Assessing Blue Jays’ strengths, needs and resources – Sportsnet.ca

TORONTO – By now, we’ve lingered long enough on the Blue Jays’ uninspired 2023 season.

It’s time to look ahead, so let’s start anticipating what’s coming for the 2023-24 off-season.

The goal, of course, is to build a team capable of winning the American League East and succeeding in the playoffs. It won’t be easy with six departing free agents who accounted for 12.0 WAR of production in 2023, as many as four positions to fill, a notably weak class of free agent position players and arbitration raises eating into payroll flexibility.

Building an elite team is possible, though. As things stand now, the Blue Jays are in a good spot and while there’s tons of work ahead, the front office can achieve its goals with enough creativity and flexibility. In the course of this article, we’ll take a closer look at the Blue Jays’ needs, move on to their payroll and finish by reaching some big-picture conclusions about what this team’s off-season should look like. 

Early next week, I’ll get even more granular, outlining some specific scenarios and naming players who’d fit the Blue Jays’ needs. First, though, we need some guidelines:

Step one: What’s in place?

With Kevin Gausman, Chris Bassitt, José Berríos and Yusei Kikuchi all set to return next year, the Blue Jays have the makings of a strong rotation. Their bullpen also projects as a strength with Jordan Romano, Erik Swanson, Tim Mayza and Yimi García slated to come back, among others.

Offensively, the Blue Jays have a strong core in place. Familiar faces like George Springer, Bo Bichette, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Daulton Varsho will all be here in 2024, giving the Blue Jays the makings of a good offensive team.

Beyond that, there are plenty of intriguing players who are a little harder to project. On the pitching side, there’s Alek Manoah, the 2022 Cy Young finalist who didn’t pitch after Aug. 10, along with swingman Bowden Francis and prospect Ricky Tiedemann.   

On the offensive side, there are Davis Schneider, Spencer Horwitz and the soon-to-be-out-of-options Ernie Clement, each of whom could break camp with the 2024 Blue Jays. Prospects Orelvis Martinez, Addison Barger and Alan Roden seem unlikely to open the season in the majors, but could certainly help next summer, so you don’t want to block them all with off-season moves.

All things considered, it’s a very good starting point – but the Blue Jays are still five or six players away from where they need to be.

Step two: What are their needs?

Broadly, the Blue Jays need offence. And while much of that improvement must come internally from the likes of  Guerrero Jr., Springer and Varsho, the Blue Jays will presumably dedicate many of their off-season resources to improving the lineup that ranked 14th in MLB in runs scored in 2023 (seventh in wRC+, 107).

With 11.1 position player WAR departing, the Blue Jays’ current lineup would likely feature Horwitz at DH, Schneider in left and Clement at third base, not to mention a bench with Nathan Lukes, Santiago Espinal and Cam Eden.

Obviously, that’s not happening. The Blue Jays will likely be in the market at least four position players, but the form that takes can be pretty flexible. For now, the Blue Jays have questions in left field (assuming Varsho plays centre), third base, second base and DH. Most big-leaguers can play at least one of those defensive positions, and the flexibility of players like Biggio and Schneider gives the Blue Jays even more options.

Of course, there are some limitations, too. Every team needs a backup shortstop and a backup centre fielder, so it’s not like they can just add four sluggers and call it a day. As of now, their backup centre fielder would be the 34-year-old Springer or Biggio, a utility player. That creates a clear need.

As for their backup shortstop, they could roll with Espinal or (if Espinal’s traded) promote Clement. But defensive metrics suggest Espinal regressed defensively this past season, so it’s worth contemplating other ways of creating Bichette insurance. 

Bottom line, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins can consider literally any position player, even DH types, as long as he’s sure to mix in some defensively skilled options, too. 

And you can never have enough pitching, right? Just because the Blue Jays had incredible results from their starting rotation this year doesn’t mean they’ll be as healthy in 2024. This off-season will likely be focused on bats, but there’s always a need for arms. Augmenting the rotation is a worthy goal.

As for the bullpen, that’s probably not where the Blue Jays will choose to make their biggest splashes. In fact, it would be bizarre if they went all-in on Josh Hader or Craig Kimbrel at the expense of clear needs elsewhere.

Step three: What decisions are ahead? 

Before the off-season begins in earnest, the Blue Jays have some option decisions to make:

• Whit Merrifield’s contract includes an $18 million mutual option for 2024. Expect the Blue Jays to decline their half of this option, preferring a $500,000 buyout.

• Chad Green’s contract includes a complex series of options, starting with a three-year, $27-million team option that the Blue Jays seem unlikely to exercise. From there, Green can exercise a $6.25 million player option. If he declines, the Blue Jays can then lock in a two-year, $21 million deal.

Step four: What can they spend

In 2023, the Blue Jays spent $218 million on their active roster, according to Sportrac. Once you account for player benefits, 40-man roster players in the minors, injured players and the pre-arbitration bonus pool, that figure increased well beyond MLB’s $233 million Competitive Balance Tax, making the Blue Jays a CBT payor.

Without getting specific, team president Mark Shapiro indicated conversations were ongoing with ownership at Rogers Communications, Inc., which also owns Sportsnet. But it appears similar resources will be available in 2024.

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“I don’t expect a dramatic philosophical shift in payroll next year,” Shapiro said last week. ” I expect us to stay in the same area, and that we we can support that for now.”

Working off the assumption that Green opts in at $6.25 million, the Blue Jays would have $122.5 million committed to 2024. Using the arbitration estimates at MLB Trade Rumors as a guide, the team also has more than $60 million in projected commitments for a large arbitration class. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume the Blue Jays non-tender reliever Adam Cimber and are open to trading Espinal.

That would give them a projected $55.7 million in arbitration eligible players plus another $3 million or so for pre-arbitration players. All told, that puts the Blue Jays around $181 million in commitments before they make a single addition.

Assuming the Blue Jays are indeed in the ‘same area’ next year, that gives them something approaching $40-$45 million to spend on big-league free agents, depending on trades and non-tenders. Maybe a little more or a little less, but likely not as little as $25 million or as much as $75 million. 

And working off that assumption, any player this side of Shohei Ohtani can be considered, including Cody Bellinger, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and the other big names available.

Step five: Putting it all together 

Earlier this month, Atkins described the upcoming class as “very weak,” and he’s right. While Ohtani promises to make someone a lot better next year, the overall class is lacking, especially when it comes to impact bats.

That’s far from ideal at a time that the Blue Jays’ biggest need is position players. Their list will of course include Bellinger, who’s clearly the top non-Ohtani bat. It was just last off-season that the Blue Jays pursued Bellinger, and they’re certainly familiar with his agent, the quotable Scott Boras. 

Adding Bellinger would represent a meaningful step forward, but he might cost more than George Springer did and he did benefit from some good fortune on batted balls this past season. Plus, even if the Blue Jays do sign Bellinger, they’ll need to complement him with three to four more position players without forgetting about pitching.

Beyond the biggest names, there are countless other possibilities in play for the Blue Jays, who will surely explore trades for position players in the weeks ahead as well. Deal-making could help prevent Atkins from being too dependent on a weak free agent class, but other teams will be thinking along those lines, too, creating competition, especially at weak positions like third base.

So while there are many legitimate paths forward here, there’s virtually no scenario where the Blue Jays aren’t spending on some free agent bats. Choosing the right ones will be essential for a team that must augment its existing core in a meaningful way before opening day.

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