This time last fall, the Toronto Blue Jays were still disassembling the remnants of their 2015-16 playoff teams in the hopes of creating room for something new.
As of Monday that deconstruction is in some ways complete. After outrighting Devon Travis and designating Ryan Tepera, the Blue Jays’ 40-man roster now has zero remaining links to those Jose Bautista-era playoff teams.
Having cleared out so much of their past, it’s time for the Blue Jays to build back up again. While Toronto’s farm system has started producing big-leaguers to replace the departed veterans, this roster still has its share of holes, particularly on the pitching side. At the same time, the Blue Jays also have fewer payroll commitments than all but six big-league teams. That combination creates a clear off-season path for GM Ross Atkins: spend on pitchers.
Where Atkins spends, and how wisely, will determine the speed at which the Blue Jays emerge from the depths of this rebuild. And, as ever, there are secondary needs for this roster, too. With the off-season now officially underway, here’s your guide to what awaits the Blue Jays in the coming months…
At this rate, the 2020 Blue Jays could end up with one of the lowest payrolls in the game. Even if you include Monday’s acquisition of Chase Anderson and the $14 million salary the Blue Jays will pay Troy Tulowitzki, they’ve committed just $38.4 million to their 2020 payroll.
According to data at Cot’s Baseball Contracts, only six teams have less guaranteed money on the books for next year: the White Sox ($14.8 million), Pirates ($25.9 million), Marlins ($26.8 million), Twins ($31.2 million), Orioles ($35.1 million) and Rays ($36.4 million). Of course those commitments will increase in the coming months as free agent contracts and arbitration deals are completed, but this lean payroll contrasts sharply with the $160 million-plus teams the Blue Jays fielded a few years back.
With that flexibility in mind, Atkins said the Blue Jays’ spending “will be more significant” this winter than it’s been during the preceding two off-seasons. Reading between the lines on some of his end-of-year comments, that might mean $60-70 million in total spending, most of which will presumably go toward pitching.
The Blue Jays now have six arbitration-eligible players including Ken Giles, whose projected salary of $8.4 million leads the way, according to MLB Trade Rumors. It’s not a particularly expensive group, especially when you consider that it includes non-tender candidates such as Luke Maile. Plus, the Blue Jays are open to getting creative with Matt Shoemaker, who’s now throwing bullpens again after tearing his ACL in April.
A few years from now the Blue Jays will have to spend a lot on arbitration-eligible players once again, but in the meantime this year’s class is quite affordable…
Free agents (2)
RHP Clay Buchholz
Though Buchholz didn’t pitch particularly well in Toronto, he was well-regarded as a clubhouse mentor for rookies such as Trent Thornton. The Blue Jays need to aim higher in free agency, but it sounds as though Buchholz hopes to keep pitching in 2020.
“We shall see,” he said on the final weekend of the regular season. “There’s a lot more good players out there than there was 12 years ago or whenever I was coming up. We’ll wait and see. Take a little time off, a mental break, play golf and then get back at it.”
1B Justin Smoak
To Smoak’s credit, he hit 22 home runs with a .342 on-base percentage and was a Gold Glove finalist at first base. At the same time, his OPS dropped to .748, down from .808 the previous year. Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said he’d prefer a first baseman with some versatility, suggesting Smoak’s not plan A in Toronto.
The Blue Jays need pitching, and lots of it. They’re expected to devote most of their resources to the rotation after a season in which their starters combined for a 5.25 ERA. The front office will check on every free agent starter, so don’t be surprised when they’re linked to all kinds of names this winter.
While the team values draft picks highly, there are surely prices at which qualifying offer recipients Jake Odorizzi and Zack Wheeler make sense in Toronto. But if the bidding for those pitchers escalates beyond the team’s comfort zone, the likes of Jordan Lyles, Michael Pineda and Rick Porcello would just cost money.
Eventually, there will be chances to add to the bullpen and there’s also room for improvement on the offensive side, too. As a group, Blue Jays hitters posted a .305 on-base percentage in 2019, fourth-worst in baseball.
The Blue Jays off-season would be a failure if they don’t add meaningfully to their starting rotation. After years of bargain hunting, it’s time to look beyond the likes of Jaime Garcia and Clayton Richard and spend more aggressively. But as much as the Blue Jays need pitching, it’d be a mistake to spend too much prospect capital on short-term fixes.
Ideally, the Blue Jays would add two more big-league calibre starting pitchers, relief help, a controllable centre fielder who offers plus defence and an impact bat capable of playing multiple positions.
And best-case scenario, they’d add those pieces while holding onto their most promising young players. With payroll flexibility on their side, the Blue Jays are better off spending money than prospects.