Photo credit:Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Amid Ohtani fallout, trading for an impact bat remains Blue Jays’ most sensible path
By Thomas Hall2 months ago
With the dust settled on the roller-coaster Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes, it’s back to business for the Toronto Blue Jays, who don’t have much time to lick their wounds before the floodgates open now that the two-time American League MVP is no longer holding up the rest of the market.
Not only does GM Ross Atkins have to move on quickly from this recent disappointment, but he’ll also have to do so without a clear Plan B to pivot to in both free agency and via trade. Meanwhile, the club’s offence still requires a few middle-of-the-order upgrades to improve next season’s outlook.
Prior to the Winter Meetings in Nashville, it seemed Toronto’s fallback option to Ohtani was destined to be outfielder Juan Soto, who’s just one year away from free agency. That plan, of course, fell through after the New York Yankees intensified their efforts to acquire the three-time All-Star, submitting an offer – headlined by pitchers Michael King, Randy Vásquez, Drew Thorpe and Jhony Brito – the San Diego Padres couldn’t refuse.
So, where does this leave the Blue Jays? The letdown of failing to land Ohtani and Soto is significant, particularly for a fan base already in a state of angst. Even so, the organization still finds itself in a unique position, albeit while facing an enormous amount of pressure.
The fact this team was as far along in the Ohtani negotiations as they were suggests management has money to spend. That doesn’t mean they’ll be able to toss around $500, $600 or even $700 million like they would have if baseball’s brightest international star signed north of the border. But there’s plenty of optimism to believe they possess enough financial flexibility to polish this roster.
As currently constructed, Toronto’s 2024 Competitive Balance Tax payroll sits at a projected $213.4 million, placing it roughly $23.6 million below the initial $237 million luxury tax threshold – a barrier they crossed for the first time in franchise history last season. And if they operate with similar spending limits in 2024, as president Mark Shapiro previously indicated, they’ll likely have $40-$50 million in breathing room this winter.
Those resources should allow the front office to remain legitimate players in free agency despite a less-than-desirable position-player market, with Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman the top bats available. Beyond that duo, the remainder of the field is littered with intriguing short-term options – like Jorge Soler and Rhys Hoskins, for example.
Considering the Blue Jays have four to five holes to fill on the position player front, they almost certainly won’t be able to address every need solely via free agency, especially with the bleak options up for grabs and the red flags (cost, offensive sustainability) associated with Bellinger and Chapman.
Thus, the trade market will likely become a valuable ally, just as it did last off-season.
That avenue will also present its challenges, as most baseball minds position the organization’s prospect system in the bottom third of the sport. But this gets back to the idea of management flexing its financial muscles – by calling upon Rogers Communications, which owns the team – instead of further stripping an already depleted resource.
One example of this would be inking Japanese free agent Yoshinobu Yamamoto – who the Blue Jays reportedly plan to meet with – to a lucrative deal, adding the 25-year-old hurler to a starting rotation that includes ace Kevin Gausman, José Berríos, Chris Bassitt and Yusei Kikuchi. Then, they could flip Alek Manoah for a controllable impact slugger.
It’d be unconventional, mainly considering Manoah is under club control through 2027 and was the franchise’s Opening Day starter just two seasons ago. But with a handful of teams seeking inexpensive pitching – like the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals – the 25-year-old, who’ll turn 26 next month, could be a vital trade chip in this scenario.
For the sake of argument, let’s say the Blue Jays also miss out on Yamamoto, who’s far more likely to sign with the New York Mets, Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers, which would pair him with his fellow countryman and Team Japan teammate in Ohtani.
Might Atkins pick up the phone and inquire about one of Ohtani’s former teammates on the Angels, Mike Trout?
Los Angeles appears committed to pushing for a playoff spot under new skipper Ron Washington next season, and their best hope of doing so would be to keep Trout, who could veto any potential move thanks to the full no-trade clause included in his 12-year, $426.5-million contract – baseball’s second-richest contract behind Ohtani’s.
On top of that, Angels GM Perry Minasian would likely need plenty of convincing to part with the three-time AL MVP in the same off-season he watched his other franchise pillar travel down the freeway to the rival Dodgers.
As long as Trout wants to remain in Anaheim, all the Blue Jays can do is watch from afar. If there comes a time he requests out, however, they should be among the clubs heavily involved in the conversation regarding the 11-time All-Star.
With seven years and roughly $260 million left owing on his contract, Toronto could limit its return by absorbing most, if not all, of that remaining figure in a potential trade. That would be quite the gamble, given the 32-year-old’s age and recent injury history, though it could result in a significant reward – both at the plate and in the field.
Plus, acquiring a player of Trout’s stature would not only send a jolt throughout the fan base, but it’d also undoubtedly lead to a massive surge in ticket and merchandise sales, which would help offset his hefty $35.5 million average annual value.
