Last week, Ross Atkins talked to the media about where the organization is headed after the team’s successful 2020 season.
Had this year been normal, the goal would have been for the team to play near-.500 ball and take a step forward towards opening its contention window. The Blue Jays, of course, made the playoffs with a 32-28 record thanks to this year’s expanded post-season format and this young group got a much-needed taste of meaningful, competitive baseball.
So, what’s next? According to Atkins, it looks like the organization is poised to make another major off-season splash.
“I think we are in a position where we could add to this team with talent that is condensed in one player and a super high impact,” Atkins said. “We got to the point last year where we felt like the team was competitive enough to move towards winning, and that was a big part of that decision. We’re going to continue to think about how we can build upon this group, and hopefully it’s both complementary as well as making as making a really high impact.
“We need to think about that not just for 2021, but beyond that in 2022 and 2023. This is an exciting young group with a lot of really young pitching that hasn’t transitioned as far as our young position players. There’s still a lot of growth for our young position players, but thinking about the amount of exciting pitching that we have to complement that group already on our roster with really exciting pieces not on our roster.”
The Blue Jays took a huge step last winter when they inked Hyun Jin Ryu, one of the top pitchers on the free-agent market, to a four-year deal worth $80 million. It was far and away the biggest free-agent signing we had seen this front office make since taking over back in 2015 and the deal wiped away a lot of the anxiety that the Cleveland Crew would shy away from shelling out cash.
If this team is going to take another step forward next year and compete for a playoff spot in a regular season (assuming MLB goes back to a five-team post-season, which isn’t a guarantee, at this point) then the front office is again going to need to make a major addition.
There’s clearly a very good, young core here, but there are also major holes on the roster. Most noticeably, the team lacks quality starting pitching.
The Jays were able to navigate essentially having only two reliable starters (Ryu and Taijuan Walker, who they acquired halfway through the season) thanks to the depth and flexibility afforded by the expanded 28-man roster. Rather than having guys like Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, and Julian Merryweather starting in Triple-A, the Jays could use them as multi-inning guys out of the bullpen, which was a major factor in being able to compensate for a lacklustre starting rotation.
Beyond starting pitching, the Jays could use some help elsewhere on the diamond. The team’s primary three outfielders, Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez, and Lourdes Gurriel, were a good group at the plate, but they were among baseball’s worst outfields defensively. There’s also a pretty glaring hole at third base and there’s no guarantee that either of Jordan Groshans or Austin Martin are anywhere near being ready to step in.
This year’s top free agent, Mookie Betts, has already inked a massive extension to remain a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the rest of his career. That would leave J.T. Realmuto the top position player on the open market. With quite a bit of organizational depth behind the plate, throwing big money at a catcher likely won’t be the plan for the Blue Jays this winter.
Houston’s George Springer could be a solution in the outfield. He slashed a .265/.359/.540 line this season without anyone letting him know which pitch was on the way and he provides better defence than of Toronto’s three outfielders. But, at 31 years of age, there are obvious risks attached to a long-term deal.
Marcell Ozuna, who opted to take a one-year deal last winter with the Braves, is the next-best outfield option. He had a huge season at the plate, slashing a .338/.431/.636 line, but, much like Hernandez and Gurriel, he’s a bat-first guy who doesn’t feature a great glove.
The position player that looks like the biggest possible impact addition on this year’s open market for the Blue Jays is DJ LeMahieu. He got overlooked a couple of years ago due to the Coors bias and the Yankees grabbed him at an insanely team-friendly deal. Nobody is going to overlook LeMahieu this time around after he slashed a .336/.386/.536 line for the Yankees between 2019 and 2020.
Beyond his hitting, LeMahieu makes all kinds of sense for the Blue Jays because of his positional versatility. He can be the team’s solution at third base and though his primary position has been at second.
Other names to pay attention to are Tommy LaStella, who’s basically the poor man’s LeMahieu as he hits for a high average and can play multiple positions, Michael Brantley, a great veteran hitter with a Cleveland Connection, and Andrelton Simmons, an elite defensive shortstop who the Blue Jays apparently checked in on before the trade deadline.
What about pitching?
The Blue Jays have Hyun Jin Ryu pencilled in as their ace next season, but there isn’t much certainty after that. Maybe Nate Pearson has a huge season, maybe Tanner Roark bounces back and isn’t complete ass, maybe a guy like T.J. Zeuch or Thomas Hatch or Anthony Kay can become a reliable mid-rotation starter.
But, again, none of these things are anywhere close to a guarantee. The Jays could really use another high-quality, veteran starter.
Trevor Bauer, the odds-on-favourite to win the National League Cy Young award, is the best arm on this year’s market. He had a sparkling 1.73 ERA and struck out 12.3 batters-per-nine, reaching new heights with his spin rate experiments. There’s no doubt that Bauer is a great pitcher, but he’s also, uh, a weird personality.
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume there won’t be a reunion between Marcus Stroman and the Blue Jays this winter after how that divorce went last summer, so we’ll skip past that option.
Masahiro Tanaka has been great for the Yankees over the years but his elbow is hanging by a thread so there’s major risk attached there. Jake Odorizzi was a name the Blue Jays were in on last winter but he pitched just 13 2/3 innings for the Twins in 2020. James Paxton is another high-upside name who carries risk due to injury concerns.
So, really, beyond Bauer, you basically have a bunch of question marks. Maybe keeping Taijuan Walker, who was excellent after being acquired from Seattle, around might be the best option out there for the Blue Jays.
One final thing to mention here is that Atkins didn’t outright say that this winter’s “super impact player” is a free agent like Ryu was. Maybe that player can come via trade. If that’s the case, the obvious name who comes to mind is Francisco Lindor.
One year from free agency, it’s very, very clear that Lindor has played his last game with Cleveland. The organization is notoriously cheap at the best of times and they aren’t going to shell out the $300 million-plus to keep Lindor around, especially after a COVID season in which they couldn’t make money from having fans in the seats.
When asked if he thought Cleveland might spend some cash to get over the hump, Lindor laughed.
It seems inevitable that Lindor will be moved this winter as Cleveland looks to continue to get younger and cheaper. This is a player that Mark Shapiro drafted back in 2011 so there’s certainly a familiarity there. Adding Lindor, an elite glove at short, would allow the team to move Bo Bichette over to second and would then free up Cavan Biggio to be used as a super-utility player.
But is it better to trade for Lindor with the risk of him leaving in free agency after one year? Or should the team just wait until next winter when he might be on the open market? Of course, as we saw with Betts, that’s no guarantee.
You’d obviously rather make a splash in free agency because you don’t have to give any prospects or players back in return, but I don’t think anybody would be complaining with a Dodgers-style trade-and-sign of Lindor this winter. That would absolutely be a “super high impact” addition.