The Toronto Blue Jays’ slow start to the off-season has created a lot of consternation that is understandable, and may or may not end up being justified.
Toronto’s roster does have some significant holes, and the team has done nothing to address them.
While Teoscar Hernández’s departure has created uncertainty in the outfield, the most glaring issue may be the rotation where Yusei Kikuchi and Mitch White would both have a spot if the season started tomorrow, and the depth behind them is dubious at best.
The Blue Jays have reportedly been all over the pitching market in recent days despite having nothing to show for it. There’s Ross Stripling-sized hole in their rotation and still a number of ways to fill it through free agency.
Stripling himself remains available, although they haven’t seemed to show much interest in running it back with the 33-year-old.
Carlos Rodón resides alone at the top of the market coming off a masterful season with the San Francisco Giants. His 6.2 fWAR ranked second in the majors and his K/9 over the last two years (12.23) is tops among all starters with 300 or more innings pitched. He comes with legitimate health concerns, but he’s also an ace on a per-inning basis.
Perhaps the most intriguing option is Japanese right-hander Kodai Senga, who brings triple-digit heat and a bat-missing splitter. His career ERA in NPB is 2.85 with a 10.35 K/9. That all sounds appealing, but the next time the Blue Jays land a high-profile free agent straight from Japan will be the first.
There are also some middle-of-the-rotation types left in Chris Bassitt, Nathan Eovaldi and Noah Syndergaard plus back-end veterans like Corey Kluber, Michael Wacha and Johnny Cueto. Sean Manaea floats between those categories as a bounce-back candidate with a high range of outcomes.
Sitting on the sidelines this long doesn’t mean there are no more options for the Blue Jays, but the list is certainly shrinking — especially if the team wanted to stack their rotation with another top-end arm. Based on who’s left, adding a high-floor player to stabilize the back end seems more likely.
If nothing else, the Blue Jays have had the benefit of watching the market develop. Here’s what they can learn from what they’ve seen so far, as they continue to shop:
Bargains will be hard to come by
While prices on free agent contracts tend to rise year over year, this season the bump has been larger than expected.
Almost every starter that’s signed has done so for a larger payday than projected. Below is a chart with each starting pitcher in MLBTR’s top 50 free agent list who’s found a deal with their total contract value lined up against MLBTR’s prediction and FanGraphs’ crowdsourced estimate.
There are some exceptions here as Justin Verlander went with a two-year deal to boost his AAV, Clayton Kershaw isn’t seeking his market value any more, and Martin Pérez took a qualifying offer instead of pursuing term.
Even so, the pattern with these 10 starters is undeniable. MLBTR had them making $520.4 million while FanGraphs’ crowdsourcing pegged them at $449.5 million.
They made $593.3 million.
It’s a great time to be a starting pitcher, and teams getting into the market now have to understand that they’ll have to pay up for talent.
$10 million seems like the floor
Getting a back-of-the-rotation starter for an AAV under eight digits has been difficult in previous years, but in this market it looks impossible.
The only pure starter to go for less than $10 million in this year’s free agency is Jose Urena, who has posted four consecutive seasons with an ERA over 5.00 and hasn’t pitched more than 100.2 innings since 2018.
Last season, back-end starters like Andrew Heaney, Tyler Anderson, Kluber and Wacha all signed for less than $10 million, but those kinds of deals seem like they’ll be harder to come by.
Even Kyle Gibson reached this mark heading into his age-35 season with a 1.8 fWAR year with a 5.05 ERA in his rearview mirror.
Speaking of Gibson…
Luring pitching to Toronto can still be an issue
The Blue Jays reportedly lost out on Gibson despite making an identical offer to an objectively worse Baltimore Orioles team.
This tends to get charged when it becomes a discussion about perceptions of Canada, but this issue isn’t just about how players view the country.
It’s possible that Gibson has a negative view of Toronto or the country it resides in. More likely the issue is that in most cases Canadian taxes are higher, which means the same offer can net out as a lower take-home total. Even if it doesn’t, the administration on that front can be a headache.
There’s also a more benign fear of the unknown, or comfort in the familiar. Pitching in the AL East is something many pitchers seek to avoid as well, especially if they’re on short-term deals working towards their next contract. That wasn’t the issue in Gibson’s case, but it can be a factor.
At the end of the day, the Blue Jays may not win many ties in the free agent market with pitchers. Gibson provides a solid reminder of that. That means they have to be willing to outbid rivals, often by offering extra term — like they did on the Hyun-Jin Ryu and Kikuchi deals with mixed results.
On the topic of Kikuchi…
Traits can be enough to get you paid
Last off-season, the Blue Jays signed the Japanese southpaw to a three-year, $36 million contract based on what they thought he could do rather than what he’d done.
Although a hot first half of 2021 earned him a trip to the All-Star Game, Kikuchi produced a 4.97 ERA with the Seattle Mariners and continually struggled with his control. The Blue Jays saw rare velocity from the left side — plus a slider with promise — and felt they could guide him to more consistent results, as they did with Robbie Ray and Steven Matz.
The Blue Jays aren’t alone in this kind of thinking. The previous off-season, Drew Smyly earned a one-year $11 million deal with the Atlanta Braves based on 26.1 promising innings in 2020 that saw him change his pitch mix.
In this market, Heaney has already earned a multi-year deal with the Texas Rangers off 72.2 strong innings with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the stingy Tampa Bay Rays gave Zach Eflin a three-year, $40 million deal despite the fact he’s had an ERA south of 4.00 once as a starter — and it was 3.97 in a shortened 2020.
Kikuchi’s deal looks like a misstep, meaning it’s hard to imagine the Blue Jays going down this road again. There aren’t many obvious candidates left on the board, although Michael Lorenzen stands out as an impressive athlete who threw a 95 m.p.h fastball with 82nd percentile spin in his first season as a full-time starter since 2015 last year.