Looking back at Blue Jays off-season targets and how they’re doing this season
4 months ago
This past offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays front office is projected to cross the CBT threshold for the first time in franchise history, spending over $233 million threshold. This winter, the club lost Ross Stripling, Raimel Tapia (declined option), and Jackie Bradley Jr. to free agency and also traded away Teoscar Hernández, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and top prospect Gabriel Moreno to create a more polished lineup, adding top reliever Erik Swanson as well as defensive outfielder Daulton Varsho in the deals.
Atkins and co. also brought in veteran Chris Bassitt on a three-year contract while signing Chad Green to an option-laded deal as well as adding veterans Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Belt to one-year deals, shoring up the roster and creating one of the deepest lineups Jays fans have seen since the 2015/2016 playoff-bound teams. Tack on an arbitration clearing extension for Bo Bichette and the addition of Don Mattingly and James Click to coaching and administrative roles respectively, Toronto is looking good heading into the 2023 season with a renovated Rogers Centre and a club looking to win the World Series.
Even with all these additions, the Blue Jays were an active team this offseason and were ‘in’ or ‘interested’ in numerous free agents, much to the chagrin of Jays fans. While the club went into spring training with quite a nice haul, let’s take a look at some of the players the club was heavily interested in or tied to but signed elsewhere this past offseason.
OF – Brandon Nimmo
8 years – $162 MM with the New York Mets
One of the top outfield free agents this offseason was lefty-batter Brandon Nimmo. A former first-round pick and a lifer with the Mets, the Wyoming product was heading into the free agent market as not only a solid bat in the lineup but with plus speed, top-of-the-order experience, and the defensive capability to play in centre field, something the Blue Jays were looking to add and push George Springer to right field. Nimmo rejected the Mets’ initial qualifying offer and while the Jays appeared heavily interested in the lefty-batter, he eventually re-signed with the Mets on a deal with a $20.25 AAV salary. The Jays would later sign Kiermaier to shore up the centre field role.
So far this season, Nimmo has lived up to his contract, with the Mets outfielder owning a .330/.435/.457 slash line with two home runs, 13 RBIs, three stolen bases, and a .892 OPS. He currently leads the Mets in batting average, OBP, OPS, and walks (17) as well as sitting in the 90th percentile or higher in xwOBA (91), K% (91), HardHit% (92), xBA (94), and Chase Rate (96). Factor in his defensive ability, which currently stands at a 1 DRS and a 95 OAA, as well as a highlight reel diving grab, and Nimmo is doing well out of the gate on his new deal.
RHP – Kyle Gibson
One year – $10MM with the Baltimore Orioles
The Toronto Blue Jays went to the very end with right-hander Kyle Gibson, reportedly offering the veteran hurler an identical one-year, $10 million dollar contract that the Orioles presented but the Indiana product decided to sign with Baltimore instead. A ten-year veteran entering the 2023 season, Gibson had faced the Blue Jays numerous times throughout his career with the Twins and the Rangers, owning a 5.96 ERA through four starts at the Rogers Centre alone.
Gibson would be named the Orioles’ Opening Day starter, with the University of Missouri product going five innings and allowing four earned runs against the Boston Red Sox, with Baltimore eventually winning the game. So far this season, Gibson is off to a good start on the mound, making six starts while amassing a 3.93 ERA through 34.1 innings, allowing 34 hits (8.9 H/9) compared to a 2.9 BB/9 while striking out 27 opposing batters to the tune of a 1.311 WHIP. His FIP currently stands at 4.34 and he has established himself as one of the go-to guys in the Orioles rotation to start the year, with the team going 5-1 in each of his starts.
LHP – Andrew Heaney
2 years – $25 MM (player option for the second year at $13 MM) with the Texas Rangers
Similar to Gibson, southpaw Andrew Heaney was also offered a contract by the Toronto Blue Jays this winter but the veteran starter decided to sign with the Texas Rangers instead, who had an equally impressive offseason with their deals for Jacob DeGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, and Robbie Grossman. While Heaney battled a shoulder injury last season, the left-hander was impressive on the mound when healthy, posting a 3.10 ERA through 16 appearances with a 13.6 K/9.
So far this season, the Oklahoma product has made five starts and owns a 4.38 ERA through 24.2 innings of work. He has allowed 20 hits and has kept his command under control with a 3.6 BB/9 to go along with an impressive 9.5 K/9. Utilizing a fastball, slider, and changeup, Heaney sits in the middle of the pack when it comes to statcast metrics but has been able to keep the hard hits in check, sitting in the 78th percentile. Opposing batters are struggling to put his fastball in play, owning a .182 average on the pitch Heaney uses 63.7% of the time.
OF – Michael Conforto
2 years – $36 MM (player option for the second year at $18 MM) with the San Francisco Giants
Outfielder Michael Conforto was one of the more riskier free agents this past offseason. Shoulder surgery kept him off the field the entire 2022 season and although his career numbers with the Mets were solid (.255/.356/.468 slash line through 757 games with a .824 OPS), missing an entire season presents itself with many question marks and asterisks as to whether the outfielder could return to form. Factor in that he is represented by super agent Scott Boras, and Conforto eventually nabbed a two-year pact with a player option for the second season with the Giants worth $18 million a season.
