Until some of these stars sign or change teams, discussion around the Blue Jays will be dominated by a few players we know to be available now. That’s the intuitive way to think about the off-season, especially for a fanbase that has had its fill of looking far into the future in recent years. However, fixating on this free-agent class misses a significant consideration for how this team will approach the off-season. Specifically, who will come available next year.
Although it seems early to cast our eyes beyond the 2021 season, there is no doubt that the transactions the Blue Jays make in the months to come will be coloured by the opportunities that will exist a year from now. That’s especially true for a club that plans to compete in 2021, but isn’t putting a particular emphasis on that year in the midst of what they hope is a lengthy competitive window.
The suggestion that next year’s free agents could affect what the Blue Jays do this year sounds like it means they won’t make moves now. However, the situation could go either way. If there’s a position group where impact players are not coming available after 2021, there is greater incentive to make a move now.
To gain a better understanding of how the Blue Jays will maneuver through the off-season ahead, it pays to look at who is coming free after 2021 at positions the club has been contemplating significant upgrades.
2020 Free Agent Headliners: Marcus Semien, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Ha-Seong Kim
2021 Free Agent Headliners: Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Trevor Story
How it affects the 2020 off-season: This is the aspect of the 2021 free-agent class that has gotten the most ink in recent years. It’s extremely rare for a ground of elite shortstops in their primes to come available all at once. Not only that, but there probably won’t just be a game of musical chairs here because the Cleveland Indians and Colorado Rockies may not be able to afford the deals these players will command, the Chicago Cubs seem to be entering a transition phase, and the Houston Astros have rarely been big spenders in free agency. Of all the teams who are losing a star shortstop, only the Los Angeles Dodgers seem like a safe bet to sign one of these guys.
That creates a significant opportunity for the Blue Jays to swoop in, if the idea of moving Bo Bichette off the position is palatable to them. As a result, signing a free-agent shortstop this year seems less likely than it would be without this illustrious 2021 class. Of course, they could opt to get ahead of the market by trading for Lindor or Baez and extending them. That move would be costly, and there’s a good case to be made for waiting the situation out and then opening up the chequebook after next season concludes.
2020 Free Agent Headliners: George Springer, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jake Marisnick
2021 Free Agent Headliners: Starling Marte, Delino DeShields Jr.
How it affects the 2020 off-season: Although this year’s class of centre fielders is relatively unimpressive, next year’s is significantly worse. Marte will be 33 by the time 2022 rolls around and his defensive metrics have been mixed in recent years. DeShields Jr. is a no-bat bench player and there’s not much more in the class. Odubel Herrera and Ender Inciarte could shake free if their club options aren’t picked up, but in that scenario they aren’t coming off exciting 2021 campaigns.
If the Blue Jays don’t see Randal Grichuk as a long-term solution in centre field, this off-season would be the time to address that, especially since Austin Martin is the only prospect in the organization who seems capable of taking up that mantle. Martin’s primary position is still up for debate, and it’s unclear how much time he’ll need in the minor leagues considering he hasn’t taken a pro at-bat. There are plenty of reasons that the Blue Jays have been exploring Springer and Bradley Jr. already, but one of them is certainly the lack of available centre field talent on the horizon.
2020 Free Agent Headliners: Trevor Bauer, Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Odorizzi, Jose Quintana, James Paxton, Corey Kluber
2021 Free Agent Headliners: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Lance Lynn, Lance McCullers Jr., Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman
How it affects the 2020 off-season: On paper, the takeaway from these groups is that the 2021 class is far superior and the Blue Jays might not want to get themselves into too many contracts that would preclude them from taking a bite at the apple. In practice, it’s not as simple as that.
Many of the 2021 free agents listed here are unlikely to be available to Toronto. Guys like Greinke and Verlander might even retire depending on their health. Kershaw is a Dodgers franchise legend who seems likely to return to Los Angeles. Scherzer will be an interesting case, but you can’t pass up something in 2020 hoping that one player -- especially a pitcher, whose health is volatile by definition -- is available.
The Blue Jays have to look at the group as a whole, and there’s a ton of uncertainty there. In an ideal situation for Toronto, one of these legendary hurlers could be the Jon Lester to their young position-player core, and if the group improved to the point they looked like a possible 2022 World Series favourite, it seems likely that they’d find the money for a veteran ace.
You can’t have too much starting pitching, and the Blue Jays don’t even have enough, so it seems unlikely that they’ll hesitate to add another starter this off-season regardless of who’s coming down the pipe.
2020 Free Agent Headliners: Justin Turner, Tommy La Stella, DJ LeMahieu, Ha-Seong Kim
2021 Free Agent Headliners: Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado (if he opts out of five years and $164 million), Maikel Franco
How it affects the 2020 off-season: Neither of these groups is without their warts. Bryant could be in line for a huge contract, but he’d have to bounce back from a troubling 2020 in a significant way. He hasn’t been a superstar since 2017. It’s tough to envision Arenado opting out and Franco is intriguing if he builds on a strong 2020, but far from a sure thing.
Counting on Bryant to both rebound and opt to sign with the Blue Jays isn’t a viable strategy, which means this club is incentivized to go after someone who can handle the position now. The big wild card in the near term is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who appears intent on re-establishing himself at the spot.
More than a little skepticism is warranted on that count, but Guerrero Jr. would be more valuable -- and create more roster flexibility for the entire team -- if he could return to third. That possibility could stay the Blue Jays hand this off-season, but if it does, finding an upgrade at this time next year would be difficult.