Blue Jays could be nearing first major move in off-season of possibilities

Ross Atkins, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, speaks to the media during an end-of-the-season press conference. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — The first break in an off-season of wide-open possibilities could come soon for the Toronto Blue Jays, whose first major move will dictate the course taken in their subsequent additions.

As a handful of moves followed the Chicago White Sox’s acquisition of right-hander Lance Lynn from the Texas Rangers, there was chatter that some of the winter’s most pressing business may soon begin to drop.

While Blue Jays assistant GM Joe Sheehan treaded carefully in describing “momentum” that was “developing” in the market, one agent suggested that the end game might arrive with one of their position-player targets as soon as this week.

If and when that happens, the rest of their off-season plan will come into tighter focus, as at the moment, the combination of varied market options, roster versatility and spending power allow them to “pursue a lot of different potential places to upgrade,” said Sheehan.

“It's not like in a normal year, you might have one hole and the rest of your roster is kind of locked and you're looking for players that can do one specific thing,” he continued. “We’re really fortunate that our roster is flexible and that we can pursue good players in a lot of areas.”

Pursue good players is something the Blue Jays have done, targeting top free agents like George Springer, D.J. LeMahieu, J.T. Realmuto and Trevor Bauer, among others. Ace Hyun-Jin Ryu told Korean broadcaster KBS that he recently had dinner with Ha-Seong Kim at the request of the shortstop posted by the Heroes, which also raised eyebrows.

General manager Ross Atkins, meanwhile, did nothing to quell the ongoing speculation about a trade for star Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor during an appearance on MLB Network, saying, “Frankie’s a great player, there’s not a team in baseball that wouldn’t be thinking about how he can complement them.”

“What I’m going to do is just step out of the way and let you guys make some deals for us right now,” Atkins then quipped. “We think the world of the organization. We think the world of Frankie, and we do have some history with him.”

Whatever decisions the Blue Jays make will have far-reaching implications for the franchise’s short and medium term, both in terms of players currently on the roster as well on financial considerations in the years to come.

A Lindor acquisition, for example, would force Bo Bichette off shortstop, a position that he not only believes is his, but also sees as part of his identity as a baseball player. That’s an uncomfortable spot to put arguably the franchise’s most important player, even if his desire to win trumps all.

And assuming an extension is part of the equation, a commitment to Lindor puts a big number on the books that will impact future roster decisions, which when you factor in acquisition cost, means the Blue Jays better be sure this is the best use of their capital.

Long-term roster efficiency is certainly one concern, as is trying to identify the most impactful upgrades.

The infield is probably the Blue Jays’ greatest area of opportunity given that they have a spot open, a notion that’s underlined when looking at the 2021 ZiPS projections by FanGraphs senior writer Dan Szymborski along with Steamer’s data from here and here.

Though an inexact science, such modelling systems offer a reasonable, objective baseline for what performance could look like next year (teams have their own propriety systems).

The following chart looks at the Wins Above Replacement projections under both systems for the infielders currently in place, along with some Blue Jays targets (targets in italics). We’ll operate under the assumption that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is getting the bulk of his reps at first base, Rowdy Tellez is mostly at DH and Bichette and Cavan Biggio are filling two of second, short and third.

While not a huge upgrade over Bichette, dropping Lindor into the Blue Jays roster would be a spectacular boost. LeMahieu, to a slightly lesser degree, does as well, while Kim projects to nearly four wins under Steamer, although translating performance from Asia to North America remains difficult. Regardless, the range of 2.7 wins from Gregorius on the low end to 5.6 from Lindor on the high end is a gain the Blue Jays would be hard-pressed to match elsewhere on the roster.

The next closest spot would be adding Springer to the outfield. Ranging from 3.9-4.7 wins, the 31-year-old slugger is a significant upgrade over the projections of each member of the current group.

The systems’ disagreement over what to make of Teoscar Hernandez’s breakout 2020 underlines the volatility there, which is perhaps another reason to prioritize an outfielder. Michael Brantley and Jackie Bradley Jr., offer less of a projected gain, but an add would create surplus from which to trade.

More intriguing is the club’s catching situation. Realmuto is without doubt a dynamic game-changer, but is a likely nine-figure commitment worth the level of upgrade he delivers over incumbents Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk?

Realmuto is projected at a roughly 2.5-win gain over both the kids, and with the intangibles of his presence and leadership, offers everything you want behind the plate. But signing him cuts off the development arcs for both Jansen and Kirk, which is fine if the club is convinced the projections on them are right. If the Blue Jays believe one or both still have upside, though, a case can be made to allocate resources elsewhere.

The rotation is another area where things are really interesting. Atkins said after the signing of Robbie Ray that the Blue Jays have enough depth to cover innings, and are now seeking more quality than quantity.

Let’s assume, then, that the starting staff is Ryu, Ray, Ross Stripling, Nate Pearson and Tanner Roark.

Bauer aside, there isn’t a free-agent option that’s projected as a major upgrade over the arms in place. Factor in the prices on the open market, and you can see why the Blue Jays seem to be prioritizing other areas of the roster first, before circling back to pitching.

Sheehan described the innings in place as “definitely a nice situation to have in the rotation,” and added “sometimes at this time of the year, you have two starters and you're trying to just make sure you can get through a season.”

“So that would be an area where,” he continued, “if you add a starter, what's it adding over (who is currently in place) and what's that impact actually look like versus adding a position player, adding an infielder or adding an outfielder?”

A trade to address their pitching may become the best path forward for the Blue Jays in that regard.

Now, it’s worth noting that roster decisions aren’t made based solely on projections and simply throwing WAR totals around the diamond isn’t the way to build a functioning roster. There’s way, way more to consider than that. But as the Blue Jays inch toward that first defining move, they’ll need to have properly prioritized their needs, their options and their best opportunities.

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