The Blue Jays’ offseason savings could lead to a big hit in the pitching market

With additional financial flexibility in their arsenal, the Toronto Blue Jays can move forward in many ways as they attempt to improve on a 92-win roster, potentially paving the way for a significant free agent acquisition.

The franchise hasn’t strayed from that path in previous years, signing Hyun Jin Ryu during the 2019-20 offseason, George Springer in 2021, and Kevin Gausman this past winter. They also extended José Berríos to a seven-year, $131 million contract a year ago.

So Rogers Communications, which owns the Blue Jays, certainly isn’t afraid to invest in this team, which should prove valuable again between now and spring training.

It helps that Teoscar Hernández’s trading saved an expected $14.1 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors arbitration projections. The team also opened a $6.5 million showing from outfielders Raimel Tapia and Bradley Zimmer.

Naturally, Erik Swanson — who is expected to earn $1.4 million through arbitration — will lower that figure. However, that leaves the front office with nearly $20 million in additional breathing space for next season.

How will Toronto spend those savings? There could be multiple potential outcomes, though all will likely focus on locating Hernández’s replacement in the outfield. However, not all dollars have to be allocated to that area.

The Blue Jays also need to acquire another starting pitcher, with Ross Stripling becoming a free agent. And with the club’s projected 2023 payroll of around $29 million below the $232 million CBT mark, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, a new contract with the 33-year-old shouldn’t be ruled out.

Stripling played an integral role as he filled in for injured Ryu, performing 2.64 ERA and 3.06 FIP over 19 starts after transitioning to the full-time rotation on June 6. Bringing him back for a second term wouldn’t be a terrible decision, especially after he was worth 3.1 fWAR in 2022.

But what if management aims higher than Stripling? What if they play at the high end of the starting pitcher market, hunting big fish like Justin Verlander or Carlos Rodón? Neither would come cheap, but each would greatly improve Toronto’s starting rotation.

Justin Verlander said he came close to joining the Blue Jays last winter. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Verlander, a nine-time All-Star, dominated in his first season after a Tommy John surgery en route to winning his third American League Cy Young Award. The 39-year-old posted AL bests in ERA (1.75), xERA (2.66) and fWAR (6.1) over 175.0 innings in 28 starts.

Surprisingly, the future Hall of Famer has picked up almost exactly where he left off before undergoing surgery, proving he’s still capable of performing at superstar level despite approaching his 40-year mark.

That does mean, however, that Verlander will likely be aiming for a deal similar to Max Scherzer’s three-year, $130 million contract, which includes an opt-out clause after season two. So the 2011 AL MVP is likely poised to command at least $40 million in 2023.

Adding that amount to Toronto’s paycheck wouldn’t be easy, even with the savings management has already built up. But with an estimated $47.5 million in guaranteed salary going off the books after 2023, accounting for Verlander’s salary would be easier in future seasons.

Going through the luxury tax is probably out of the question, so next season’s financial problem remains. The Blue Jays will receive insurance coverage for a portion of Ryu’s $20 million salary, which would offset any excess fees they face for temporarily exceeding that threshold, should they choose to do so.

In all likelihood, signing Verlander would require the need to drop yet another expensive player, keeping the club’s payroll below the luxury tax. However, there isn’t much wiggle room in that department, aside from moving Yusei Kikuchi’s $10 million salary.

But considering Verlander nearly joined Toronto last offseason, perhaps he’d be willing to accept below-market value or defer his contract to sign north of the border.

While Verlander may still prove too expensive, the Blue Jays would happily settle for Rodón, who made a successful bet on himself with the San Francisco Giants last season. After earning $21.5 million, the 29-year-old exercised his opt-out clause, hoping to capitalize on his career year.

Rodón has made 31 starts in 2022, finishing second behind Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola (6.3) in fWAR with a career-best 6.2. He also posted a 2.88 ERA, 2.64 xERA, 2.25 FIP, .200 OPP AVG, and a strikeout-walk spread of 26.1%, the second-highest of his career.

Injuries were a major concern throughout the lefty’s career, limiting him to 70 innings or fewer in three of his eight seasons in the league. They were one of the main reasons he was fired by the Chicago White Sox after 2021 despite him being worth 4.9 fWAR.

The injury bug was not a factor on the West Coast, however, as Rodón hit a season-high 178 innings in his first – and possibly only – season with the Giants. And he’s likely to be rewarded for his extraordinary efforts this winter.

Set to enter his 30-year season in 2023, ESPN pundits predict Rodón will command a five-year contract worth between $130 million and $150 million, paying him at least $26 million per season. That price would be more in the Blue Jays’ comfort zone, at least compared to Verlander’s.

Toronto, however, would lose its 2023 second-round pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money for signing Rodón, who turned down a qualifying offer earlier this offseason. But the front office should be willing to pay that price, especially after receiving two compensating picks last winter.

Carlos Rodon would be a huge boost to the Blue Jays' starting rotation.  (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Carlos Rodon would be a huge boost to the Blue Jays starting rotation. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

Japan’s Kodai Senga may not be in the same tier as Verlander and Rodón, though he’s another impact pitcher who would be a realistic target for the Blue Jays. And their interest level has likely skyrocketed since he gained additional spending space.

Like Rodón, the 29-year-old colleague could potentially command a lucrative five-year deal via free agency. But signing the right-hander wouldn’t cost the franchise a registration fee or draft pick fee, since he already has at least nine years of professional experience.

Senga is coming off a tremendous showing in 2022, earning a 1.89 ERA and 2.76 FIP over 23 starts with Nippon Professional Baseball’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. He also had 159 strikeouts in 148.0 innings, posting a 27.4% strikeout rate.

The hard-throwing right-handed player whose fastball hits triple digits is a largely unknown commodity among baseball fans. But given his reputation overseas, Toronto’s pitching staff would improve dramatically with him joining Alek Manoah, Gausman and Berríos.

Obviously, signing Verlander, Rodón or Senga would take the Blue Jays out of the Brandon Nimmo lottery. That could work in their favor, however, as committing another long-term deal to a position player could complicate the extension of Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

The franchise would need to acquire Hernández’s replacement via trade if management were to spend its savings on a starting pitcher. Although trading for Bryan Reynolds, Alek Thomas, Daulton Varsho, Lars Nootbar, Jesse Winker or Ian Happ would improve the outfield.

But before the Blue Jays can seriously pursue these outfielders, they must determine how much they are willing to spend on the free agent class of starting pitchers this winter.

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