Originally, this article was supposed to be about Toronto’s frustrating whiffs at the top of the market free agents this offseason. As I began writing this article pre-George Springer signing, the following was my introduction:
Through no fault of their own, Toronto seems to be an undesirable destination for free agents this winter. In a normal offseason, Toronto doesn’t come with the same appeal as some American cities. It also comes with the hassle of constantly passing through customs and taking up residence in a different country. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Toronto comes with a whole new set of challenges. It’s unclear when and if the Blue Jays will be able to play in Toronto this season. Likely, the team will begin the 2021 season at their Spring Training stadium in Dunedin, Florida after spending all of 2020 in Buffalo, New York. Even if the team is able to play in Toronto, the restrictions for the players in Canada may be more strict than in the United States. All of these factors combine to make signing with the Blue Jays a tough sell right now.
The problem for the Blue Jays is that their willingness to spend money this offseason is neutralized by their current unenviable situation. In an offseason where spending money is a market inefficiency, the Blue Jays haven’t yet been able to lean into this advantage. Among the free agents they’ve been connected to that have signed elsewhere are Ha-Seong Kim, Kevin Gausman, Liam Hendriks, Tomoyuki Sugano, DJ LeMahieu, and Corey Kluber. They were reported to be the runner up in the Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco trade sweepstakes. They’ve also been connected to George Springer, JT Realmuto, and Trevor Bauer, who all still remain on the free-agent market.
It’s still possible that a big free agent could sign with Toronto. It’s also possible that Toronto has to severely overpay to become more desirable for a free agent. Another possibility is that Toronto gets dragged through this winter and used as leverage for free agents in other negotiations. So, how can Toronto avoid being the last one standing in the game of free agent musical chairs?
I surmised that they wouldn’t be able to reel in any of the big fish without overpaying. I was kind of wrong with that statement. They may have slightly overpaid to get Springer at six years, $150 million. Regardless of the contract though, Toronto went big game hunting and came away with a big-time prize. No more than 12 hours later, Toronto then reportedly landed outfielder Michael Brantley. The reports were premature though, and Brantley ended up signing back in Houston later that day. The Brantley speculation tells us that Toronto is far from finished in their pursuit to improve this offseason. Below, I’ll explore 20 trade targets and 5 free agents that still make sense for Toronto. I focused mainly on starting pitching and third base, but the possible trade of Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernández, or Lourdes Gurriel may open up an outfield spot. I also excluded relievers, even though it’s possible the team may add an extra arm beyond Tyler Chatwood and Kirby Yates to their bullpen.
For this article, we’re assuming that Toronto will head into opening day with a payroll of $125-$140 million. This estimate appears to be fairly realistic, considering Toronto’s reported willingness to continue to spend. According to Roster Resource, their 2021 payroll currently sits at $115 million. Each season from 2013-2019, the team payroll exceeded $120 million. Their payroll reached its peak in the $160 million range in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
The surplus-value or trade value estimates come from a model built by Baseball Trade Values. The model gives ballpark estimates on surplus-value, which can be defined as projected on-field value minus salary. A negative surplus-value means a player’s remaining salary outweighs his projected remaining on-field production.
FanGraphs Team WAR totals are currently as follows:
High On-Field Value, High Surplus-Value
These trade targets can only be acquired in exchange for a high amount of prospect capital because of their high on-field impact, and relatively lower salaries. It’s possible the Blue Jays aren’t willing to part with their top prospects, which is certainly understandable. However, a deal for one of these players could significantly help them maximize their contention window.
Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers SP
Burnes may not be available, but we know teams have at least inquired about him. If Milwaukee decides to move him, Toronto could be interested. Burnes had a breakout 2020, with a K/9 total above 13, a FIP of 2.02, and xFIP of 2.99. His slider, curveball, and cutter all exceeded a 35% strike percentage, and his sinker and changeup were both pretty reliable, as well. ZiPS projects Burnes for a 3.56 FIP next year. He’s controllable for four more years, so he’ll take significant prospect capital to acquire.
Surplus Value Estimate: $71.1 million
Sonny Gray, Cincinnati Reds SP / Tyler Mahle, Cincinnati Reds SP
Cincinnati and Toronto have already lined up one deal, but they might not be done. Gray is controllable for three more years at $32.2 million. In 56 innings last year, he posted a 3.05 FIP and a career-high K/9 over 11.5. Gray also had all four of his pitches (four-seam, sinker, slider, curveball) above a 30% strike percentage. He’s a clear top-of-the-rotation arm at a ZiPS projection of 3.86 in 2021.
