What Blue Jays can learn from Dodgers with big contract calls looming

Toronto Blue Jays' Bo Bichette, right, is greeted by Vladimir Guerrero Jr. after hitting a solo home run against Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Matthew Boyd during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021, in Detroit. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

TORONTO – If any team in baseball represents the modern ideal of sustained big-market success, it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After winning eight consecutive NL West titles, they tied a franchise record with 106 wins in 2021 only to lose the division to an even better Giants team led by their former GM. Now the Dodgers are still alive in the NLCS, fighting to advance past Atlanta to their fourth World Series in the last five years.

With a payroll of $262 million, the Dodgers outspent every team in baseball this year. They retain legacy players like Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner. They acquire superstars in trade, most recently Mookie Betts, who signed a $365-million extension soon after last year’s deal. And they do so while still producing a steady stream of impact young players to balance out their older core. The results are undeniable, and there’s no apparent expiry date approaching.

What’s interesting for the Toronto Blue Jays – or any team serious about winning and willing to spend to get there – is the volume of quality players the Dodgers have let go. Starring in the 2021 playoffs are Joc Pederson and Kike Hernandez, two players who were central to L.A.’s World Series win a year ago. But really, Pederson and Hernandez are part of a broader pattern.

After 2019, the Dodgers let Hyun-Jin Ryu walk. After 2018 it was Manny Machado and Yasmani Grandal. After 2017, it was Yu Darvish. And after 2015, Zack Greinke. All told, that’s a lot of established talent out the door over a five-year period. With Corey Seager and Chris Taylor now on the brink of free agency, more departures may be coming.

At the time each of those losses was significant, but it’s a challenge Andrew Friedman’s front office has been willing to face. Because the Dodgers have overcome it, they’ve transitioned from the 2013 team that featured Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford to the present day without missing the playoffs a single time.

For the Blue Jays, some more big expenditures appear to be coming. Team president Mark Shapiro said Monday that payroll will continue to go up, and after a winter in which the Blue Jays signed George Springer on their way to out-spending every team in baseball it’s clear those resources exist. Internally there’s hope the team can improve on this year’s 91-71 record and reach the playoffs.

"The expectation is that we build a team capable of winning the World Series next year,” Shapiro said via Zoom.

Following hugely productive seasons from core young players like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette, the team will be open to discussing long-term extensions, though those conversations are more likely to take place in spring training, once the business of the off-season has mostly wrapped up. And beyond their homegrown core, the Blue Jays will have interest in re-signing their top three free agents: Steven Matz, Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien.

"Obviously we’d love to sign all three of those guys back,” Shapiro said. "They’re guys that we’re going to go into the market and compete for, but I’m not a believer that you have to sign anyone (specific) back. I’m a believer that you have to get better.”

So yes, the Blue Jays like all three and will be open to signing any of them. But history suggests they’ll also be disciplined, staying true to their own valuations of the players instead of opting for a sign-him-at-all-costs approach.

And while the Dodgers regularly pay penalties for exceeding MLB’s competitive balance tax, Shapiro said the Blue Jays aren’t currently planning to push past baseball’s CBT in the foreseeable future. At this point, budget conversations are ongoing with owners at Rogers Communications, which also owns Sportsnet.

"That’s not something I’ve thought a lot about,” Shapiro said. "I’m not sure with how we’re currently constructed we’ve got the revenues to support a team that goes over the CBT. That’s not to say that ownership doesn’t make a strategic decision at some point to go over, but I feel like we can continue to raise the payroll as we already have to unprecedented levels. And our team and our fans and this city and this incredible market, which is a country, can support us continuing to raise it.”

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Blue Jays spent $154 million on their 40-man roster payroll in 2021. Considering the CBT threshold sits at $210 million, there’s some breathing room, especially considering the CBT could increase further under a new collective agreement.

But if the Blue Jays were to re-sign both Ray and Semien, that flexibility could disappear quickly. And realistically, this isn’t the only winter the Blue Jays will have key players hitting free agency. The way things stand now, at least one member of the Blue Jays’ current core will hit free agency every year for the foreseeable future.

Not all of them will be staying in Toronto. So, if the Blue Jays are to sustain success like the Dodgers, they must also become adept at deciding which players they build around and which ones they eventually let go.

"It's thinking about how you maintain a balanced roster, not just from an economic perspective but from a talent perspective so that we don't age all at once, so we've got young players continuing to transition in that balance,” Shapiro said. "We're never thinking about any move we make – other than a one-year deal – in isolation. We’re always thinking about ‘what will this mean for our younger players as they progress through the economic system? What will it mean for players coming off the books in the years ahead?”

Failure to ask those questions can eat up crucial resources like payroll, roster spots and playing time. Five years ago, the Blue Jays experienced that first-hand when they signed designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million deal ahead of his age-34 season.

None of which is to advocate for a Rays-like approach where all potentially expensive players are pushed out before you can say arbitration. There’s no need to see how Guerrero Jr., looks in pinstripes four years from now. If he shows up to spring training 2022 motivated and fit, signing him to a lucrative extension could make sense as soon as February or March. That could also be a good time to lock up Bichette, or Jose Berrios, or both.

Plus, the Blue Jays must add free agents. Spending big on someone like Semien or Carlos Correa or Corey Seager would likely open more possibilities than it would close. Even beyond the biggest names, it could be a good time to explore adding some high-cost, short-term players who can supplement the team’s core now without limiting options for the future.

And ultimately, this isn’t a one-player off-season. The Blue Jays need multiple starting pitchers, multiple relievers and at least one bat, ideally one who hits from the left side. Without those reinforcements, the Blue Jays would be taking a step back at a time they’re intent on moving forward. Yet even if they aren’t making promises about who they’ll sign, the Blue Jays do sound intent on providing this roster with significant help.

Exactly what that looks like is hard to predict, but at this rate the Springer deal won’t be the Blue Jays’ last big contract. At the same time, not even the Dodgers keep all of their stars, so a team hesitant to push up against the CBT almost certainly won’t either.

There will be some tough decisions ahead and maybe some tough goodbyes. To get to the playoffs and stay there, this Blue Jays front office must strike a balance, pushing for a championship now while also making sure this team can continue winning year after year.

"That’s a core part of the job,” Shapiro said. "The definition of roster management.”

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