The Blue Jays continued to aggressively shop in both the free agent and trade markets, adding what they hope are the finishing touches on a postseason contender.
Major League Signings
- Kevin GausmanSP: Five years, $110MM
- Yusei KikuchiSP: Three years, $36MM
- Yimi GarciaRP: Two years, $11MM (includes $1MM buyout of $5MM club option for 2024; option vests for $6MM if Garcia hits innings/appearance thresholds)
- Andrew VasquezRP: One year, $800K
- 2022 spending: $42.8MM
- Total spending: $157.8MM
Trades & Claims
Notable Minor League Signings
- David Phelps (contract selected, $1.75MM guarantee), Tyler Heineman (selected), Gosuke Katoh (selected), Dexter Fowler, Mallex Smith, Joshua Fuentes, Joe Biagini, Jose De Leon, Casey Lawrence, Eric Stamets, Nathan Lukes
- Marcus Semien, Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, Corey Dickerson, Joakim Soria (retirement), Breyvic Valera, Kirby YatesGrichuk, Hoglund, Smith, Logue, Snead
The Blue Jays headed into the offseason with three of their biggest 2021 contributors entering the free agent market, and the entire trio signed with new teams before the lockout. Marcus Semien’s seven-year, $175MM deal with the Rangers was the priciest of the bunch, with Robbie Ray also landing five years and $115MM from the Mariners, and Steven Matz receiving a healthy four-year, $44MM payday from the Cardinals. There wasn’t much expectation that the Blue Jays would re-sign all three of these players, though it perhaps counted as a bit of a surprise that none of the three ended up returning.
Still, given how it was another “in on everyone” offseason for the Jays’ front office, it was clear the team had plenty of contingency plans in the event that all three free agents did indeed leave town. Since Semien and Ray rejected qualifying offers, the Jays also netted two extra compensatory draft picks, so Toronto will now be picking four times within the first 78 selections of July’s amateur draft.
The Jays dabbled in the pool of qualifying offer free agents themselves, as Toronto was linked to the likes of Freddie Freeman, Corey Seager, Justin Verlander, Eduardo Rodriguez, Chris Taylorand Michael Conforto. As for non-QO free agents, Kyle Schwarber and Seiya Suzuki were two of the more prominent names known to be of interest to Canada’s team.
Amidst all of these targets, the Blue Jays’ biggest pre-lockout strike was a player who had been on the club’s radar for years. GM Ross Atkins had tried to sign Kevin Gausman in each of the past two offseasons, and the third time was the charm — at the cost of a five-year, $110MM contract. Gausman would’ve obviously come much cheaper two winters ago when he was coming off a tough 2019 season with the Braves and Reds, but after two outstanding seasons with the Giants, he’d put himself into the top tier of available arms. At least through four starts of the 2022 season, Gausman has continued to pitch like an ace, showing early signs that his good form can carry over to the tough AL East.
The Blue Jays also moved to lock up an in-house member of their starting staff, extending Jose Berrios for a seven-year, $131MM pact. The deal kept Berrios off the 2022-23 free agent market, and reinforced the belief that the Jays already showed in the right-hander by giving up prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson to acquire Berrios from the Twins at last summer’s trade deadline.
Berrios and manager Charlie Montoyo were the only extensions of note during the Toronto offseason, apart from the club’s two-year pact with trade acquisition Matt Chapman over his two remaining arbitration years. It seems as though the Blue Jays have yet to really dive into serious extension talks with either Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Bo Bichettebut with both players controlled through 2025, the clock isn’t ticking too loudly for a long-term deal to be immediately reached.
Once the lockout was over, the Jays added another piece of the rotation puzzle by signing Yusei Kikuchi to a three-year, $36MM deal. It was an intriguing bet on a pitcher who was quite inconsistent over his first three Major League seasons, with the 2021 campaign acting as a microcosm of Kikuchi’s duality. An outstanding first half earned the southpaw a trip to the All-Star Game, yet he struggled so much in the second half that the Mariners (who were fighting for a wild card berth) skipped him in the rotation in the last week of the season .
In essence, the Jays are hoping that pitching coach Pete Walker can straighten out Kikuchi in the same manner that Ray and Matz were revived after coming to Toronto. As a bit of a hedge, the front-loaded nature of Kikuchi’s contract (he’ll earn $16MM in 2022) could make him a bit easier to eventually unload if he does continue to struggle.
Turning to the bullpen, the Jays made both a notable investment and a lower-cost signing that they hope will pay dividends. Yimi Garcia was added for $11MM to bring some more experience to the Blue Jays’ fleet of setup men, while David Phelps offers some of that same veteran stature at the lower price of $1.75MM (after Toronto selected Phelps’ minor league contract). 2021 was another injury-marred season for Phelps, who missed all of 2018 recovering from Tommy John surgery and was then limited to 65 1/3 innings over the 2019-21 seasons.