So far in San Francisco, the Seattle, Washington product has struggled out of the gate early, owning a .203 batting average and a .706 OPS through 69 at-bats. He currently owns a 30.5% strikeout rate and while he is hitting the ball hard (92.6 MPH average exit velocity and 94th percentile HardHit%), most of Conforto’s hits have been on the ground (50.0%) and he owns a .250 BAbip and is struggling against opposing pitchers fastballs (.154 batting average). He is also struggling on defence as well, sitting at a -2 DRS and the 5th percentile in OAA with an error out in right field with the Giants.
While the season is early and there is lots of ball left on the year, the early indication is that the Jays may have lucked out by not signing Conforto.
OF – Cody Bellinger
One year – $12.5 MM (mutual option for 2024) with the Chicago Cubs
After winning Rookie of the Year (2017) and the NL MVP Award (2019), outfielder Cody Bellinger has struggled over the past three seasons to live up to the lofty expectations he set when he first started out in the league. After six seasons with the Dodgers, the club decided to non-tender him, saving roughly $18 million as that is what he was projected to earn in arbitration, making him a free agent for the first time in his career. The Blue Jays were interested in Bellinger, mostly because of his lefty-bat and ability to play in centre field, but this was also a risky signing because of how he had struggled over the past three seasons. Bellinger would later sign with the Cubs on a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2024, which if not exercised, earns him another $5 million to go along with the $12.5 million he is earning this year.
Through 22 games with the Cubs, Bellinger is also off to a hot start, amassing a .298/.375/.560 slash line with five home runs and 15 RBIs to the tune of a .935 OPS. While he isn’t lighting up the hard hit and velocity charts, he is putting the ball in play and is staying out of the strikeout column, sitting at 14.6% to start the year which is miles ahead of his 2021 and 2022 numbers at 26.9% and 27.3% respectively. In centre field, Bellinger is also doing well, with one outfield assist while sitting high on OAA (83rd percentile) and in arm strength (84th percentile). The season is in its early stages but a change of scenery has done well for Bellinger out of the gate here in 2023.
RHP – Ross Stripling
2 years – $25 million (player option for the second year at $12.5 million) with the San Francisco Giants
It is safe to say that right-hander Ross Stripling was one of the bright spots on the Blue Jays squad in 2022 when the club really needed him the most. When injuries fell on the rotation, Stripling stepped up and performed well, authoring a 3.01 ERA through 32 games (24 starts) with a 1.020 WHIP and a 7.4 K/9. As a starter, he posted a 2.92 ERA and was able to chalk up innings when the Jays needed him to do so and set himself up nicely for the offseason.
He was the highest profile free agent on the Jays roster last year and he would eventually go on to sign with the San Francisco Giants that includes a player option for the second year of the deal. This was a determining factor between whether he signed with the Jays or the Giants, as Ross Atkins and co. would not include the opt-out without lowering the value of the contract and the Giants were willing to keep everything the same. “It was just a no-brainer when it came down to it… Other teams were taking away from the (dollars in their) offer if (an opt-out) was to be included and the Giants kept their offer the same.”
With the Giants, Stripling has had a rough start to the season, posting a 6.89 ERA through five appearances this year, only two of which were starts. He made his first start of the year against the Yankees on April 2nd and allowed four earned runs and three home runs through five innings, followed by two relief appearances where he allowed another six combined earned runs and another three homers through five innings, with the right-hander seeing his ERA elevate to 9.00. Stripling’s fourth outing was a step in the right direction and he recently made a start against the Mets, going 3 1/3 with two earned runs allowed but his season ERA currently sits at 6.89 and he is struggling to get opposing batters out. The Pennsylvania product currently sits at a 64 ERA+ with an 8.0 K/9 and looks to be a spot starter/long man in the bullpen for the Giants this season.
SS – Xander Bogaerts
11 years – $280 MM with the San Diego Padres
After ten seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the writing appeared to be on the wall and shortstop Xander Bogaerts was heading to free agency. While the Jays boast a talented Bo Bichette on the left side of second base, after Bogaerts signed with the Padres, his agent Scott Boras revealed that the Blue Jays were an interested team until he signed with the Padres.
So far on the east coast, Bogaerts is starting strong, boasting a .919 OPS with five home runs and 12 RBIs on a stacked Padres squad. He currently owns a .319 batting average to go along with a 161 OPS+ and 1.5 bWAR and defensively, he’s made just one error to the tune of a .990 fielding percentage while sitting in the 97th percentile in OAA.
RHP – Justin Verlander
2 years – $86.7 MM (vesting option for $35 million in 2025) with the New York Mets
Justin Verlander and the Toronto Blue Jays have a history over these past two off-seasons. The veteran right-hander almost signed with the club during the 2021/2022 offseason but he returned to the Houston Astros, signing a one-year deal worth $25 million. A free agent again this winter, the Blue Jays checked in and were interested in his services again but the Mets came out with a very strong offer that will pay Verlander roughly $43.3 million a season. While the Jays did not sign Verlander, it was interesting to note that the club pursuing the right-hander likely meant the front office had been given the green light to spend, which ended up being a precursor to the later deals that saw the Jays push past the CBT line.
Verlander has yet to make a Major League appearance this season, with the Virginia product straining his right lat that saw him start the year on the IL. While he hasn’t made a start with the Mets yet, Verlander is reportedly close to rejoining the big league squad after his latest rehab start down in the Minor Leagues.
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