TORONTO — The pending contracts for free agents Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray are similar enough that an intriguing question is whether the Toronto Blue Jays preferred adding the former rather than re-signing the latter.
Certainly, there’s just enough variance in the two deals to differentiate them. The right-hander, untethered to a qualifying offer, accepted $110 million over five years to head north while the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, tied to draft-pick compensation, agreed to $115 million over five years with an opt out after the third year.
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The subtle distinctions aren’t insignificant.
It’s possible the Blue Jays looked at the opt out — something this front office hadn’t handed out before Jose Berrios got one as part of his $131-million, seven-year extension — and the extra draft pick they’d receive if Ray left and decided Gausman was the better play.
But if their conviction was to retain the ace lefty whose career they helped revive, those factors couldn’t have been deal-breakers.
So, perhaps they have more faith in Gausman’s ability to deliver over the next five years, or maybe he got to yes first and the Blue Jays took the bird in hand. Or it could be that Ray preferred the Pacific Northwest to the Great White North, forcing a pivot.
Remember, the decision ultimately belongs to the player no matter how hard the Blue Jays may twist an arm, as general manager Ross Atkins noted back at the GM Meetings earlier this month.
“We’re very respectful of them getting to free agency and earning the right to explore that market,” Atkins said of the club’s approach with Ray, Marcus Semien and Steven Matz. “So much of it is not necessarily following their lead, but being respectful of them wanting to take some time to do that. What we can do is just constantly communicate with their representation and stay in contact consistently to understand the potential of needing to go another direction while we maintain them as options.”
The Blue Jays paid Marcus Semien ($18m), Robbie Ray ($8m) and Steven Matz ($5.2m) a total of $31.2m last season. As FAs, they signed contracts worth a combined $334m.
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Gausman may be a different direction, but he is no dramatic shift, as the fact their deals are so similar suggests the industry values them in nearly the same way.
Both pitch in similar fashions, too, pounding the strike zone with fastballs and complementing the heat with an elite secondary pitch — a slider for Ray and a mesmerizing splitter for Gausman that colleague Arden Zwelling breaks down so well here.
Notable is that the Blue Jays seem to have a thing for splitters, a pitch not terribly common.
They also tried to sign Gausman last off-season, of course, but they also added the splitter-reliant Kirby Yates before he blew out in the spring, and two winters ago gambled on Japanese righty Shun Yamaguchi, hoping his splitter would allow him to transition to the majors.
Unsurprising then is that they’ve circled back to Yusei Kikuchi and are among the teams in on the left-hander, according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman.
Jays are among teams in on Yusei Kikuchi. Pitching market is obvs very strong.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 29, 2021
The Blue Jays had interest in Kikuchi before he signed with the Mariners prior to the 2019 season, and he’s precisely the type of subtle tinker job to put before arm-whispering pitching coach Pete Walker.
Opponents last year batted just .176 and slugged .282 against a splitter that produced a 39.6 whiff rate. But it was his least-used pitch, thrown 627 times fewer than his worst offering, a mediocre cutter that batters hit .276 and slugged .476 against, underperforming the expected numbers off the pitch.
Kikuchi’s whiff rates on both his fastball (30.3) and slider (31.2) are encouraging enough to believe that some usage changes could generate far better results, akin to the tweaks that helped straighten out Matz.
Another starter in that tier of the market seems to be a goal for the Blue Jays, who so far this off-season pursued to varying degrees both elite starters (Ray, Justin Verlander, Noah Syndergaard and Gausman) and middle-tier/rebound play arms (Matz, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Andrew Heaney).
Shopping in such a pattern aligns with how Atkins described his order of operations earlier this month, a description that is instructive when trying to figure out what comes next.
“You start with an ideal and take steps towards that ideal outcome and then you get reactions,” he said. “It has, at least for me, never gone the ideal way from step one. You always have to adjust based on interest, based on seeing values differently. But that’s a big part of the time here now (at the GM meetings) where you really start to have extended exchanges.”
Apply the same methodology to the club’s pursuit of an infielder, “an area that we would be excited about adding a player,” Atkins said. The ideal would have been bringing back Semien, given his impact on the club during an MVP finalist campaign, or convincing Corey Seager to move over to third base (the Texas Rangers’ willingness to give him $325 million over 10 years quickly eliminated that dream).
Now, Atkins and company move down their list of possibilities, which includes Javier Baez in a super utility role. The sides have held some talks and while that doesn’t mean anything is imminent, they’ll remain engaged with all their potential targets in pursuit of an eventual fit.
That’s how they landed Semien last year, as they initially chased D.J. LeMahieu, lost out when he rejoined the New York Yankees, and then landed the slugger when he chose them as the place to rebuild his value.
The Blue Jays have additional cache as a soft-landing spot after paying $31.2 million combined last season for Semien, Ray and Matz, who parlayed those one-year commitments into contracts worth a total of $334 million.
Identifying pillow-contract players is one way to recreate some of that lost financial efficiency, while another is making a trade for a player performing beyond his contract (Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez, for instance, was a target for them at the deadline in July). To this point, Atkins has made only one substantial prospect subtraction trade – sending Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson to the Minnesota Twins for Berrios – and this may very well be the time for another.
As he said back in Carlsbad, “I would prefer to just spend money, but that’s not unlimited, right?”
It’s not, even amid the current bonkers spending spree overtaking the sport, one made all the jarring when juxtaposed against the looming lockout. Hence, the off-season may be on the verge of lockout-induced freeze, but for the Blue Jays, it’s in many ways still just getting going.