With some holes on the pitching staff filled, the question of how to replace Semien stood out as perhaps the biggest issue facing the Blue Jays after the lockout. The Santiago Espinal/Cavan Biggio tandem was penciled in for either second or third base, depending on which infield position Toronto chose to address with a new addition.
That new add came at the hot corner, as the Blue Jays took advantage of the Athletics’ fire sale by picking up Matt Chapman for a package of four younger players. Gunnar Hoglund was one of the top prospects in Toronto’s farm system, but since the 2021 first-rounder is coming off Tommy John surgery, the Jays might have considered him more valuable as a trade chip than as a building block. The other three players dealt (Kevin Smith, Zach Logue, Kirby Snead) are controllable and more ready to play in the majors, with Smith standing out as an interesting pickup for Oakland considering his own high ceiling and prospect status. Surely the bonus of those two QO compensation picks played into the Jays’ thinking in trading from their prospect depth, especially considering the MVP-candidate production Chapman displayed in 2018-19.
At his best, Chapman is one of the game’s best all-around players, combining Platinum Glove-winning defense with above-average offense. That bat hasn’t been as dangerous in 2020-21, however, as Chapman has seemingly struggled due to a hip injury that required surgery in September 2020. In the small sample size of the 2022 season’s first 18 games, Chapman isn’t walking much or generating huge power. He’s cut down on his strikeouts a bit, however, and his hard-contact rate and exit velocity are back in line with his pre-injury numbers.
Considering how many other notable position players the Jays were reportedly exploring, it will make some interesting “what if” debates if Chapman replicates his 2021 struggles. For instance, Jose Ramirez was rumored to be a Jays trade target for years, and Toronto was never quite able to put together an offer that swayed the Guardians into dealing the All-Star. (As it turned out, Ramirez stayed put entirely by signing an extension that stands as the largest contract in Cleveland’s franchise history.)
Adding a switch-hitter like Ramirez, or a left-handed bat like Seager, Freeman, or Schwarber would’ve made for a smoother fit at least from a lineup balance standpoint, considering how the Jays’ ideal starting lineup is almost entirely right- handed. To address this issue, Toronto focused on adding left-handed hitters to its bench, trading for Raimel Tapia, Bradley Zimmer, and Zack Collins in a trio of swaps.
The Tapia deal was the highest-profile of the bunch, as he and infield prospect Adrian Pinto were acquired from the Rockies for Randal Grichuk and a little over half of the $18.66MM owed to Grichuk through the 2023 season. Reports surfaced in December that the Blue Jays had also looked into moving Grichuk to the Brewers for Jackie Bradley Jr., another left-handed hitter (though known more for his standout defense). Grichuk is off to a scorching (if likely BABIP-aided) start in Colorado, yet after three lackluster seasons in Toronto, the outfielder began to look like an expensive spare part.
If Grichuk does benefit from a change of scenery, the Jays are hoping the same is true for Tapia, Zimmer, and Collins, who were all well-regarded prospects who never broke out with their original teams. As it has turned out, all three players have seen more action than expected in the early going, due to oblique injuries for both Teoscar Hernandez and Danny Jansen. Collins has in particular blossomed with this extra playing time, as he has even received some DH at-bats as the Blue Jays have endeavored to keep him in the lineup.
Losing Hernandez, Jansen, Hyun Jin Ryuand Nate Pearson to the injured list hasn’t done much to slow the Blue Jays down in April, and the team is thus far living up to the high expectations shared by the players, the front office, and the Toronto fanbase. Given how the Jays clearly have their eyes on a championship, it seems certain that more upgrades are still to come prior to the trade deadline, and the rotation already stands out as a potential area of need in light of Ryu’s health issues and rough outings on the mound.
In the same way that Chapman will be (fairly or unfairly) compared to other star players the Jays “could have” landed instead, Gausman and Kikuchi will be competing in some sense against Verlander, E-Rod, and such pitchers the Blue Jays reportedly discussed in trade talks, such as the Reds’ Tyler Mahle or Luis Castillo. However, Toronto is hoping that Ross Stripling can fill in for Ryu, and that Pearson can eventually get healthy and provide some extra rotation depth — at least until more reinforcements can be added at the trade deadline.
The team’s approximate $172.3MM payroll is a franchise high, though also not too far beyond what the Blue Jays were spending as recently as 2017. While a splurge into the $200MM threshold seems unlikely, there hasn’t been any indication that the Jays have hit the top end of their budget, so some payroll space will quite probably be available for more in-season additions.
The good news for the Jays is that even as presently configured, the roster looks like a contender. While nothing can really be ruled out for a team in win-now mode, much of the heavy lifting has already been done over the offseason to reinforce an already strong core.