Regional television contracts – or a lack thereof – have been a dire concern for many organizations south of the border this winter, causing those clubs to explore payroll-shedding routes. Since the Blue Jays don’t fall into that category, as their games are broadcast by Sportsnet – also owned by Rogers Communications – they have the luxury of adding salary rather than subtracting it.
Teams on the opposite side of that spectrum include the Twins, Brewers and Cleveland Guardians. What do all three have in common? Each possesses position players that’d likely garner interest (if they haven’t already) from Toronto’s front office.
Minnesota: OF Max Kepler ($10 million in ’24), INF Jorge Polanco ($10.5 million in ’24, $12 million club option in ’25)
Milwaukee: SS Willy Adames (projected $12.4 million in ’24), OF Christian Yelich (full no-trade clause, $26 million per season through ’28, $20 million mutual option in ’29), SP Corbin Burnes (projected $15.1 million in ’24)
Cleveland: 1B Josh Naylor (projected $7.2 million in ’24, under club control through ’25), INF José Ramírez (full no-trade clause, $20.1 million per season through ’28)
There’s also the Tampa Bay Rays, who, like usual, are looking to save money and fall under the Diamond Sports Group umbrella, potentially making third baseman Isaac Paredes available via trade. Since the Blue Jays feature a vacancy at the hot corner, the 24-year-old slugger – under club control through 2027 – could serve as a viable, albeit expensive, trade target.
If executed, it’d be the first trade between these AL East Division rivals since the 2019 Eric Sogard deal, which sent a pair of players to be named later (Curtis Taylor, Edisson Gonzalez) to Toronto.
Another trade route that might be worth exploring runs through the rebuilding Chicago White Sox, who’re likely open to dealing outfielder Eloy Jiménez. If the Blue Jays don’t land Soler or Hoskins in free agency, the 27-year-old DH could add some much-needed thump to the order at a relatively inexpensive acquisition cost, given he’ll earn $13.83 million next season and has two club options for 2025 ($16.5 million, $3 million buyout) and ’26 ($18.5 million, $3 million buyout).
It also wouldn’t hurt to ask about outfielder Luis Robert Jr., who’d help revolutionize the team’s outfield trio while inserting a masher that blasted 38 home runs (career high) and slugged .542 in 145 games last season. And since he’s signed through 2025, with a pair of $20 million club options in ’26 and ’27, the 26-year-old would likely extend the franchise’s competitive window.
All that said, the White Sox would expect a massive haul in return, and rightly so, especially considering he performed as a five-win player in 2023.
While we’re on the subject of rebuilds, Colorado’s Ryan McMahon could be another potential third-base replacement for Chapman, one that’d certainly ease the concern of Blue Jays pitchers via his Gold Glove-calibre defence.
The 28-year-old lefty, signed through 2027 with an $11.7 million AAV, likely wouldn’t provide much offensive value as he’s historically struggled away from Coors Field. But if the Rockies aim to create a bit of financial flexibility, there’d be far worse options than the four-time 20-home-run hitter.
Looking at the higher end of the third-base scale, Houston’s Alex Bregman – whose contract includes a 10-team no-trade list – would make plenty of sense for Toronto. It’d be an extremely tall task, as the Astros don’t appear motivated to trade the two-time All-Star, who’ll make $30.5 million in 2024 before becoming a free agent next winter.
At the same time, though, there’s no hiding that Bregman would check off several boxes for the Blue Jays, primarily their desperation to maximize their chances of winning next season.
Following the signings of Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn, the Cardinals could decide to forgo their reported pursuit of Manoah to focus their attention on the reliever front. Even if that occurs, the Blue Jays could still be a viable trade partner again (as if these clubs didn’t make enough trades last summer) with an arm like Nate Pearson likely available.
With a package centred around Pearson, who has one minor-league option remaining, management would probably have its sights set on St. Louis’ young, controllable outfielders – like Brendan Donovan and Dylan Carlson (projected $1.8 million in ’24), both of whom are under club control for at least the next three seasons.
A similar sentiment can also likely be applied to the Cincinnati Reds, who’re also in the market for top-level pitching, both on the starting and relief fronts. In return, they could offer platoon items such as infielder Jonathan India (projected $3.7 million in ’24, under club control through ’26) and outfielder Jake Fraley (projected $2.2 million in ’24, under club control through ’26).
Coming off the wild ride of the Ohtani saga, everyone from agents to front-office executives knows how critical these next few months will be for the Blue Jays organization. And since this is a business, those on the outside will no doubt be looking to capitalize on their current situation.
How Atkins and his staff move forward might not only determine whether this team secures its first post-season victory since 2016 – it may also very well decide the current regime’s fate beyond the 2024 campaign.
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