Here’s a simple way for the Toronto Blue Jays to address their pitching needs this off-season: sign Max Scherzer and Robbie Ray. Or Kevin Gausman and Carlos Rodon. Grab Zack Greinke and Anthony DeSclafani while you’re at it. You can never have too much pitching, right?
If only it was so easy. The Blue Jays, like all teams, must work within a budget. And even if the club has somewhere north of $30-million in payroll to tap into this off-season, that’s probably only good enough to get one of the aforementioned arms — or two of them with little remaining to address the rest of the roster.
Plus, those players have earned the right to free agency and the right to turn down Toronto’s money in favour of someone else’s. It’s not like the Blue Jays are the only club looking for pitching this winter. And while Toronto gained leverage by being one of the few franchises aggressively seeking to add free agents last off-season, that won’t be the case this time around.
Decision-makers with the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, and Miami Marlins have all indicated they anticipate being active in free agency. Collectively, those four clubs spent only $66.85-million on free agents last off-season. This winter, each franchise is positioned to surpass that spending on its own. And that’s to say nothing of the perpetual bidders for premier talent in big markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.
Ultimately, for the Blue Jays to address multiple rotation and bullpen holes, they’ll have to get creative. They could come away with a Gausman, a Rodon, or even a Scherzer. But they’d still need to pair that frontline addition with more payroll-efficient secondary acquisitions.
That could come in the form of a value play from the free agent pitching market’s middle tier. You could squint at Jon Gray’s hard fastball and sneakily effective slider and see Robbie Ray Lite. You could try to help Dylan Bundy find the adjustments he needs to avoid more barrels and rediscover his 2020 form. You could chase the upside in how frequently Andrew Heaney misses bats. You could dream on Michael Lorenzen’s hard, high-spin stuff in a rotation role.
Or you could try to make a trade. Considering how many needs the Blue Jays have, and how provident they must be with future payrolls as a young core gets progressively more expensive, it would actually be a surprise if the club didn’t make several this off-season. And if Toronto does pay up for a frontline starter in free agency, a trade will almost certainly be its best pathway to adding a player of similar impact.
With a deep pool of advanced, Rule 5 eligible prospects, and plenty of younger, higher-upside players at lower levels of the minors, Toronto ought to have the pieces to get deals done. We’ve already looked at a few trades the club could consider as it pursues a left-handed hitting infielder with on-base skills. Now, let’s search for some ways the Blue Jays could address their needs on the mound.
Today, we’ll consider a couple teams the Blue Jays ought to be calling frequently this winter with trade proposals for high-end arms on their rosters. Tomorrow, we’ll look at some alternative, under-the-radar targets the club could also pursue. All arbitration estimates herein are sourced from Matt Swartz’s model published by MLB Trade Rumors.
Barring a dramatic and wholly unexpected payroll increase, the Athletics will need to create financial flexibility this winter. Not to make a big free agent splash, mind you. But to afford a loaded arbitration class that runs 11 players deep, including all-stars deserving of significant raises such as Matt Olson (projected to earn $12-million) and Matt Chapman ($9.5-million).
If the A’s add only those two players to the guaranteed money they owe Elvis Andrus ($14-million) and Stephen Piscotty ($7.58-million) in 2022, they’ll already be nearly halfway to the $87-million payroll they ran in 2021. Which is to say nothing of Sean Manaea, who’s projected to receive a $10.2-million salary in his final year of eligibility, and Chris Bassitt, who’s estimated at $8.8-million.
With top pitching prospects A.J. Puk and Daulton Jefferies knocking on the big-league door, maybe the A’s seek to create some payroll room by dealing Manaea at the height of his value. The big, durable left-hander throws one of MLB’s best changeups and holds the game’s ninth-lowest walk rate since 2018 at 5.1 per cent. The velocity on all three of the 29-year-old’s pitches ticked up this season, helping Manaea post the second-highest strikeout rate of his career and positioning him to keep getting better in 2022 as he enters free agency.
And if there isn’t a deal for Manaea, maybe there’s one for Bassitt, who’s similarly entering his final year of arbitration eligibility. The 32-year-old right-hander doesn’t feature premium stuff but he commands it as well as any pitcher in the game. And the results are undeniable as he’s pitched to a 3.23 ERA since 2018, mixing and matching with six different pitches to suppress hard contact and keep the ball in the yard.
