TORONTO – Once the World Series officially ends, the Blue Jays will be issuing at least two qualifying offers to their pending free agents.
After a season in which he hit more home runs than any second baseman in MLB history, Marcus Semien will certainly receive a one-year qualifying offer, which will be valued at $18.4 million for the 2022 season. Along with Semien, Robbie Ray will also be obtaining a qualifying offer following a year that might lead to a Cy Young Award. Just as surely? Both players will reject it, meaning the Blue Jays would get 2022 draft picks should they leave.
This year a third Blue Jays free agent has a case for a qualifying offer, but the case of Steven Matz isn’t nearly as clear-cut. Internally, the Blue Jays have debated whether to extend Matz a qualifying offer after a season in which he posted a 3.82 ERA in 150.2 innings. They need pitching, but there are lots of variables to consider here.
So what does the case for making such an offer look like? And what counter-arguments could stand in the way? Let’s take a look:
The case for Matz
One way or another, the Blue Jays will need starting pitching this off-season and they’ll have to spend something to get it.
In Matz, they have a pitcher who not only got results but did so in a way that seems largely sustainable. His FIP (3.79), xFIP (.3.94) and xERA (4.06) all line up with his 3.82 ERA. He also cut back on walks and home runs allowed in 2021 while matching a career-high with an average fastball velocity of 94.5 m.p.h.
Those numbers would be impressive in any context, but they’re more noteworthy in the AL East, a division that featured four 90-win teams. Plus, he pitched better as the season progressed, posting a 2.69 ERA (3.44 FIP) after August 1.
Beyond the numbers, Matz clearly works well with pitching coach Pete Walker, who helped him rebound from a dismal 2020 season. At 30, he should still be in his prime and regardless – the risk on a one-year qualifying offer is limited to 2022.
Any downside here?
Just about every pitcher has limitations, Matz included, and any complete look at what he brings must account for those, too.
Opposing hitters hit Matz hard when facing him for a third time this year, posting a collective .871 OPS. Not coincidentally, he pitched 5.0 innings or fewer in 15 of his 29 starts this year. So while Matz might give you 30 starts, those struggles later in games mean he’s often a five-inning starter.
Plus, it’s worth noting that he didn’t actually pitch against the AL East’s best teams all that often. As a team, the Blue Jays played 35 per cent of their games against the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox. But Matz faced those teams just six times, or in 21 per cent of his starts. So while he may have succeeded within the AL East, the schedule shielded him from the division’s best teams at times (by way of comparison, Ray faced the Jays’ top AL East rivals 13 times).
What about the opportunity cost?
FanGraphs valued Matz’s 2021 contributions at 2.8 WAR and estimates that contribution would typically cost $22.1 million in free agency. Even if he falls a bit short of that standard in 2022, the Blue Jays could get their money’s worth with the qualifying offer.
But while the Blue Jays plan on raising payroll this year, they don’t have infinite resources. Each dollar they allocate now is one they won’t be able to spend later, and while you could argue that Matz at $18.4 million is fair value, it’s certainly not a bargain. Later in the winter, the Blue Jays may be able to use that same money to land a starter and a reliever. Or two bounce-back starters. Or two quality relievers.
For context, here are some of the pitchers who signed for less than $18.4 million last off-season: Mike Minor ($18 million, two years), Charlie Morton ($15 million, one year), Corey Kluber ($11 million, one year), Garrett Richards ($10 million, one year), James Paxton ($8.5 million, one year), Ray ($8 million, one year), Anthony DeSclafani ($6 million, one year), Michael Wacha ($3 million, one year) and Alex Wood ($3 million, one year).
Put simply, bargains will be out there. Matz himself is living, breathing proof that the Blue Jays can sometimes find them. If the Blue Jays intend on using their payroll flexibility to address other needs, qualifying Matz may become less appealing.
How do the picks figure in?
If Matz declines and signs elsewhere, the Blue Jays would then get an additional draft pick in 2022. While drafted players typically take years to reach the majors, sustainable success demands a steady supply of impact young players and one way to keep that pipeline coming is to acquire draft picks whenever possible.
So the outcome where Matz declines the qualifying offer and signs elsewhere would likely be a good one for the Blue Jays.
At the same time, it's worth noting where this pick might land. Teams that don't exceed the competitive balance tax threshold or receive revenue sharing get picks after the second round and competitive balance round B – approximately 70th overall. Every pick helps, but it’s worth noting that we’re not talking about an early first-rounder here.
If the Jays qualify Matz, what next?
For argument’s sake, let’s say the Blue Jays qualify Matz. He could certainly decline, opening up the possibility of greater earnings over the course of a multi-year period. But many within the MLB industry expect a notably slow off-season, especially when it comes to top-tier free agents. With no collective bargaining agreement in place beyond Dec. 1, players face more uncertainty than usual.
Within that context, there’s a strong argument to be made that Matz should accept a qualifying offer just as starters Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman and Jake Odorizzi have done in recent years. In one year, he would more than double his career earnings while playing for a contending team with a coaching staff that knows him and eliminating the possibility of any future qualifying offers.
In that scenario, the Blue Jays don’t get a draft pick and they lose some of the flexibility they typically value. With that in mind, the best option looks like the simplest: let Matz hit free agency without a qualifying offer and preserve flexibility for the front office. That would leave Matz free to sign anywhere, but it certainly wouldn’t rule out further dialogue between a team and player whose time together has started well.