With additional financial flexibility in their arsenal, the Toronto Blue Jays can move forward in a host of ways as they attempt to improve on a 92-game winning streak, potentially paving the way for a major free agent acquisition.
The franchise hasn’t shunned this avenue in previous years, signing Hyun Jin Ryu in the 2019-20 offseason, George Springer in 2021 and Kevin Gausman last winter. A year ago, they also extended José Berríos to a seven-year, $131 million deal.
So Rogers Communications, owner of the Blue Jays, is certainly not afraid to invest in this team, which should prove itself again by spring training.
It helps that Teoscar Hernández’s trade saved $14.1 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitrage projections. The team also opened a $6.5 million prediction by non-bidding outfielders Raimel Tapia and Bradley Zimmer.
Of course, Erik Swanson – who is expected to earn $1.4 million from arbitration – will lower that number. Still, that leaves the front office nearly $20 million more wiggle room for next season.
How will Toronto spend these savings? Several potential outcomes could occur, though all likely center around locating Hernández’s replacement in the outfield. However, not every dollar should be allocated to this area.
The Blue Jays must also acquire another starting pitcher, with Ross Stripling becoming a free agent. And with the club’s projected payroll for 2023 about $29 million below the CBT’s $232 million threshold, according to Cot’s baseball contracts, the 33-year-old’s re-signing shouldn’t be ruled out. .
Stripling played a vital role replacing the injured Ryu, achieving a 2.64 ERA and 3.06 FIP over 19 starts after entering the full-time rotation on June 6. Bringing him back for a second term wouldn’t be a terrible decision. , especially after it was worth 3.1 fWAR in 2022.
What if management aimed higher than Stripling? What if they played at the bottom of the starting pitcher market, chasing big fish like Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodón? Neither would be cheap, but each would significantly improve Toronto’s starting rotation.
Verlander, a nine-time All-Star, dominated in his first season returning from Tommy John surgery en route to winning his third American League Cy Young Award. The 39-year-old posted AL-best records in ERA (1.75), xERA (2.66) and fWAR (6.1) over 175.0 innings in 28 starts.
Amazingly, the future Hall of Famer has picked up almost exactly where he left off before undergoing surgery, proving he’s still capable of performing at a superstar level despite approaching the 40-year-old milestone.
It does, however, mean that Verlander will likely be aiming to receive a deal similar to Max Scherzer’s three-year, $130 million deal, which includes an opt-out after the second season. So the 2011 AL MVP is likely on course to command at least $40 million in 2023.
Adding that amount to Toronto’s payroll wouldn’t be straightforward, even with management’s already accrued savings. But with roughly $47.5 million in guaranteed salaries coming off the books after 2023, it would be easier to account for Verlander’s salary in future seasons.
Crossing the luxury tax is probably out of the question, so next season’s financial problem remains. The Blue Jays will receive insurance coverage for a portion of Ryu’s $20 million salary, which would offset any overage fees they would face for temporarily exceeding that threshold – if they chose to do so.
In all likelihood, signing Verlander would require getting rid of another high-priced player, keeping the club’s wage bill below the luxury tax. However, there isn’t much wiggle room in this department other than transferring Yusei Kikuchi’s $10 million salary.
But given that Verlander came close to joining Toronto last offseason, he might be willing to accept below-market value or postpone his contract to sign north of the border.
While Verlander may still prove too expensive, the Blue Jays would happily settle for Rodón, who managed to bet on himself with the San Francisco Giants last season. After earning $21.5 million, the 29-year-old exercised his opt-out, 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 rating of 6.2. He also recorded an ERA of 2.88, 2.64 xERA, 2.25 FIP, 0.200 OPP AVG and a strikeout rate difference of 26.1%, 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 major league seasons. They were one of the main reasons he was let go by the Chicago White Sox after 2021 when he was worth 4.9 fWAR.
The injury bug wasn’t a factor on the West Coast, however, as Rodón pitched a career-high 178 innings in his first — and possibly only — season with the Giants. And he’s likely to be rewarded for his impressive efforts this winter.
Set to enter his 30th season in 2023, ESPN pundits predict Rodón will land a five-year contract worth between $130-150 million, paying him at least $26 million per season. That price would be more in the Blue Jays’ comfort zone, at least compared to Verlander’s.
Toronto, however, would lose its 2023 second-round pick and $500,000 in international bonus money for the signing of Rodón, who rejected a qualifying offer earlier this offseason. But the front office should be prepared to pay that price, especially after receiving two compensatory draft picks last winter.
Japan’s Kodai Senga may not be on the same level as Verlander and Rodón, although he is another impact thrower who would be a realistic target for the Blue Jays. And their level of interest has probably skyrocketed since they gained some extra wiggle room.
Like Rodón, the 29-year-old compatriot could potentially secure a lucrative five-year deal through free agency. But signing the right-hander wouldn’t cost the franchise a posting fee or a draft fee, as he already has at least nine years of professional experience.
Senga is coming off a terrific performance in 2022, posting a 1.89 ERA and 2.76 FIP over 23 starts with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of Nippon Professional Baseball. He also had 159 strikeouts in 148.0 innings, recording a 27.4 percent strikeout rate.
The hard-throwing right-hander, whose fastball hits triple digits, is a largely unknown commodity among baseball fans. But given his reputation overseas, Toronto’s pitching roster would improve dramatically with him joining Alek Manoah, Gausman and Berríos.
Of course, signing Verlander, Rodón or Senga would knock the Blue Jays out of the Brandon Nimmo draw. This could work in their favor, however, as another long-term deal with a position player could complicate the extension of Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The franchise would have to acquire Hernández’s replacement via trade if management spent their life savings on a starting pitcher. Although 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 need to figure out how much they’re willing to spend on the starting pitching class of free agents this winter.
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