The Blue Jays could even swing for the fences and try to acquire Frankie Montas — projected for a $5.2-million salary in his second trip through arbitration — who will likely receive down-ballot Cy Young votes coming off his breakout, 4.1-fWAR season. The Athletics would certainly prefer to hang on to the right-hander considering how affordable he is and the two years of club control they have on him. But if the Blue Jays are willing to part with high-end prospects the Athletics value, anything’s possible.
Last winter the Reds took steps to lower payroll following a pandemic-shortened season, non-tendering Archie Bradley and trading Raisel Iglesias for salary relief. A year later, with paying customers having returned to ballparks, it’s unclear if ownership will increase payroll back up to prior heights, keep it level around $130-million, or slash spending even further.
What is clear is that under either of the latter two options the Reds front office would be facing tough financial decisions. With more than $70-million committed to five players for ‘22, nearly $20-million in club and player options, a crowded arbitration class (10 players are eligible at an estimated total cost of $33-million), and substantial production to replace in the near-certain event Nick Castellanos opts out of his deal, it’ll be tricky to make all the puzzle pieces fit.
And perhaps that would make Luis Castillo available. Projected to come away with a $7.6-million salary in his second year of arbitration eligibility, the hard-throwing right-hander is likely to command the largest payday of Cincinnati’s controllable group. And for good reason. Featuring one of the game’s heaviest fastballs among starters, Castillo’s pitched to a 3.61 ERA over the last three seasons and has never been to the injured list since making his MLB debut midway through 2017.
Tyler Mahle is also two years away from free agency and just authored an equally stellar 2021, pitching to a 3.75 ERA over 180 innings with a 27.7 per cent strikeout rate. The 27-year-old right-hander is estimated to receive $5.6-milllion via arbitration, making him both extremely underpaid and extremely valuable in trade.
If the Reds are still motivated to shed salary, Castillo and Mahle would represent their best options to do it while recouping young talent. They could also use one of them to get out from under a big contract like the $33.9-million the club owes Eugenio Suarez over the next three years, or the $34-million it owes Mike Moustakas over the next two.
Hey, the Blue Jays could use a left-handed hitter who can play second or third base. Maybe they’d be willing to bet on a Moustakas bounce back — the 33-year-old’s 70 wRC+ this year stands in stark contrast to the 105-or-higher numbers he posted in the half-dozen seasons prior — coming off a 2021 marred by foot issues. If the Blue Jays assumed some or all of Moustakas’ contract, they could lessen what would surely need to be a substantial prospect price to convince the Reds to move Castillo or Mahle.
And if the Blue Jays want to assume less risk — or the Reds simply won’t discuss Castillo or Mahle — they could shift their sights to Sonny Gray. The 32-year-old dealt with back, groin, and rib issues in 2021 but still pitched to a 114 ERA+ over 26 starts, posting a 91st percentile hard hit rate and continuing his strong run since joining the Reds in 2019 after a calamitous season with the Yankees.
Owed $10.7-million in ‘22, plus a $12-million club option for ‘23, Gray’s very affordable for a dependable, mid-rotation arm. For that reason, the Reds would still be seeking a quality return and might even prefer current MLB talent as the club attempts to remain competitive. Maybe there’s a package to be built around Lourdes Gurriel Jr., whose modest salaries the next two seasons would give the Reds cost certainty while he filled the outfield hole likely to open when Castellanos opts out.
The clubs could craft a similar deal around Wade Miley, who the Reds hold a $10-million club option on for 2022. Soon to be 35, Miley just turned in his best season since he was a rookie, pitching to a 141 ERA+ over 28 starts. And it could’ve been even better if not for a series of disastrous September outings — Miley allowed 17 earned runs over 18.1 innings that month — that culminated in him hitting the injured list with a neck strain.
Prior to that rough finish, Miley carried a 2.74 ERA over 144.2 innings through the end of August, using his deep repertoire to generate soft contact at an elite clip. If the Blue Jays believe the veteran left-hander has another season even close to that in him, they could do a lot worse than giving Miley $10-million to fill a back-end rotation role.
With top pitching prospects Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo both finishing 2021 at triple-A, the Reds have internal options to help backfill if they made a rotation subtraction to address their outfield or simply shed payroll. They’ve reportedly considered it in the past, as Castillo and Gray were the subject of trade rumours last off-season. Maybe this winter those discussions resume. And if they do, the Blue Jays ought to be involved.