TORONTO – An increasingly bought up upper-middle tier of free-agent starters is shifting the pitching market for the Toronto Blue Jays, who also must sort through a potential complication from the Jan. 15 expiration of the government’s exemption for unvaccinated athletes.
The latter may very well end up complicating the former, although the club is still seeking clarity on how last week’s announcement of a broader tightening of border-entry requirements in the new year will impact next season.
While the Blue Jays determine if that needs to be factored into potential 2022 acquisitions, Steven Matz’s pending $44-million, four-year agreement with the St. Louis Cardinals further depletes their options in play.
Leading up to Matz’s decision, the Blue Jays were described by one industry source as being strong in the mix. But the Cardinals’ offer was clearly very good for a starter with No. 3 upside but No. 5. downside, and the pending deal bests the $36-million, three-year deal the San Francisco Giants handed righty Anthony DeSclafani.
The Blue Jays, to some degree, pursued DeSclafani, too, as well as Eduardo Rodriguez ($77 million, five years), Justin Verlander ($50 million, two years), Noah Syndergaard ($21 million, one year) and Andrew Heaney ($8.5 million, one year).
While none of the top free agents have signed yet – Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, Max Scherzer, Kevin Gausman, Clayton Kershaw and Marcus Stroman are still out there – the stable and affordable innings-eater types are quickly being snatched from the shelves.
Jon Gray still fits that description and the Blue Jays explored signing Yusei Kikuchi before he landed with the Seattle Mariners three years ago. But as the free-agent options decrease, the trade market becomes an increasingly important alternative for them.
Apart from needing to replace the production of Matz, Ray and fellow free agent Marcus Semien, the Blue Jays also need to recapture some of the lost financial efficiency having the trio at $31.5 million last year provided. Trading for a starter still in his arbitration years (at least under the current collective bargaining agreement’s current system) is one way to get potentially top-range performance at a mid-range salary.
There’s a cost in prospects or even big-league assets to that, of course, but financial efficiency is part of what is acquired, along with the talent. Given that the Blue Jays want two starters to bolster their rotation, they have all the more reason now to knock on the doors of the Oakland Athletics, Cincinnati Reds and Miami Marlins, among others.
The Blue Jays remain engaged with Ray, would like to bring back Semien, too, and want to improve the bullpen, so the question for them remains with the options that are achievable, how do they get the most bang for their bucks.
Based on their actions so far, they’d like a starter in the $8-12 million range and are seeking an elite add as a compliment. Whether getting one of Ray or Semien back cuts them off to the other is a good question, and one infielder is a definite need.
They’ve also, to this point, remained disciplined to their valuations, obviously not stretching beyond their comfort zone for Matz after declining to extend him an $18.4 million qualifying offer.
The thinking at the time is that he would have accepted although he clearly did better in free agency, as Matz would have needed to average out roughly $8.5 million a season three times beyond 2022 to replicate what he got from the Cardinals.
Had he declined a QO, his market may not have developed quite in the same way, too, so the Blue Jays couldn’t extend the offer if they weren’t willing to get a yes for him at $18.4 million.
Regardless, the market for him featured multiple teams, the Cardinals won the bidding and another option is off the board for the Blue Jays.
Now, as they search for a replacement and other reinforcements, the end of the federal government’s national interest exemption for unvaccinated athletes is another potential shift on the off-season’s ever-moving ground.