TORONTO – In the absence of the type of move befitting of the raised expectations created by the Toronto Blue Jays, each and every name that comes off the board will act as a test of faith in their off-season plan.
Francisco Lindor’s acquisition by the New York Mets on Thursday, hours before the 5 p.m. ET posting deadline on Japanese right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano came and went with no MLB deal, became the latest exhibits on that front.
On the heels of known whiffs for Kevin Gausman and Ha-seong Kim, as the San Diego Padres and Mets make things happen, and amid a slow-moving overall market, there is fertile ground for cynicism to take root.
The Blue Jays have made calls and inquired and done background on nearly everyone of consequence available. So far, their noteworthy work is limited to re-signing Robbie Ray. Given how aggressive they’ve been, you’d think they would have more accomplished by this point.
That they don't is either a cause for concern, or simply the result of a dysfunctional business environment caused by the pandemic’s economic fallout, depending on your outlook.
Now, failing to acquire Lindor – a possibility that captured the imagination of some Blue Jays fans on social media – is hardly a death knell for their winter. Bo Bichette deserves to be the team’s undisputed shortstop, anyway, and GM Ross Atkins would do well to anoint him so publicly.
But with Lindor off the table – the Blue Jays are said to have gone in pretty big for him – the rest of their pursuits must come into tighter focus. And rather than playing out the still plentiful remaining options and alternatives, now is the time to force the issue with their preferred targets before the market starts playing them.
Front and centre in that regard should be George Springer, another Mets target to whom there is suddenly a clearer pathway.
After adding both Lindor and Carlos Carrasco (we’ll discuss Cleveland’s return later), the Mets under new owner Steve Cohen right now are projected to have a payroll around $180 million, according to FanGraphs.
At minimum, one executive expects that they’ll still make some depth signings, each pushing them closer and closer to the Competitive Balance Tax threshold of $210 million. Springer will cost, at minimum, $25 million a season, so that doesn’t leave them much space beneath the line, and whether they’d cross it is uncertain.
At his introductory news conference, Cohen told reporters that “at some point we will, but maybe not this season.”
“I’m not afraid to go over it, but you want to have flexibility on our payroll,” he added. “Long-term contracts can limit a team’s ability going forward. I’ve said we are a major-market team and we should spend like we are a major-market team, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to spend like drunken sailors.”
Important context here is that Robinson Cano’s season-long suspension after testing positive for a banned substance removed his $24-million hit this season, but that same amount remains on the ledger in each of the next two years. If they’re going to extend Lindor, continue to carry Jacob deGrom’s $37.5 million, consider extending Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Michael Conforto or any of their other pending free agents, it’s fair to wonder if they can, or if it’s sensible, to carry another big ticket like Springer, too.
Mets president Sandy Alderson hinted at a yellow light there, but between Lindor, Carrasco, James McCann and Trevor May, it’s already been a pretty solid off-season.
Hence, there's a pathway to Springer for Toronto, especially if Atkins and crew decide that’s it and it's time to go get him. At $125 million over five years, maybe the Mets match, but if the Blue Jays move closer to $150 million over five years, does that seal the deal?
They need to find out now, and pivot quickly if that’s not going to happen, deciding who they’re going to overpay for, because that’s what it will take. The reason they landed Hyun-Jin Ryu last winter was because they gave him a fourth year, and some have suggested they were the only team willing to do so.
So far, the Blue Jays have stood firm on their valuations, refusing to budge. One source suggested that’s what happened with Kim, who got similar dollars but over a shorter term with the Padres, and there was similar speculation about a line in the sand stare-down with Sugano’s camp.
With lesser-known commodities, that’s understandable. But at some point, they have to ante up and it's better if it's for someone they have total conviction in, rather than someone who the market drove to them and fell into their financial comfort zone.
After all, if the Blue Jays aren’t willing to swallow inefficient back-ends to deals, and are going to wallow in the mid-tier market safety of two- or three-year contracts, then they’re not really advancing the program as aggressively as they should be.
And if they’re not going to do what it takes in free agency, then maybe they’re better off using their prospect capital to trade for players, since it’s traditionally been easier for the Blue Jays to keep players in Toronto than lure them here in the first place.
In return for Lindor and Carrasco, Cleveland picked up shortstop Amed Rosario, well-regarded infielder Andres Gimenez, rookie-ball righty Josh Wolf and outfielder Isaiah Greene, a second-round pick this past summer.
Rosario is an established big-leaguer while Gimenez posted a .732 OPS over 49 games in his rookie year last summer. If Cleveland was set on getting a young infielder ready to step in, the Blue Jays wouldn’t have a match for that not named Bichette, Cavan Biggio or Vladimir Guerrero Jr., obvious non-starters.
Maybe the Blue Jays could have built a package around Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and top prospect Jordan Groshans. But doing that for one guaranteed year of Lindor while also creating a hole in left field that would cost $10 million or so to backfill is a good way to shorten their competitive window.
Adding two years and an option on Carrasco, who ZiPS projects to be worth 2.9 fWAR this season, would have helped, and maybe framed in that light it changes some of the math.
Only Ryu projects better under ZiPS at 3.1, with Robbie Ray next at 2.5, so picking up Carrasco, even with $27 million guaranteed over the next two years, would have upgraded the rotation, another area of priority.
For whatever reason, it didn’t happen, and now the Blue Jays must decide what’s next. Plenty of good players remain and some of them will eventually take their money, but they should go get who they really want, rather than allow others to decide the path forward for them.