First up on Blue Jays’ off-season to-do list: solving the Steven Matz puzzle
With the off-season set to begin in early November, there will be at least three months — pending the outcome of collective bargaining with baseball’s contract set to expire on Dec. 1 — for the Jays to cross things off their to-do list.
There are bigger priorities, but the first item on the off-season agenda is Steven Matz.
While the veteran left-hander might not be the frontline piece the Jays require pending the possible departure of Ray, he filled an important role this season and will hit the open market in early November.
As first reported by ESPN’s Buster Olney, Major League Baseball recently informed teams that next season’s qualifying offer will be $18.4 million (U.S.). Clubs are permitted to make QOs to any of their free agents who spent the previous year in their organization and have never received one before. Players have 10 days to decide. If they decline, whatever team signs them must forfeit a draft pick and possibly some international spending money.
For a team like the Jays, it would mean the difference between receiving a compensatory draft pick or potentially losing their player for nothing. Semien and Ray are locks to receive QOs and considering both are expected to attract a lot of interest this off-season, they’re equally guaranteed to decline in favour of pursuing multi-year deals.
Matz’s situation is more complicated. If he receives a QO, he’s likely to accept and the Jays must decide whether he’s worthy of such a hefty price tag.
A few months ago, this didn’t seem worthy of debate. The former second-round pick entered the all-star break with an underwhelming 4.72 ERA and an opponents’ on-base plus slugging percentage of .777. He was entirely unpredictable from one start to the next. One day he looked great, the next he’d be struggling to make it through the early stages of a game. In other words, not much had changed from his time with the New York Mets.
The second half was completely different. In 14 starts, Matz went 7-3 with a 2.91 ERA with his opponents’ OPS dropping to .670. He allowed more than three earned runs just twice while consistently going either five or six innings in each start. It was his best run as a starter in approximately three years.
Buoyed by the strong final 2 1/2-month run, Matz finished the year ranked 15th in FanGraphs’ wins above replacement level among AL starters with at least 150 innings. His 2.8 ranked just below a group that includes Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr., Boston’s Eduardo Rodríguez and the Oakland duo of Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea. Not bad company for a guy who was nearly non-tendered last off-season.
In Toronto, Matz’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed. His fWAR was 0.3 higher than that of the guy who opened the year as the staff’s ace. While Matz thrived down the stretch, veteran lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu faded by posting a 7.43 ERA over his final 10 outings. Between the two, if the Jays had qualified for the post-season a strong case could have been made for Matz, not Ryu, to be named the fourth starter.
Based on last season alone, Matz would appear to be worth the $18.4 million (U.S.). Whether he will be worth it again next year is an internal debate the Jays are currently having as they lay the groundwork for the off-season and determine how best to allocate their resources.
In the coming weeks, the Jays must decide which version of Matz they are most likely to get in 2022. If it’s the guy who thrived in the second half, it should be an easy decision to keep him around. If it’s the guy from the first half who appeared to be on the verge of losing his job to Ross Stripling, that’s an easy call too. If it’s a combination of the two, well, that’s where things get murky.
General manager Ross Atkins should have a lot of money to spend this off-season, but the funds can only be stretched so far in free agency. Let’s assume for a minute the early estimate of the Jays having upwards of $50 million to 60 million this off-season is accurate. Extending a QO to a mid- to back-end piece would eat up a third of that cash before the search for a frontline starter even begins.
A more prudent course of action, if the Jays really wanted to keep Matz, would be working out a multi-year deal before the QO deadline hits. A new contract that spans more than one season at a lower annual cost than $18.4 million, much like what they previously did with Marco Estrada when he inked a two-year deal worth $25 million prior to 2016 under similar circumstances.
Matz is coming off a very productive season, but for $18.4 million (U.S.) teams are typically expecting at least a No. 3 starter. The product of New York might possess that upside, but to date it has only come in spurts while consistency over the course of a full season has been lacking with a career ERA of 4.24.
From this vantage point, the Jays need to either work out a two- or three-year deal for Matz at a reduced annual rate or let him walk as a free agent because if Matz is offered the QO, odds are it will be too much guaranteed money to turn down.