Mahle is the more unheralded member of Cincinnati’s rotation. He’s controllable for three more years and will come at about half the salary of Gray. He took a step in the right direction (3.88 FIP, 4.59 xFIP) in 47.2 innings pitched last year. In 2019, he produced a somewhat confounding 5.14 ERA, 4.66 FIP, and 3.99 xFIP stat line. His four-seam fastball and cutter are both above 30% in the strike percentage department. Although he leaned more heavily on a successful curveball in 2019, Mahle got positive results on a new slider in 2020 (33% strike percentage).
Neither of these arms will come cheap in terms of prospect capital given up. Gray is the right fit if the Blue Jays want a higher on-field value at a higher salary. Mahle is the right fit if the Blue Jays want a lower salary pitcher for a similar prospect package.
Gray Surplus Value Estimate: $29.7 million
Mahle Surplus Value Estimate: $31.3 million
Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs SP
There might not be a better time for the Cubs to deal their most valuable remaining asset. After shipping Yu Darvish to San Diego, Toronto would be smart to engage in trade talks for Hendricks. He’s coming off 81.2 innings pitched at a 3.55 FIP, and 3.78 xFIP to go along with a BB/9 below one. Hendricks is controllable for the next four seasons at a total salary of $58 million. Since 2018, his four-seam fastball (33% strike percentage), sinker (32% strike percentage), curveball (34% strike percentage), and changeup (25% strike percentage) have all been solid pitches. His four years of control line up perfectly with Toronto’s window of contention.
Surplus Value Estimate: $37.5 million
Eugenio Suárez, Cincinnati Reds 3B / José Ramírez, Cleveland Indians 3B
It’s doubtful that either of these players will be on the move this offseason. If they are though, Toronto is an obvious fit with an opening at third base.
Ramírez (28 years old), had an MVP-caliber 2020 and is controllable for three more years at $35 million. ZiPS projects him for 5.6 fWAR in 2021.
Suárez (29 years old) is controllable for five more years at $58.5 million. He had a bit of a down 2020, but ZiPS sees him as a 3.0 fWAR player in 2021. Suárez will take less prospect capital but is a bit more expensive than Ramírez on the salary side. A Ramírez deal may come in a year or two if Cleveland decides to move off him further down the road.
Suárez Surplus Value Estimate: $34.9 million
Ramírez Surplus Value Estimate: $72.8 million
Trevor Story, Colorado Rockies SS
The Blue Jays were known to be in on Francisco Lindor, so it’s likely they’d be interested if Colorado decides to move Story. Story is only controllable for 2021 before he hits the free-agent market. If this deal were to occur, negotiations for a contract extension would almost surely follow. Story emerged as an elite shortstop when he combined for 11 fWAR between 2018 and 2019. ZiPS projects a 104 wRC+ and a 4 fWAR season in 2021.
Surplus Value Estimate: $33.7 million
High On-Field Value, Low/Negative Surplus-Value Position Players
These trade targets can in theory be acquired for a low amount of prospect capital because of their higher salaries. This can be an avenue to acquire high salary, high impact players, while not relinquishing valuable prospects. Many of these players could be included in larger deals, where the other team takes on salary in return, eats salary, or sends more major league talent in exchange for more prospect capital.
Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs 3B/OF
Any list of this type of trade target has to start with Bryant. The Blue Jays are reportedly interested and the Cubs may be willing to move him. Bryant is due $19.5 million in his last year of team control. Bryant could slot in at left field or third base, depending on how Vlad Guerrero Jr. looks in the early going at the hot corner. Projection systems peg Bryant for a 2.6-3.3 fWAR season while posting a wRC+ in the 115-120 range. He’s coming off a down 2020 (76 wRC+) but he should bounce back to be a high-impact bat in 2021.
Surplus Value Estimate: $2.8 million
Starling Marte, Miami Marlins OF
Marte has been traded twice in the past year and he could be on the move again. He made 61 starts in center field in 2020, while posting a 109 wRC+. Projection systems tab him for roughly 2 fWAR production in 2021, while making $12.5 million in the last year of his lengthy contract extension. His Statcast peripherals dipped a bit at the plate last year, but he’s still an above-average glove in center. The Blue Jays might not need another outfielder right now, but Marte could be an impact player for them to target.
Surplus Value Estimate: $2 million
Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies 3B
This one is unlikely. Arenado is in the midst of an eight-year, $260 million deal that runs through 2026. He also has a no-trade clause and could opt out after 2021. The only way this deal gets done is if it’s part of a larger blockbuster (think Germán Márquez or Trevor Story). The Blue Jays would be smart to kick the tires, though. Arenado is only 29 and posted 5+ fWAR in four straight years before a rough 2020. He’s projected for 4 fWAR in 2021. Again, this is highly unlikely, but not impossible.
