Blue Jays: Which free agent pitcher should they overpay?

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 21: (L-R) Rich Hill #44, Hyun-Jin Ryu #99 and Kenta Maeda #18 look on during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Dodger Stadium on August 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 21: (L-R) Rich Hill #44, Hyun-Jin Ryu #99 and Kenta Maeda #18 look on during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Dodger Stadium on August 21, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /
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If the Jays are looking to enhance their 2020 rotation through free agency, they will likely have plenty of competition.  Which free agent should they target – and overpay?

The Jays’ young position players are looking pretty goodeven the ones who are not looking good.   But the rotation (and to a lesser extent, the bullpen) is still a work in process.  There are some promising young arms arriving in the second and third waves. but those arms are still a few years off, and even with Nate the Great possibly arriving in 2020 the Jays could use a little rotation help in the near-to-mid term.

That help could come via trade, but the prospect price would likely hurt.  It could come through an international signing, but there does not appear to be an Ohtani or Darvish on the market this offseason.

Which brings us to free agents.

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto has historically had difficulty in attracting top-tier free agent pitchers.  Some say it is because of the Rogers Centre, largely considered to be a hitters’ park.  Some say it is the division – facing the Yankees and Red Sox (and now the Rays) 57 times a year can do unpleasant things to a pitcher’s ERA.  Some say it is the Canadian taxes or the Jays’ lack of contender status, and some think it is simply a case of mass sacculacophobia (fear of milk in bags).  In any event, it is likely that Toronto would have to overpay to attract a top FA pitcher.

Which begs the questions:  which pitcher, and how much?

For purposes of this thought experiment, I have assumed that it would cost the Jays one more year at the contract’s AAV to sign a FA pitcher than the pitchers would get elsewhere.  Since in each case it is highly likely that the last year of the contract would be a substantial overpay, this extra year at full AAV should be significant.

Ready?

Gerrit Cole

Let’s start at the top.  Cole is the premiere FA pitcher in the 2019-20 class (likely the top FA period).  He is projected to earn something between Steven Strasburg’s 7 years and $175 million and David Price‘s 7/$217m.  So say Cole is worth 7/$200m, which means that (using my completely unfounded and arbitrary AAV+1) it would take 8/$230m – the largest FA contract ever given to a pitcher – for Toronto to sign him.

Don’t hang up yet.

$230 million is a lot of money, and in his 8th year, Cole would be 36 years old.  But $30m in 2027 is not the same as $30m in 2019, and a 2021 rotation headed by Cole + Pearson + Manoah could be highly drool-worthy.  And the advantage of having so many young players is that the Jays’ payroll will have the room to absorb a Cole.  Would the Jays make a gamble of this magnitude, and would Cole come north if it made him the highest-paid FA pitcher ever?

Madison Bumgarner

MadBum is no longer the beast that he was from 2010-2016, but his 2019 SIERA of 4.06 and his 3+ WAR position him as a strong #3 or marginal #2 starter.  And he will play most of 2020 at age 30, so a free agent deal in the 4/$80m range is likely.  Which means that, with my AAV+1 premium, the Jays would have to offer 5/$100m to compete.

No question, MadBum is worth having.  But the “name-value” is high – so high that some other team might be inclined to overpay.  And it appears that Bumgarner’s likely future is in the 4 ERA, third starter range – which is not really what the Jays need.

Zack Wheeler

Wheeler is having a somewhat disappointing 2019, with a 4.40 ERA (4.10 SIERA).  His time on the IL with “shoulder fatigue” is also troubling, though he will start the 2020 season at only 29 years old.   He has the potential advantage of not coming with a qualifying offer, though that is far from certain.  He is projected to get something like Nathan Eovaldi money – 4 years and $68 million – so say 5/$85m for the Jays.

The wild card for Wheeler is his injury history.  That and his strong-#3-starter ceiling make him a questionable fit for the Jays.

Hyun-Jin Ryu

Ryu is arguably one of the most underrated starters in baseball, with a career ERA under 3.00.  He is projected to get a deal similar to Rich Hill’s 3/$48m, so the Jays would have to offer something in the 4/$64m range.

Not a terribly expensive price.  But Ryu will be 33 years old in 2020, and his ERA has consistently been substantially less than his xFIP and SIERA – in fact, in 2019 his SIERA of 3.86 is almost double his 2.00 ERA.   Still, he could be a valuable bridge to the second and third waves of Jays pitching prospects, and if he could maintain anything close to his 2018-2019 production he would be a top-of-rotation option for the Jays.  Ryu accepted a qualifying offer for the 2019 season, so he would not have one this offseason.  For all of these reasons, he would be my preferred target.

Jake Odorizzi

Jake is having a strong 2019, with a 3.57 ERA and a 3.0 WAR so far.  But his advanced stats are unkind, with a xFIP of 4.71 and a SIERA of 4.45, and he is coming off two years of 4-plus ERA.  Fangraphs suggests that Jake might “fail to reach the new standard of four years and $68MM set by Nathan Eovaldi and Miles Mikolas“.  So say he earns 4/$60m, which would mean 5/$75m by the Jays.

I see Jake as similar to MadBum, but without the name value.  A potentially strong #3, but with limited upside beyond that.  I see the Jays as needing something stronger, and so I see Odorizzi as a questionable fit.

The wild card – Steven Strasburg

Strasburg can opt-out of his 7/$175m contract at the end of the 2019 season, leaving 4/$100m on the table.  He is having an excellent 2019, with a 3.65 ERA and even stronger advanced stats – a 3.34 xFIP and a 3.61 SIERA.  I am going to break my own rules and suggest that, *if* Strasburg were to opt-out, it would take Chris Sale-level money (5/$145m) to sign him.

Would the Jays be tempted at that price?  Well, Strasburg will turn 32 in the 2020 season so a five-year deal would run through his age-36 season.  And with his history of injury added to age-related decline, the risk of disappointment is very real.  That said, Strasburg is exactly what the Jays need – a true #1 starter – and five years of Steven might be more attractive than eight years of Gerrit.

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The bottom line

In my view, if the Jays pursue the free agent option, they should set their sights higher than a solid #3 starter with a 4.00 ERA and 180+ innings, unless they can get an exceptional bargain.  A Cole or Strasburg would be ideal, or a player like Ryu with top-of-rotation upside, even if the Jays do have to overpay.

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