Latest On Blue Jays’ Post-Lockout Plans
The Blue Jays made one of the biggest free agent signings before the start of the lockout, landing Kevin Gausman on a five-year deal. He stepped into the rotation spot vacated when reigning Cy Young award winner Robbie Ray signed with the Mariners. So while the Jays have already made a notable offseason strike, there’s certainly room for more whenever the transactions freeze comes to a close.
Adding an infielder has long been known to be a priority after Marcus Semien headed to the Rangers via free agency. That can take the form of a pickup at either third or second base, thus pushing Cavan Biggio and/or Santiago Espinal to the other position. Along with their desire for infield help, the Jays are likely to prioritize further rotation pickups and adding a high-leverage reliever, writes Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.
It’s arguable the Jays only need look for depth pickups in the starting staff. The top four of Gausman, José Berríos, Hyun-jin Ryu and Alek Manoah is among the stronger around the game. Veteran Ross Stripling looks to be the favorite for the #5 starter role at the moment. After beginning his MLB career with four consecutive sub-4.00 ERA seasons, Stripling has seen his production slip over the past two years. Going back to the start of 2020, he owns a 5.14 ERA/5.52 FIP over 150 2/3 innings with a 20.6% strikeout rate that checks in a couple points below the league average. As he has throughout his career, Stripling has continued to pound the strike zone (7.4% walk rate) but he’s been tagged for an untenable 2.2 home runs per nine innings over that stretch.
Stripling’s early-career run of success with the Dodgers probably reflects a loftier ceiling than that of most nominal #5 starters around the game, but another rotation pickup could push him into an overqualified sixth starter/swing role. The Jays also have top prospect Nate Pearson in the fold, although it remains to be seen how many innings they could reasonably expect from the righty in 2022. He was limited to just 45 2/3 frames between Toronto and Triple-A Buffalo by injuries last year. Pearson is still a highly-regarded young arm — he checked in 2nd among Jays farmhands on Baseball America’s recent organizational ranking — but it remains to be seen if the club might prefer to keep tabs on his workload by having him pitch as a multi-inning reliever next season.
That’s particularly true given the middle-of-the-road relief group the Jays are hoping to augment after the lockout. Toronto relievers ranked 16th in MLB last season in ERA (4.08), 13th in strikeout/walk rate differential (14.9 percentage points) and 12th in SIERA (3.92). Jordan Romano broke out as an excellent late-game weapon, and Toronto has already added Yimi García on a two-year free agent deal. Yet there’s still some room for a high-leverage arm among a group that also includes Tim Mayza, Adam Cimber and the talented but oft-injured Julian Merryweather.
Romano took hold of the ninth inning last season, so Toronto needn’t land a proven closer. Still, that shouldn’t automatically take them out of the running for someone like Kenley Jansen, the top remaining free agent reliever. Acquiring a veteran closer — to be clear, Jansen’s just one speculative example — would allow skipper Charlie Montoyo more flexibility to deploy Romano in a situational high-leverage role. Other notable free agent relief arms include Collin McHugh, old friend Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin and Joe Kelly. Potential late-inning relievers who might be attainable via trade include Lou Trivino, Cole Sulser and David Bednar.
Davidi writes that a left-handed hitting outfielder might also be on the wish list, albeit perhaps not at the priority level of some of the club’s other areas of need. Toronto’s projected regular outfield of Lourdes Gurriel Jr., George Springer and Teoscar Hernández all hit right-handed. So too does fourth outfielder Randal Grichuk. The Jays would surely like to find a taker for the nearly $21MM in guaranteed money remaining on the latter’s deal through 2023. That’ll be easier said than done, but pulling off a Grichuk trade could make the search for additional outfield help more pressing.
The Jays aren’t going to spend on a top-of-the-market outfielder given the strength of their current group. Joc Pederson and Eddie Rosario are likely to be affordable but may prefer to sign with a club offering a clearer path to everyday reps. Corey Dickerson, whom the Jays acquired alongside Cimber from the Marlins last summer, also hit the open market and is likely to be limited to one-year deals.
Dickerson hit .282/.329/.450 in 140 plate appearances with the Jays down the stretch. That’s in line with his general production over the past two seasons — high batting averages but a low walk rate and decent but unspectacular power production. His overall offensive output has checked in right around league average, by measure of wRC+, but he was a reliably productive bat for most of the early part of his career. Dickerson, who spoke glowingly of his time in Toronto as part of a wider-ranging interview with Davidi, indicated he’s heading into 2022 with a goal of rediscovering some of the extra-base impact he’d made during his time with the Rockies, Rays, Pirates and Phillies between 2013-19.
It’s not clear whether the Jays will reengage with Dickerson whenever club personnel is allowed to speak with free agents. Whatever course of action team president Mark Shapiro, general manager Ross Atkins and the rest of the front office choose, it seems they should have a fair amount of financial flexibility to address the various holes on the roster. Coming off a 91-win season that nevertheless was a touch short of the playoffs, there’s little reason not to be aggressive.