Surplus Value Estimate: $-43.7 million
Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners 3B
There could be a fit for Seager at third base. He’s owed $18 million in the last year of his deal in 2021 and he’s projected for between 2.2-2.4 fWAR. Seager played 154+ games in each season from 2012-2018. His glove has declined as he’s aged, but he’s still durable and swings an above-average bat. Seager could be part of a bigger deal or the Mariners may simply be looking to move off him before his deal expires. The Blue Jays would send some salary the other way if this deal occurred.
Surplus Value Estimate: $-9.1 million
Alex Dickerson, San Francisco Giants OF/DH
This might not be a great fit considering the numerous DH candidates in Toronto. Dickerson is awful defensively in the outfield. However, he does project as a 115-120 wRC+ bat in 2021 and is controllable for two more seasons. He won’t take much prospect capital to acquire and doesn’t have the high salary obligation of others on this list. There are some durability concerns, but Dickerson could be a valuable bench bat in his age 31 and 32 seasons for Toronto. The fit isn’t ideal, but it could work.
Surplus Value Estimate: $4.9 million
Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds OF / Mike Moustakas, Cincinnati Reds INF
Castellanos or Moustakas would have to be moved as part of a larger deal with someone of positive surplus value for Cincinnati (think Tyler Mahle, Sonny Gray, or Eugenio Suárez). Cincinnati may be looking for additional financial flexibility and could include one of these two in a deal to achieve that goal. Both Moustakas and Castellanos have three more years left on their free-agent deals.
Moustakas (32 years old) projects as a 104-112 wRC+ bat and roughly a 1.5 fWAR in 2021. He started just two games at third base in 2020, but that’s his natural position.
Castellanos is younger (28), but he’s a man without a position. He’s poor in right field, and again, the Blue Jays don’t really need another DH type. Depending on the projection system, he’s anywhere from a 105-125 wRC+ bat next season. If one of these two were to be included in a larger deal, Moustakas would be the better fit in Toronto.
Moustakas Surplus Value Estimate: $-19.6 million
Castellanos Surplus Value Estimate: $-17.6 million
High On-Field Value, Low/Negative Surplus-Value Starting Pitchers
Carlos Martínez, St. Louis Cardinals SP
Martínez is entering the final year of his five-year, $51 million contract in 2021. He’s owed just $11.5 million next season but has two expensive club options beyond that ($17 million in 2022, $18 million in 2023) that likely won’t be exercised. In 2020, Martínez stumbled through 20 innings to the tune of a 9.90 ERA and 6.89 FIP. However, between 2015 and 2018, he threw 697 innings in 67 starts at a 3.56 FIP, with K/9 totals hovering around 8.50. As a full-time member of the bullpen in 2019, he posted a 2.86 FIP, with a K/9 nearing 10. He’s likely a 4.50 FIP starter in 2021, who could also be a sub-4.00 FIP bullpen arm if needed. Like Chatwood, Martínez could swing between the rotation and bullpen depending on the situation.
Surplus Value Estimate: $-5.1 million
Merrill Kelly, Arizona Diamondbacks SP
Through a pair of club options, Kelly is controllable for the next two years at $9.5 million. After four years in the KBO, the right-hander returned to the United States in 2019. He’s since tossed 214.2 innings at a 4.44 FIP over the last two years with Arizona. At a ZiPS projected FIP of 4.65 for 2021, he’s a mid-to-back end-of-the-rotation starter. Toronto already has a plethora of those types, but more teams are moving toward six-man rotations for 2021. Needing to cover 1,458 innings worth of pitching this year compared to just 540 innings last year, stockpiling starters may not be a bad idea.
Surplus Value Estimate: $3.9 million
Yusei Kikuchi, Seattle Mariners SP
Seattle may be looking to move off Kikuchi’s remaining salary. He’s owed $15 million in 2021 and is guaranteed at least $13 million in 2022 by way of a player option. After eight seasons in NPB, Kikuchi’s early results in MLB were discouraging. He struggled to a 5.46 ERA and even worse peripherals in 2019. In 2020, his 5.17 ERA was still mediocre, but his 3.30 FIP and 3.78 xFIP told a different story. He made real changes to his mechanics and his repertoire that should carry over to 2021. A Tanner Roark or Randal Grichuk swap plus a low-level prospect would be a realistic offer for Seattle to consider.
