The Blue Jays can afford higher prices for free agents and trade targets. More competition is the problem
CARLSBAD, CALIF.—The Blue Jays are expected to be one of Major League Baseball’s most aggressive teams for the second consecutive off-season, but the climate general manager Ross Atkins finds himself operating in this winter will be much different than it was a year ago.
Following the 2020 season, the Jays and New York Mets were two of the only teams with a lot of money to spend on players who weren’t their own free agents. Both clubs were linked to just about everyone, while a lot of the typical big spenders decided to not get involved.
That, perhaps more than any other reason, was why the Jays managed to come away with the top bids for George Springer, Marcus Semien and, to a lesser extent, Robbie Ray and Kirby Yates. After teams across the league took a financial hit during the pandemic, the Jays were one of the outliers willing to go on a spending spree.
The scene this off-season isn’t comparable.
There was no shortage of potential bidders convening here on Tuesday at the general managers meetings, even though the free-agent process will be drawn out over several months with a potential lockout looming when the current collective agreement expires on Dec. 1.
“All we can do is what you guys can do, in terms of understanding how aggressive teams are going to be, and that’s to speculate,” Atkins said on day one at the Omni La Costa Resort. “But I feel like the game is in a great place. There are a lot of really competitive teams and a lot of opportunities for teams to get better.
“It does seem like it’s going to be very competitive this off-season.”
The American League East has been baseball’s toughest division for years, and that doesn’t figure to change any time soon. The New York Yankees will be in the mix for one of the top free-agent shortstops — Semien, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager or Trevor Story — while the Red Sox will make another round of investments after recently securing the second wild card. Elsewhere, though, the Orioles and Rays are expected to be non-factors in free agency as usual.
The difference this year can be found in the other divisions.
In the AL West, the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers have a lot of money available. In the Central, the Detroit Tigers appear poised to jump-start their rebuild with some big expenditures of their own. Contenders such as the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros will remain active, too.
Two National League teams to watch out for are the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, who have just $72.7 million (U.S.) on the books after spending almost $100 million more in 2021. The Dodgers remain baseball’s richest team, while other buyers include the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and possibly even the Miami Marlins.
That’s a lot of teams looking to buy. By comparison, the list of sellers is small. The Oakland A’s are on the verge of a fire sale, with reports surfacing this week that they are trying to get payroll under $50 million, which would inevitably lead to the departures of arbitration eligible players such as Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas.
The Cincinnati Reds are in a similar situation with ace Luis Castillo and righty Sonny Gray among those available. Other teams to monitor include the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, Kansas City Royals and Arizona Diamondbacks, but with more teams buying than selling it means costs should be quite high in trades and free agency.
“I have some latitude,” the Yankees’ Brian Cashman said, referencing payroll and echoing a lot of the other GMs attending the meetings. “Do I have a set budget? No. But do I have some direction? Yes, and clearly it was mission accomplished last year getting under the competitive balance tax.”
The Jays, despite their young core, have a lot of holes to fill. There’s a need for at least one infielder, two starting pitchers and multiple arms for the bullpen. Ideally, the club also would diversify its right-handed heavy lineup, which could involve moving an outfielder such as Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to free up a spot for another lefty.
Atkins does have the benefit of flexibility. He could opt to add a second or third baseman but doesn’t necessarily need both, with Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal offering alternatives. Despite a crowded outfield, there’s also room to add one more guy in the fourth outfielder/designated hitter role that Corey Dickerson filled in the second half.
In the rotation, the Jays must either re-sign Ray and Steven Matz or find comparable replacements. They will cast a wide net in searching for candidates, evidenced by this week’s in-person scouting trip to watch the rehabbing Justin Verlander. Other options include Kevin Gausman, Eduardo Rodríguez, Carlos Rodón, Alex Wood, James Paxton, Michael Pineda and Dylan Bundy.
Atkins is still in the information gathering portion of his off-season. As interesting as reports about the Jays “checking in” with free agents or fielding calls from other teams might seem, they can be safely ignored for now because it amounts to little more than due diligence, something every team is doing at this time of year.