Blue Jays must adapt in evolving off-season with LeMahieu off the board

Baseball insiders Shi Davidi, Arden Zwelling & Ben Nicholson-Smith react to star infielder DJ LeMahieu choosing to stay with the Yankees and what it means for the Blue Jays off-season plans.

TORONTO — For months, the MLB off-season amounted to an extended standoff. But now that we’re four weeks away from spring training, it’s finally moving along with some pace. And since each move brings with it wide-ranging consequences, things are starting to get interesting.

Since last week we’ve seen deals involving Francisco Lindor, Carlos Carrasco, Kyle Schwarber, Liam Hendriks, Pedro Baez and Archie Bradley. Now, DJ LeMahieu is on the brink of a new deal with the Yankees and Brad Hand’s market appears to be advancing, too.

As for the Toronto Blue Jays? Well, their roster hasn’t improved since last season ended. In fact, it’s objectively worse, as the club’s deal with Robbie Ray doesn’t offset the departures of Taijuan Walker, Matt Shoemaker and Anthony Bass.

So it certainly hasn’t been a successful off-season to this point — but there’s still a month left before spring training and 35 of MLB Trade Rumors’s top 50 free agents are available, including the top four. If this winter were a baseball game, the Blue Jays might be trailing by a run or two in the third inning. Yet with each move that occurs, the landscape around them shifts, cutting off some possibilities and making others more realistic.

In the case of LeMahieu, this was always the most likely outcome. By all accounts, he wanted to return to New York, and the Yankees wanted him. So even when Bo Bichette called the two-time batting champ "the best hitter in baseball" and said he’s "probably the No. 1 player I'd want to play with in the league," the Blue Jays and Dodgers always seemed to be on the outside looking in.

According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, the Blue Jays offered four years and $78 million. Once the Yankees offered $90 million, that seemingly assured them of a deal. By spreading that guarantee over six years, the Yankees reduce the deal’s AAV and create further payroll flexibility.

On the field, the 32-year-old’s return gives the Yankees an elite bat-to-ball hitter to slot in front of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Luke Voit and Gleyber Torres in what will once again project as one of baseball’s best lineups. There’s still a need for starting pitching in the Bronx, but this deal answers the biggest question of the winter for general manager Brian Cashman.

Meanwhile, a reunion between the Dodgers and Turner would appear to be more likely now that LeMahieu’s off the board. While there’s still a discrepancy on years, there’s no denying Turner’s talent, his significance to the Dodgers or their need at third base.

Even so, there are plenty of infielders remaining for the Blue Jays — who are intent on adding some sort of infielder — and other interested clubs such as the Reds, Phillies and Red Sox. Among them: free agents Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius and Kolten Wong, plus trade candidates Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Eugenio Suarez and Mike Moustakas.

With that many players available, there’s zero reason to believe the Blue Jays will be shut out of the infield market. But with Lindor and LeMahieu off the table, it’s now less likely that the Blue Jays’ biggest off-season addition will be an infielder.

Remaining atop the free agent market are George Springer, JT Realmuto and Trevor Bauer, and the Blue Jays have interest in all three. Realistically, none of them are required for a successful off-season. To name one hypothetical, signing Jackie Bradley Jr. and Trevor Rosenthal while trading for Luis Castillo and Mike Moustakas would work. But certainly a deal with one the elite free agents would be the most direct path to a successful off-season for the Blue Jays, who have consistently expressed confidence in their ability to improve their team meaningfully.

“That could come in the form of four very good players,” club president and CEO Mark Shapiro said last month. “It can come in the form of two elite players, but we’re going to get better.”

Every time an impact player comes off the board, there are fewer ways for the Blue Jays to deliver on their promise, but their top target does remain available and some recent developments may even push Springer toward the Blue Jays.

The additions of Lindor and Carlos Carrasco push the Mets' payroll to $178 million, giving them a little more than $30 million of space between them and the $210 million luxury tax. Considering the Mets are said to want a little breathing room for in-season additions, adding Springer already looks to be a real challenge. If their talks with Hand progress, their payroll commitments would climb closer to $190 million, making a deal with Springer even harder to accommodate, especially working with the assumption that there’s no designated hitter in the NL this year.

Now, there are ways to get creative with trades here, and Mets president Sandy Alderson has said the luxury tax isn’t a hard limit for the team. As long as that’s true, the Mets are a potential factor. But if they’re pushed to the periphery of talks for Springer, that would seemingly create an opportunity for the Blue Jays, who have given some industry observers the impression they’d be comfortable offering $125 million or perhaps more for the player many consider their top target.

Of course none of this matters until it leads to deals. Finishing second on players is interesting but ultimately meaningless. There’s still time for an excellent off-season here, and the Blue Jays wouldn’t have spoken so boldly unless they were confident they could deliver, but with each impact player who goes elsewhere, their range of opportunities narrows a little further. Eventually, the Blue Jays must address the real needs on their roster with concrete moves.

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