Surplus Value Estimate: $-8.6 million
Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers SP
Boyd might not fit Detroit’s timeline for contention, making him a realistic trade candidate. He’s set to make $6.5 million in 2021 and will enter his final year of arbitration in 2022. Boyd struggled mightily in 12 starts last year (6.71 ERA, 5.78 FIP), and he still owns a career ERA north of 5.00. However, he’s shown the ability to take the ball every fifth day (170 innings in 2018, 185 innings in 2019) and he posted a combined 7.6 fWAR from 2017-2019. ZiPS projects Boyd for a 4.29 FIP in 2021, so the projection systems still believe in him. Maybe Toronto can buy low on Boyd and bank on his durability and pre-2020 numbers to provide value for them.
Surplus Value Estimate: $6.4 million
It seems like Gray has been the subject of trade rumors for years. Even though his peripherals are solid (five years with an xFIP below 4), he’s been a constant underperformer in Colorado. He was demoted to the minor leagues after serving as Colorado’s opening day starter in 2018. More recently, he made eight mediocre starts in 2020 (5.06 FIP, 5.08 K/9). He’s finished three seasons in Colorado with an ERA total north of 5.00. Gray’s career 3.84 FIP and 3.74 xFIP make him an interesting change of scenery candidate, though. Toronto didn’t shy away from Robbie Ray when he struggled last year in Arizona. Maybe they’ll take a one-year flier on Gray.
Surplus Value Estimate: $7.2 million
Vince Velasquez, Philadelphia Phillies SP
Some thought Philadelphia might non-tender Velasquez this offseason. Instead, he was tendered a contract and agreed to a $4 million salary in his last year of team control. He’s had an up and down career so far. His best seasons came in 2016 (3.96 FIP, 2.3 fWAR) and 2018 (3.75 FIP, 2.6 fWAR). Velasquez struggled badly though in 2019 (5.21 FIP), and didn’t have many innings to bounce back from that performance in 2020. He did post a K/9 of 12.18 in his small sample size last year, which is well north of his career K/9 of 9.94. ZiPS projects a K/9 nearing 11 in 2021, and a FIP total of 4.45. Acquiring Velasquez wouldn’t be a sexy move, but he could certainly provide value to the middle or back of a rotation.
Surplus Value Estimate: $6.4 million
Free Agent Targets
Justin Turner, 3B
It seems inevitable that Turner will return back to the Dodgers. However, if Los Angeles decides to move in a different direction, Toronto is an ideal fit. From 2017-2020, Turner posted a 145 wRC+ and a 14.3 fWAR total. He’s 36 years old, but ZiPS still projects him for a 118 wRC+ and 2.5 fWAR in 2021. Additionally, he possesses valuable postseason experience. He would be a great stopgap until Jordan Groshans joins Bo Bichette on the left side of Toronto’s infield.
James Paxton, SP / Masahiro Tanaka, SP / Jake Odorizzi, SP
If Toronto doesn’t want to pay Trevor Bauer, these are the free-agent starters they can target.
Paxton comes with a bit of injury concern, but when healthy he’s a top of the rotation pitcher. Between 2016 and 2019, he posted a 3.16 FIP, 3.41 xFIP, and 15.2 fWAR. He’s from Canada and was a first-rounder for the Blue Jays back in 2009 (although he didn’t sign).
There have been reports that Toronto is interested in Tanaka. He might be more interested in a return to Japan than a move to a different MLB team, though. He’s more of a workhorse type, who doesn’t possess the same upside as Paxton. ZiPS projects a 4.49 FIP in 2021 in his age-32 season.
Odorizzi bet on himself by accepting the one-year qualifying offer for last year. He only threw 13 woeful innings in an injury-plagued 2020. On a one-year deal, he’s a decent addition. Be skeptical of committing significant multi-year money to him, however. From 2017-2020, he posted a 4.34 FIP, and 4.76 xFIP. ZiPS projects a 4.50 FIP in 2021.
Chris Archer, SP
Archer is a more high risk, high reward free agent. He’s coming off Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery at the age of 32. Between 2016-2019, he posted a 3.89 FIP, 3.60 xFIP, and 10.6 fWAR. ZiPS projects a 4.24 FIP for 2021 but fails to account for the injury risk and regression that comes with TOS surgery. He will be available on a one-year deal and might take just a flier for a few million dollars.
In an offseason filled with uncertainties, the Blue Jays’ front office was able to reel in one of their top targets. The Springer signing has officially opened Toronto’s window of contention. Now, Toronto must turn its attention to applying its remaining money to add more impact players. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Toronto front office is ready to go all-in or if they opt to sign short term deals to keep their options open moving forward. Either way, the success of Toronto’s future hinges on optimizing each available dollar while their core of young talent remains inexpensive.
Photos by Nick Turchiaro & Gerry Angus/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)