TORONTO – After years spent trying to raise the roster’s floor, the Toronto Blue Jays are now raising the franchise’s ceiling.
A $150-million, six-year deal with free-agent outfielder George Springer that is pending a physical, according to an industry source, is certainly one way to do just that, marking a significant inflection point for the franchise.
The agreement is the richest in Blue Jays history, moving past the $126-million, seven-year extension Vernon Wells signed in December 2006, and is easily the club’s deepest free-agency plunge, nearly doubling the $82-million, five-year deal for Russell Martin in November 2014.
On the heels of the $80-million, four-year deal for Hyun-Jin Ryu last winter – the biggest outlay to a pitcher by the Blue Jays – this is a stride by president and CEO Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins back toward the upper third of the big-leagues, with room to grow.
Assuming that Springer’s salary is spread evenly at $25 million a year, the Blue Jays now have just under $100 million committed to 12 players for the upcoming season, with more moves to come. Factor in roughly $10 million for pre-arbitration eligible players, they can still make adds without blowing too far past their pre-pandemic projected 2020 spend of $108 million.
The financial efficiency of the current roster will diminish somewhat in the coming years when salaries for the club’s young core escalate as they become arbitration-eligible.
But assuming life regains more normalcy in 2022 and beyond and the Blue Jays deliver on their potential, revenue growth should keep pace with the escalating payroll, allowing them to not only make attempts to retain the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio before they become eligible for free agency after 2025, but to keep augmenting the roster, too.
In that way, going big now for Springer – an athletic centre-fielder with a strong, positive presence, seasons of 3.9, 4.5, 5.0 and 6.5 WAR as calculated by FanGraphs and a track record of post-season performance – makes sense.
There are some similarities between where the Blue Jays are right now and where they were in the late 1990s, with young, deeply talented rosters positioned to rejuvenate the business after a fall from grace.
Back then, former GM Gord Ash was forced to work around the indifferent ownership of Interbrew S.A., the major coup of signing Roger Clemens undermined when he asked out after the 1998 season, and the roster was never sufficiently reinforced with external adds.
Failing to leverage a talented young group featuring Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Shannon Stewart, Alex Gonzalez, Chris Carpenter, Kelvim Escobar and Roy Halladay is a haunting missed opportunity, and failing to bolster the group now would have been similarly damaging.
In Springer, the Blue Jays are adding a proven elite performer to support Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernandez, Danny Jansen and Nate Pearson, putting the 31-year-old in place to do a good chunk of the heavy lifting.
Beyond that, he makes the Blue Jays a much deeper club, and one thing they have aspired to is creating surplus on the roster, allowing them to better survive injuries and to mitigate against underperformance.
That’s why the report from Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic saying the Blue Jays would continue to explore adding Michael Brantley, Springer’s close friend and Houston Astros teammate, makes sense, even if as a left fielder/DH, he’s a positional redundancy.
For one, surplus creates the opportunity for trades and Gurriel, for one, has wide appeal given his abilities and a very efficient $14.7 million total price tag for the next three seasons. But the Blue Jays would also be fine carrying more talent than available at-bats, knowing the inevitable attrition of a major-league season will largely sort that out.
Such an approach has allowed the Los Angeles Dodgers to be a sustainable winner, which is what the Blue Jays hope to become. It was a telling moment at the trade deadline last summer when Atkins pointed to the now defending World Series champions as the model to follow.
“It's never all-in at one time – it's a steady growth,” he said Aug. 31, when asked to contrast the Blue Jays’ approach to that of the San Diego Padres. “They continue to build up their system. They've continued to make their 40-man roster more efficient and obviously very effective. It's important to be measured, and there isn't one juncture where, in our view, that you put all the cards on the table. For us it will be, hopefully, continuing to be able to build and have a system that continues to provide talent for us, and not just trade pieces. That's our goal.
“We’ll hope to continue to be measured. At the same time, it’s not without making really significant deals that mean very, very high prices. But it's too hard to say on when exactly that time will be where those bigger deals occur.”
That time arrived late Tuesday night and it’s a turning point for the franchise, a significant step after near-misses this off-season for Francisco Lindor and D.J. LeMahieu, among others.
The Blue Jays needed an add like Springer, not only to placate fans who eye-rolled their way through months of reporting that linked the team to every free agent of consequence, but also to be credible to their own players, to show them that they can get the help they need.
Many needs, however, remain.
The rotation requires a boost and the pending-physical deals with Tyler Chatwood on Monday and Kirby Yates on Tuesday, the latter for one year at $5.5 million with the potential for $4.5 million more in bonuses for appearances, per a source, demonstrate how they’re trying to protect themselves with a deep bullpen.
The Blue Jays also intend to add an infielder, while Brantley, a left-handed hitter, would help balance a lineup that’s nearly totally right-handed if signed.
No matter, after adding Springer, they are better, much better, in so many different ways.
The cost was steep and the back-end of such deals aren’t usually pretty, but that’s OK. Adding an extra year and the extra dollars is simply the price of doing business.
More important is that the Blue Jays didn’t play it safe, didn’t shy away from the risk, and rather than finding the reasons to say no when the moment of truth arrived, they turned the franchise in a new direction by saying "yes" instead.