestions of a positive nature (our specialty), outlining what we might do, given the opportunity.
EXPLAINING THE MARKETPLACE
Third base won’t be Chapman. He is one of seven major-league players issued a qualifying offer from their previous team, heading to free-agency. The one-size-fits-all QO for this year is one-year, $20.325-million. It is a number that changes every year, but is rejected by the majority of players when offered.
The advantage to the team that issues the QO is they receive an extra draft choice in next summer’s entry process should he sign elsewhere. The disadvantage is if you make the offer and don’t really want the player, he may surprise you and take it. That being said, the Jays front office is insisting, publicly, that it has real interest in signing Chapman to a multi-year contract. The truth is that any indication of interest is likely a quiet nod to the Boras Corp. that represents the righthanded hitting Gold Glove infielder and many others in this year’s free agency. Jays interest serves to subtly add another bidder to the Scott Boras equation, in theory boosting the free-agent’s final agreement somewhere else. Somewhere down the road, another Boras client might be in the Jays’ crosshairs and the previous goodwill would come into play.
Boras is the most important agent in baseball. He has multiple players in whom the Jays are interested, if not in this winter’s market, then certainly in the future. A very partial list of Boras Corp. clients includes Japanese free agent OF Jung-hoo Lee, DH J.D. Martinez, LH Blake Snell, OF Cody Bellinger, plus Jays LH Yusei Kikuchi and LH Hyun Jin Ryu.
JAYS POSSIBILITIES AT THIRD BASE:
1-Jeimer Candelario: The 30-year-old switch-hitter was on a $5-million, one-year deal with Washington and was traded to the Cubs, mid-season, posting career numbers, boosting his free-agent value in a weak market. He is not a liability at third-base and can play solid first. If he continues his upward career path, entering his early 30s, he may believe he has a bigger payday ahead, so, in that case, may be willing to agree to a 3-4 year deal and try it again later, with more impressive numbers.
2-Gio Urshela: The 32-year-old righthanded hitter played briefly for the Jays in 2018 as a bench player, but did not establish himself until the following season when he went to the Yankees and had a breakout year. His strength is his defence, while his bat-to-ball skills produce extra-base power. Urshela is bouncing back from an off-season in Anaheim and could be had on as short as a two-year deal.
3-Eugenio Suarez: Word out of the GM Meetings from Ben Nicholson-Smith is that the 32-year-old Mariners righthanded hitter has been discussed, at least in preliminary fashion. He is signed to one more year, $11.3M contract, with a club option for ’25. Seattle’s third baseman for the past two seasons, Suarez has been a consistent run producer, with 22 homers and 96 RBIs, playing in all 162 games in ‘23. One caveat is he has struck out 410 times in the past two seasons.
4-Justin Turner: Likely to be looking for a one-year deal, plus an option, the 39-year-old Turner cannot be relied upon to play third-base every day and has lost something defensively, but with the Red Sox in ’23, he chipped in with 22 homers and 96 RBIs. He would need some time as the DH but would be a good, veteran with a track record, influence in a clubhouse constantly looking for maturity.
WHAT ABOUT SECOND-BASE:
1-Jorge Polanco: The Twins at the GM meetings in Arizona announced they were intent on cutting payroll in ‘24, but at the same time they just picked up the $10.5-million option on Polanco for 2024. The 30-year-old, switch-hitting middle infielder is going to have trouble finding reps with the Twins, given young Canadian Edouard Julien establishing himself at second-base, Royce Lewis cementing third and Carlos Correa clearly the everyday shortstop. Perhaps they picked up the option, with the likelihood of dealing him, to at least pick up some player assets in return.
2-Tim Anderson: The White Sox enigmatic free-agent has indicated a willingness to move from short to second base. He’s coming off a dismal season as one of the worst-rated hitters in baseball, but that whole White Sox thing was such a mess, perhaps he can be excused, coming off his energizing WBC stint with Team USA. Anderson would bring an edge that has been missing in the Toronto clubhouse and would likely be willing to sign a short-term contract and bet on himself. With any sort of bounce-back, Anderson could bat leadoff, which would allow a banged-up George Springer to move down in the batting order where he could provide RBI depth.
