Blue Jays buy insurance with Shoemaker as off-season to-do list grows

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Matt Shoemaker. (Mark Blinch/CP)

TORONTO – An important caveat before we begin this conversation is that the off-season is still in its relative infancy, and the vast majority of the business that will take place is still to happen. This is certainly not a time for meaningful judgments or definitive conclusions.

Still, it’s hard to shake the sense that, so far at least, this winter isn’t unfolding particularly well for the Toronto Blue Jays.

On Monday came the latest twists, as Mike Moustakas joined Jake Odorizzi and Kyle Gibson as free agent targets to land elsewhere, while amateur scouting director Steve Sanders left to join new general manager Ben Cherington, the recently departed VP, with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Already trying to rebuild a threadbare rotation and bolster their lineup, the Blue Jays must now also cover the losses of pivotal leaders in player development and amateur scouting – the latter especially worrying with the team in possession of a potentially franchise-altering No. 5 pick.

Even a photo in Toronto posted to Twitter and Instagram by Didi Gregorius turned out to be a big tease, as the free-agent shortstop is in the city to hang out, not for a recruitment trip, according to two industry sources. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean the Blue Jays aren’t interested, either, whatever that means.

Regardless, by no means is this off-season doomed. But as options continue to come off the board, the home run scenario of adding established and productive players to contribute in 2020, and into the competitive window beyond, is becoming harder to pull off.

A week out from the winter meetings in San Diego, back-end starter Chase Anderson remains the only notable addition to Blue Jays’ staff, although they did create another option for themselves ahead of Monday night’s 8 p.m. deadline by tendering Matt Shoemaker a contract.

The decision on the veteran right-hander was their most significant of the day – the arbitration-eligible Derek Law (projected salary of $1.3 million) and Luke Maile (projected $800,000) along with reliever Jason Adam were all cut loose, leaving the 40-man roster at 37 – but by no means does it lock him into a spot.

The Blue Jays and Shoemaker discussed different contract scenarios but couldn’t reach agreement and are potentially headed to a hearing (his salary is projected at $3.8 million but his case is volatile). Arbitration awards aren’t fully guaranteed, and the Blue Jays would be only on the hook for between 30-45 days of termination pay should they decide to cut him before the end of spring training, so in essence, tendering him was like buying an insurance policy in case they can’t lock in someone better.

That’s a tough spot to put Shoemaker in, but the game is especially cruel right now for players who aren’t performing at peak levels, as evidenced by the non-tendering of Kevin Pillar by the San Francisco Giants.

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Pillar’s projected arbitration award of $9.7 million is reasonable relative to his projected output and justified when you consider how his toughness, determination and mentality can positively impact a team. But rebuilding teams like the Giants and the Blue Jays are reluctant to pay for that, and his case is symbolic of why there’s so much friction between players and owners.

Digression aside, with both Pillar and Law non-tendered, minor-leaguer Juan De Paula (9.17 ERA in 52 innings at low-A Lansing) is the only player still with one of the teams from the four-player deal struck by the Blue Jays and Giants last spring.

Law was a useful part of the Blue Jays bullpen last season, one of the few adults around, and could have played a role on the 2020 club but the club decided to reallocate his money elsewhere.

Between Law, Maile and Adam – a hard-throwing righty who showed some promise but was in tough to stay on the 40 – the Blue Jays created $2.5-$3 million in extra spending room while paring the 40-man roster down to 37.

What they do with the extra money remains the question.

There was certainly a case to be made for splurging on Moustakas, who reached agreement on a $64-million, four-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds, just as there was for doing so on Odorizzi, who accepted a $17.8 million qualifying offer from the Minnesota Twins, and Gibson, who agreed to a $30-million, three-year deal with the Texas Rangers.

In Gibson’s case, the Blue Jays may not have been able to tempt the right-hander away from Texas, but they definitely could have landed Odorizzi.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Too late now, and perhaps the Blue Jays can move things over by inviting Gregorius over for a visit while he’s in town, since he’s apparently here anyway. Even if they land him, pitching remains their primary need and the winter is moving without any answers there.

Given how meticulously the Blue Jays plan out everything, you can bet the front office has planned for what’s happened, and has dozens of alternatives to the alternative of the alternatives. That’s smart, logical and proper, but to really push this team forward, some Plan A’s need to eventually start working out.

Moustakas would not have made the Blue Jays an instant contender, even if Odorizzi and Gibson had ended up here beforehand. Gregorius won’t thrust them into contention status either. But for this Blue Jays rebuild to succeed they’re going to need to add some good, established players around the kids, and they need to start putting them in place for 2020, and keep building from there. They can’t simply wait for the kids to do it all, because that probably won’t ever happen.

Some of the home run scenarios in that regard may be off the table now, but they can still bang out a few doubles, and that’s another way to push across some runs.

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