Photo credit:Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Blue Jays are playing long game with Matt Chapman, or so it seems
By Thomas Hall2 months ago
With the annual Winter Meetings – which kick off Monday – less than a week away, most teams still haven’t begun their holiday shopping, including the Toronto Blue Jays, who’ve yet to address their gaping void at third base this winter.
But that might be all part of general manager Ross Atkins’ grand off-season plan. Or, at least, that’s all we have to go off for right now.
Even so, the Blue Jays find themselves in a similar position as they did when Matt Chapman – the top third baseman available in free agency, and by a significant margin – entered free agency five days after the Texas Rangers won the World Series earlier this month, as the 2019 All-Star remains up for grabs.
There is, however, one less suitor bidding on Chapman, a Scottsdale, Arizona native, with the Diamondbacks acquiring Eugenio Suárez from the Seattle Mariners last week. Still, plenty of others reportedly remain in pursuit, namely the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, and New York Mets and Yankees.
Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Considering Suárez is off to the desert, the Mariners could also join that group of potential suitors, providing a massive defensive upgrade at third base next season. In a way, though, that would kind of defeat the purpose of trading the veteran slugger in the first place, making the Pacific Northwest an unlikely destination.
One franchise that likely has much higher odds of landing Chapman lies roughly 14 hours south of Seattle: San Francisco, which would reunite the 30-year-old righty with his former Oakland Athletics manager, Bob Melvin. Also, the Giants seem highly motivated to acquire a marquee free agent after missing out on several last off-season.
Then there’s the Blue Jays, who, according to Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith, “remain involved on Chapman” and haven’t closed the door on bringing him back in 2024. While they’ve explored alternatives, including Suárez, nothing appears to have piqued the front office’s interest thus far.
Atkins and his staff appear content on waiting for the third baseman market to develop, placing the organization in a holding pattern until then. But that isn’t necessarily an unfavourable position, especially considering this year’s poor position player market.
Beyond Chapman, Jeimer Candelario – coming off a career season split between Washington and Chicago – is viewed as the next-best available third baseman in free agency. That’s more of a representation of a weak class than it is a compliment, though, as he’s an average defender and features an inconsistent track record at the plate.
It’s also a reminder of how tough replacing one of baseball’s top third basemen will likely be for the Blue Jays, who featured a black hole at the hot corner prior to his arrival in 2022.
No other player at that position has recorded more Defensive Runs Saved than Chapman (+92) since his rookie season in 2017, and only Nolan Arenado has produced more Outs Above Average (+77) and a higher defensive WAR (76.7) than him in that span.
Despite crossing the age-30 threshold this past season, the first-round selection from 2014 remained an elite defender in his second campaign with Toronto, as he led all American League third basemen in DRS (+12) and ranked third in the majors – also finishing inside the top 10 in OAA (+4) – while capturing his fourth career Gold Glove Award.
Re-signing Chapman would ensure the Blue Jays wouldn’t have to worry about their infield defence taking a step back next season. But at the same time, reinserting him into their lineup would involve accepting his peaks and valleys as a hitter, which reached both ends of the extreme for a second straight season in 2023.
Consistency – or a lack thereof – might be Chapman’s offensive profile at this point in his career. He proved as much over his two seasons in Toronto despite being an above-average hitter overall, as evidenced by his combined 114 wRC+ in 295 games.
The front office undeniably adores his defensive attributes, and that’s a key reason they’re entertaining a long-term commitment. But it has to be at a figure that works for both sides. Since they’ve yet to locate that sweet spot, Akins is probably better off continuing to play the long game and waiting for his asking price to lower.
It also appears he isn’t alone in that approach, either.
Given that Chapman remains available, it’s fair to assume most front-office executives aren’t comfortable agreeing to his current demands, and that’s likely where the Blue Jays fall, too. Recent history, however, certainly favours the player in this situation.
There is a benchmark for defence-first infielders his agent Scott Boras can use as leverage in contract negotiations, looking at Dansby Swanson (seven years, $177 million), Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million), Javier Báez (six years, $140 million) and Trevor Story (six years, $140 million) as past examples.
Unlike some of those names above, particularly Semien, Chapman isn’t coming off a remarkable performance. Plus, he’ll be entering his age-31 season in 2024, which may hinder his ability to garner an offer that exceeds four or five years. Still, it’s tough to ignore that he sits among the top 5 most valuable third basemen in baseball since becoming a full-time big leaguer in 2018.
The primary objective of waiting out Chapman’s market is to avoid overpaying for an aging infielder. But there’d likely be other benefits, especially for the Blue Jays, a club hoping to add multiple power-first bats to a lineup that didn’t supply sufficient thump last season.
By saving money at third base, Toronto’s front office could allocate those resources elsewhere – like at the DH and outfield positions, which also require addressing this off-season – improving their offence without sacrificing an overwhelming amount of defence.
That outcome, of course, would likely be a best-case scenario for the Blue Jays. While it may seem unrealistic, the organization would have plenty to offer if Chapman’s price point dipped, including a win-now culture, a roster and coaching staff he’s familiar with, a hitter-friendly environment (for the most part) and a country-wide fan base.
Expressing patience should also present more appealing alternatives if Chapman ultimately signs elsewhere in free agency. And it appears one may already be starting to emerge in Houston, as the Astros are reportedly fielding offers on Alex Bregman, who’s entering the final season of his five-year, $100-million contract.
Amid the Cleveland Guardians’ uncertain television contract, complicating the franchise’s financial limitations, it might be worth inquiring about José Ramírez, whom the Blue Jays targeted via trade before he inked his team-friendly seven-year contract extension worth $141 million in 2022. It’d be a tall order, but trading their highest-paid player would resolve the club’s dire payroll concerns.
Colorado’s Ryan McMahon could also become a potential replacement option for Chapman, as the 28-year-old is signed through 2027 at a reasonable $11.7 million per season. But the left-hander wouldn’t provide much offensive upside, as he profiles as a platoon hitter and reliable defender at third base.
Sitting back and allowing the third-base market to materialize is the Blue Jays’ best course of action as we inch toward next week’s Winter Meetings, where they can revisit this topic while gathering additional information on targets beyond Chapman. And there’s another element to this, as well.
Most importantly, by putting a pin in their search for next season’s third baseman, Atkins can narrow his focus to other pressing matters, like the franchise’s free-agent pursuit of two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani.
Recent articles from Thomas Hall