Blue Jays’ offseason savings could lead to big splash in pitching market
With additional financial flexibility in their arsenal, the Toronto Blue Jays can move forward in numerous ways as they attempt to improve a 92-win roster, potentially clearing the path for a significant free-agent acquisition.
The franchise hasn’t shied away from that avenue in previous years, signing Hyun Jin Ryu during the 2019-20 offseason, George Springer in 2021 and Kevin Gausman last winter. They also extended José Berríos to a seven-year, $131-million contract a year ago.
So Rogers Communications, which owns the Blue Jays, certainly isn’t afraid to invest in this team, which should prove valuable again between now and spring training.
It helps that trading Teoscar Hernández saved a projected $14.1 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections. The team also opened up a projected $6.5 million by non-tendering outfielders Raimel Tapia and Bradley Zimmer.
Of course, Erik Swanson — who’s projected to earn $1.4 million through arbitration — will lower that figure. Still, that leaves the front office with nearly $20 million in additional breathing room for next season.
How will Toronto spend those savings? Multiple potential outcomes could transpire, although all will likely centre around locating Hernández’s replacement in the outfield. Not every dollar has to be allocated to that area, though.
The Blue Jays also need to acquire another starting pitcher, with Ross Stripling becoming a free agent. And with the club’s projected 2023 payroll roughly $29 million under the $232 million CBT threshold, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, re-signing the 33-year-old shouldn’t be ruled out.
Stripling played a vital role while filling in for the injured Ryu, performing to a 2.64 ERA and 3.06 FIP over 19 starts after moving into the rotation full-time on June 6. Bringing him back for a second tenure wouldn’t be a terrible decision, especially after he was worth 3.1 fWAR in 2022.
But what if management aimed higher than Stripling? What if they played in the deep end of the starting pitching market, hunting big fish like Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodón? Neither would come cheap, but they’d each dramatically improve Toronto’s starting rotation.
Verlander, a nine-time All-Star, dominated in his first season back from Tommy John surgery en route to winning his third American League Cy Young Award. The 39-year-old posted AL bests in ERA (1.75), xERA (2.66) and fWAR (6.1) over 175.0 innings in 28 starts.
Amazingly, the future Hall of Famer picked up almost exactly where he left off prior to undergoing surgery, proving he’s still capable of performing at a superstar level despite nearing the age 40 threshold.
That does mean, however, Verlander will likely be aiming to receive a similar deal to Max Scherzer’s three-year, $130-million contract, which includes an opt-out clause after the second season. So the 2011 AL MVP is probably poised to command at least $40 million in 2023.
Adding that amount to Toronto’s payroll wouldn’t be simple, even with the savings management has already accumulated. But with roughly $47.5 million in guaranteed salaries coming off the books after 2023, accounting for Verlander’s salary would be easier in future seasons.
Crossing the luxury tax is likely out of the question, so next season’s financial issue remains. The Blue Jays will receive insurance coverage for a portion of Ryu’s $20 million salary, which would offset any overage fees they’d face for temporarily exceeding that threshold — if they opted to do so.
In all likelihood, signing Verlander would necessitate the need to shed another high-priced player, keeping the club’s payroll below the luxury tax. There isn’t much wiggle room in that department, though, aside from moving Yusei Kikuchi’s $10 million salary.
But considering Verlander nearly joined Toronto last offseason, perhaps he’d be willing to accept below-market value or backload his contract to sign north of the border.
While Verlander may still prove too expensive, the Blue Jays would happily settle for Rodón, who successfully bet on himself with the San Francisco Giants last season. After making $21.5 million, the 29-year-old exercised his opt-out clause, hoping to capitalize on his career year.
Rodón made 31 starts in 2022, finishing second to Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola (6.3) in fWAR with a career-best 6.2 rating. He also registered a 2.88 ERA, 2.64 xERA, 2.25 FIP, .200 OPP AVG and a 26.1 percent strikeout-to-walk rate difference, the second-highest of his career.
Injuries have been a major concern throughout the left-hander’s career, limiting him to 70 innings or fewer in three of his eight big-league seasons. They were one of the main reasons he was let go by the Chicago White Sox after 2021 despite being worth 4.9 fWAR.
The injury bug wasn’t a factor on the west coast, though, as Rodón threw a career-high 178 innings in his first — and perhaps only — season with the Giants. And he’s likely to be rewarded for his impressive efforts this winter.
Set to enter his age-30 season in 2023, ESPN experts predict Rodón to command a five-year deal worth anywhere from $130-$150 million, paying him at least $26 million per season. That price point would be more in the Blue Jays’ comfort zone, at least when compared to Verlander’s.
Toronto would, however, lose its 2023 second-round pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money for signing Rodón, who rejected a qualifying offer earlier this offseason. But the front office should be willing to pay that price, especially after receiving two compensatory draft picks last winter.
Japan’s Kodai Senga might not be in the same tier as Verlander and Rodón, though he’s another impact hurler that would be a realistic target for the Blue Jays. And their interest level has likely skyrocketed since acquiring additional spending room.
Like Rodón, the fellow 29-year-old could potentially command a lucrative five-year deal via free agency. But signing the right-hander wouldn’t cost the franchise a posting fee or draft-pick compensation, as he already carries at least nine years of professional experience.
Senga is coming off a tremendous 2022 performance, earning a 1.89 ERA and a 2.76 FIP across 23 starts with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He also racked up 159 strikeouts over 148.0 innings, logging a 27.4 percent strikeout rate.
The hard-throwing righty, whose fastball touches triple digits, is a largely unknown commodity amongst baseball fans. But given his reputation overseas, Toronto’s pitching staff would improve dramatically with him joining Alek Manoah, Gausman and Berríos.
Of course, signing Verlander, Rodón or Senga would take the Blue Jays out of the Brandon Nimmo sweepstakes. That could work out in their favour, though, as committing another long-term deal to a position player could complicate extending Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The franchise would need to acquire Hernández’s replacement via trade if management spent his savings on a starting pitcher. Though trading for Bryan Reynolds, Alek Thomas, Daulton Varsho, Lars Nootbar, Jesse Winker or Ian Happ would improve the outfield.
But before the Blue Jays can seriously pursue these outfielders, they must determine how much they’re willing to spend on this winter’s free-agent class of starting pitchers.
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