Some free-agent position players for the Blue Jays to consider head of 2021
On Monday, hundreds of MLB players hit the open market. It’s not as robust and filled with star power, but there will be several front offices aggressively pursuing a number of guys hoping to improve their club’s outlook.
The Toronto Blue Jays should be in a position to do just that.
It’s unclear just how negatively, if at all the Blue Jays were impacted financially by the pandemic, but president Mark Shapiro’s recent comments suggest Rogers would be willing to match the team’s 2020 payroll, which is estimated to have been around $118 million.
Roster Resource through FanGraphs currently estimates Toronto’s payroll to be around $81 million. That’s including Travis Shaw, a non-tender candidate, resigning with the club at around $4.8 million. After Shaw, FanGraphs predicts Teoscar Hernandez will earn $4 million, Ross Stripling signing for 3.1 million, and A.J. Cole at $900,000. If Shaw isn’t brought back, we can eliminate the $4.8 million from that current figure, rounding it to roughly $76 million. Assuming ownership approves a similar payroll to the one from last year, the Blue Jays should have just over $40 million to work with this offseason.
Overwhelmed yet? Me neither.
Now that we have examined some free-agent starters that could make sense for Toronto, it’s time to think about the rest of the field. It’s safe to assume the Blue Jays won’t be heavily in the mix for upgrades at first base and catcher, crossing that off the list. The Blue Jays could get creative with upgrading at other positions (trades are also possible).
Through tiers, let’s examine some free agents the Blue Jays could consider.
The big fish: George Springer (CF)
After the sign-stealing scandal, many wondered how Astros hitters would respond once play resumed across baseball. George Springer hit like nobody’s business, far better than most across the league, and just in time for what should lead to a significant raise through the open market.
Springer cut his strikeout rate down (17.1 percent) and mashed to a tune of 146 wRC+ and .378 wOBA, finishing the shortened season with 1.9 fWAR. He led all Astros hitters in these categories, and others. Not to mention his stout defense and ability to run. If we compare him to Lorenzo Cain — who entered free agency at the same age, 31, as Springer — we find ourselves simply a more productive player. Cain signed a five-year, $80-million contract in 2018, so Springer should have no problem securing a deal well over $100 million.
Of course the Blue Jays could use someone like this but there is going to be other suitors ready to pay the same, if not more. It’s not hard to imagine how lethal a lineup would be with Springer in it and how great he would look in centre field between Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Randal Grichuk or Hernandez in right. As wonderful the thought is, the Blue Jays are likely to shift their focus to spending big in the starting pitching market, thus keeping Springer-to-the Jays as nothing but a lustrous dream.
Justin Turner (3B), Didi Gregorius (SS), Michael Brantley (LF/DH)
That leaves us with three attainable targets that should not break the bank, if the Blue Jays want to stay true to their conservative ways.
Starting with Turner — who could be punished by the league for his antics following the Dodgers’ World Series win and subsequent positive COVID-19 diagnosis — who has been one of my favourite Blue Jays targets for months. He will be 36 at the end of November but don’t let that fool you; Turner hasn’t stopped mashing. We just talked about Springer, so let’s talk about Turner, who has accrued 26.6 fWAR since 2014. That’s identical to Springer, placing 19th in all of baseball during that time.
Turner’s redemption story in Los Angeles is worth indulging. If the Blue Jays don’t go big and trade for a third baseman, signing Turner as a stop gap makes a ton of sense. He is also familiar with a pair of Blue Jays in Hyun Jin Ryu and Stripling from his time with the Dodgers.
The Blue Jays have had prior interest in Gregorius pursuing the shortstop before he signed in Philadelphia. That came ahead of the shortened season as Gregorius has since improved his stock, finishing the year hitting .284/.339/.488 with 10 home runs (1.6 fWAR). There are some red flags, though. Gregorius’ batted ball profile was dreadful in 2020 as his exit velocity ranked among the worst in baseball. His launch angle remains high, which has been the case for most of his career.
The fit is a bit awkward considering the Blue Jays would like to, presumably, develop Bo Bichette at shortstop. But there was some interest before and if the Blue Jays simply want to improve their offense, they could do worse than inserting Gregorius at the position and shifting Bichette to second or third base.
Ah yes, the “he’s a former Cleveland Indians player therefore he’s a fit in Toronto” narrative. Brantley IS familiar with Ross Atkins and Shapiro. He worked under the two execs for several years in Cleveland and is now 34 years old. He enters the market with an extensive injury history but has been nothing but healthy in each of the past three seasons in which he’s combined to hit .309/.368/.484 with a 125 OPS+. Brantley handled left field duties for Houston and more time at DH; a duel role that would likely continue in Toronto. The veteran accepting a qualifying offer and sticking with the Astros is possible but if the Blue Jays want to add one of the league’s best veteran hitters, the opportunity is now.
Defense you say? Kolten Wong (2B), Jackie Bradley Jr. (CF), and Andrelton Simmons (SS)
Toronto’s front office has made it clear they want to improve on defense. Look no further than Wong, widely considered the best defensive second baseman in baseball. The offense isn’t great, as Wong is a weak contact hitter, albeit with a knack of getting on base and not striking out much. His defensive acumen has seen him average 2.2 fWAR (2.5 bWAR) per season across his seven-year career, which should help him get another starting job. Wong on a two-or-three-year contract would immediately improve Toronto’s defense and add another layer of consistency to its lineup and infield, with Cavan Biggio shifting to third base.
Defense and Bradley Jr. go hand in hand but it’s his bat that came alive for the first time in years. His 2016 looked like an aberration, and it still might be, but Bradley Jr. performed well on a bad Boston team. Before you go labelling his offensive output as legitimate, there are some concerns to consider stemming from the season that was. His xwOBA (.299) was much lower than his wOBA .347 pointing to some possible regression on the way. His launch angle also oddly dipped from 12.3 in 2018, to 9.9 in 2019 to a career-low 4.4 this year. The exit velocity has also regressed. Any team that signs Bradley Jr. is doing so knowing they’re getting one hell of a centre fielder. Anything positive he does with the bat is bonus. The Blue Jays need help in the outfield. If they spend big elsewhere and want to fill the role with a focus on improving the club’s defense, he’s their guy.
A legend with the glove, Simmons enters free agency coming off a season mostly lost to injury, playing in only 30 games and opting-out late in the year. But this is a guy that has played Hall of Fame caliber defense at shortstop. He was also on the Jays’ radar ahead of the trade deadline. Adding the best defensive shortstop of his time would go a long way towards helping the Blue Jays at the position.
Now at 31, Simmons isn’t washed up, but he isn’t the same player we saw a couple of seasons ago. The bat has always been average to below that but his elite skills at shortstop will keep him on the field even if he struggles at the plate. Regardless, Simmons — though not the 5-win player he used to be — could help a contending club in need of a great defensive shortstop. That’s pretty much all he is at this point, and there’s value in that, he’s just going to have to anticipate a large pay cut. For Toronto, that should make for a risk-free, potentially wise investment.
Statistics courtesy: FanGraphs, Statcast, Baseball Reference