Free-agent pitchers for the Blue Jays to consider ahead of 2021
It’s when free agency officially kicks off but there has already been a ton of movement from around the league.
Charlie Morton, Brad Hand, Carlos Santana, Kolten Wong and Jon Lester are among the most prominent players whose club options were declined meaning it’s open market for them all. This precedes the action coming on Nov. 1, which is the deadline for teams to issue qualifying offers.
Financial issues aside, the free-agent crop lacks the superstars we have grown accustom to seeing in years past. Manny Machado landed in San Diego with Bryce Harper shipping up to Philadelphia. We also saw Gerrit Cole take his talents to New York and Anthony Rendon heading to Los Angeles with the Angels. J.T. Realmuto, George Springer and Trevor Bauer are this year’s big-3, followed by a complement of talent that includes the likes of Marcus Semien, Marcell Ozuna and D.J. LeMahieu. A solid if un-spectacular group of players follow.
After posting a 32–28 record and clinching one of the many wild card spots, the Toronto Blue Jays find themselves in buying mode, once again. The club famously broke tradition and spent money last winter, signing Hyun Jin Ryu to a four-year, $80-million contract, also adding Tanner Roark to a multi-year deal. The club then went out and acquired free-agents-to-be Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray around this year’s trade deadline, all but indicating the front office was ready to entertain the notion of being in win-now mode.
This winter should be no different. Toronto is in a good position to spend, depending how that budget meeting goes, with few long-term contracts on its payroll. That, coupled with their young, inexpensive core, and you have all the makings of a team that could surprise some people when it comes to adding to its roster.
But just how bold will this front office be?
Let’s go across the board and find some pitchers that could fit with the current group, as well as some of the bigger names the front office might look at if they really want to make a splash. Let’s begin with arguably the Blue Jays most pressing need: starting pitching.
The big fish: Trevor Bauer
Ah yes, Bauer. An active tweeter that has landed in some hot water with his approach on social media, the talented right-hander has said in the past he will only sign one-year deals in an effort to maximize his value. His agent has since admonished that claim but it’s interesting to see what Bauer will ultimately decide now that he’s a free agent.
He’s one of baseball’s best starters; a guy that features an above average six-pitch mix. Temper tantrums aside, Bauer has performed as an elite starter if you look get past that recent blip when he was dealt from Cleveland to Cincinnati. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins know him well from their days in Cleveland, which is why it will be fascinating to see if the Blue Jays pursue, or at least show interest in the right-hander. If I was a betting man, which I am not, I would not predict that he lands in Toronto. But the fit is very clearly there, as Bauer would immediately headline a starting rotation that features Ryu and top prospect Nate Pearson. This would also go such a long way in convincing the fan base that they’re:
a) Willing to signing big names
b) Attracting talent to sign North of the border
Hey, who knows, maybe they’ll go out and acquire a former teammate of his.
The bounce-back candidates: James Paxton and Jake Odorizzi
Paxton is my personal preference for the Blue Jays and not only because he’s Canadian and nicknamed the ‘Big Maple’. When healthy, Paxton is a strikeout machine and truly one of the game’s best starters. It’s the “when healthy” part that limits his present value.
Paxton is coming off back surgery and a flexor strain that ended his season in August. In five starts, Paxton finished with a 6.64 ERA and a career-worst 10.2 H/9. That, mirrored with the fact that he’s on the wrong side of 30, make Paxton a risky investment. He oozes talent (you’ll recall he threw a no-hitter at the Rogers Centre in 2018) and if Paxton is behind his recent string of injuries, a big if, any team that signs him (a one-year deal makes the most sense) will get a bargain. If he’s lost to injury, Toronto has enough depth in Anthony Kay, Julian Merryweather, Patrick Murphy and others to make the jump.
The Blue Jays like Odorizzi. They pursued him last winter before he decided to return to Minnesota. That did not go well. An intercostal strain and a blister issue limited Odorizzi to only four games this season. The velocity is still there and this is a guy that was worth over 4 fWAR just a few years ago. His profile isn’t sexy, and it’s entirely possible that Odorizzi simply doesn’t have it anymore, but manager Charlie Montoyo knows him well from their Tampa Bay days. I think the Blue Jays could do better in terms of upgrades, but I can’t help but think that he’s the type of pitcher they’ll covet.
The familiar category: Taijuan Walker and Matt Shoemaker
Both starters have expressed interest in returning. Walker recently talked highly about the city and organization, suggesting he wants to see more of Toronto after being traded to the club (Buffalo was his home due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Walker has a higher ceiling, though Shoemaker likely has a safer floor. Walker pitched well after being acquired from Seattle, though his peripherals point to some regression. Shoemaker has been a good starter when healthy but he just can’t stay on the field. Both have a decent shot at coming back but if I’m Toronto, I look at getting Walker signed to a reasonable deal. He’s one of the younger arms (28) available this winter and would fit in well behind Ryu and other possible additions to the starting rotation. As a fourth or fifth starter? Walker is money.
The wild cards: Masahiro Tanaka and Mike Minor
The Blue Jays should be more than familiar with both these starters.
Tanaka is the marquee name having played in New York with the Yankees since 2014. He has been remarkably durable despite pitching through a partially torn ligament in his throwing elbow. He’s everything you want in a middle-rotation arm but there are some risks as Tanaka enters his eighth season in the majors.
The right-hander’s FIP has gone up in each of the past few years which has coincided with an increase in hits and home runs allowed. The good news? He struck out more guys per-nine innings this shortened season. The bad? His peripherals weren’t wonderful, nor was his batted ball profile. The Yankees appear interested in a reunion but if not, in a weak group of free-agent starters, the 32-year-old is a decent investment, as long as the term is short.
The Blue Jays pursued Minor this past season before he was traded to the Oakland Athletics. The lefty could also be considered a ‘bounce back candidate’ as he does have a good track record despite coming off a poor season split between Texas and Oakland. He didn’t fare any better with the A’s as walks and home runs led to a high 5.56 ERA. But the strikeouts are still there as Minor generates a ton of swing-and-miss. We’re also talking about a guy that was worth 7.8 bWAR in 2019. That’s insane. Minor should come cheap after a down year and, similar to Paxton, has the makings of a solid and savvy addition if he can get back on track.
Statistics courtesy: FanGraphs, Baseball Reference