3-Davis Schneider/Cavan Biggio: If the Jays believe they can fill three of the four vacant positions, maybe this is the one spot that can be filled internally.
AN OUTFIELDER WITH CF ABILITY:
1-Cody Bellinger: The most coveted position player on the market, he would fit nicely in the Jays outfield, with occasional first-base work, but the extreme cost would mean that they could not afford to fill other needs. His bounce-back season with the Cubs in 2023, was timed perfectly, placing him at the front of the pack with Boras as his tour guide.
2-Michael A. Taylor: The righthanded hitting centre fielder fits the Jays profile of run preventions and would allow Daulton Varsho to remain in left field, then moving to centre when Taylor is overmatched at the plate by an opposing starter. At 32-years-old, Taylor would be a reasonable option for the Jays in length of term and dollars, but is definitely not the answer to increased run production.
3-Lourdes Gurriel Jr: The repatriation of Gurriel, the popular left fielder might lessen the sting of recently watching C Gabby Moreno and the 30-year-old Cuban with great hair go all the way to the World Series. Gurriel, free with less than six years of service, because of the special terms of his initial Jays contract, would likely sign an AAV of $15-million, four years, which leaves funds for other positions, while adding to the missing offence. Defensively, in ’21, Lourdes racked up the outfield assists and was a finalist for a Gold Glove, even though that might have been a reach.
4-Jung Hoo Lee: A star centre fielder in the KBO, the 25-year-old is being posted by his Korean team, meaning if he signed for five years, $50-million as suggested by MLB Trade Rumors, there would be a posting fee of just over $9-million. The immediate success of LF Masataka Yoshida with the Red Sox in his first year over from Japan removes some of the concern of whether Lee can compete right now.
5-Max Kepler: The Twins, as they did with Polanco, picked up the option of the left-handed hitting outfielder for $10-million while claiming that they were going to cut payroll. The Jays have been interested in Kepler before and the German-born 30-year-old comes at a reasonable price, with some power and off of a solid season.
6-Tyler O’Neill: The Cardinals say they need three starting pitchers and the Jays need a high-end outfielder who can play defence and provide needed run production. Seems like a good matchup between the two teams. The 28-year-old from Burnaby, BC, had his breakout season in 2021, winning a Gold Glove and posting a .912 OPS, with 34 homers. O’Neill comes with a needed edge, bordering on the abrasive, to his personality, but has had injury issues each of the past two seasons.
DH FOR A TEAM THAT ALSO USES DH TO GET STARS OFF THEIR FEET:
1-Joey Votto: The kid from Etobicoke brings many of the same assets that attracted the Jays to Belt last year -- minus the swing-and-miss and with less power. Both men were coming off tough injuries from the previous year. Both bat lefthanded allowing the Jays righthanded stars to DH against certain lefthanded starters. Both have personalities that play well inside the clubhouse. It all ended up in a nice rebound season for Belt. In addition, the Jays have taken a fanbase shellacking recently in terms of PR with expensive private-club inventory to sell next year. Hey, the Votto bobblehead day sitting at the chessboard would be a blast. Checkmate!
2-Joc Pederson: The quirky lefthanded hitter has played for four teams in the past four years, performing with the Giants on a one-year deal for $19.65-million in ‘23. The 32-year-old can still play a little corner outfield and has a first-baseman’s glove in his locker next to the pearls. But he is basically a DH.
3-Jorge Soler: Amazingly, still just 32-years-old, Soler has been a Cuban rollercoaster, highlighted by his breakout season in 2019 with the Royals, then dipping and rising again to a World Series MVP in ’21 with the Braves. The righthanded hitter was solid with the Marlins last year and would be looking for another three-year deal averaging about $15-20-million. Not ideal and this would be a January signing.