The Baseball Winter Meetings begin on December 8th at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront hotel. With an unbuilt rotation, and questions in the outfield and at first base, will Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and his front office contingent use the meetings as an opportunity to make a statement via trade or free agency?
First off, a very Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers and friends in the United States. We all have so much to be thankful for and we hope you have a great time with friends and family.
After the turkey coma, we can look forward to more trades and free-agent signings in the next few weeks as the winter meeting frenzy kicks off. Almost a month already into free agency, top 50 names like Jake Odorizzi, Jose Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, Will Smith, Kyle Gibson, and Drew Pomeranz have already signed contracts.
The Brewers-Padres swap involving four current MLB players, three of whom have yet to even reach arbitration is another sign that the ‘hot stove’ promises to heat up in the next few weeks.
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The Baseball Winter Meetings have played an important role in Jays history, with the trade for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar on December 5,1990 forever altering the course of Blue Jays history. Then GM Pat Gillick had earned the moniker “Stand Pat” after not making any significant trades between September 1987 and April 1989. After winning the AL East in 1989 and finishing in 2nd place in 1990, Gillick pulled the trigger on the Carter/Alomar blockbuster that put in place the final pieces for the 1992 and 1993 World Series titles.
Could Ross Atkins be deserving of the name “Stand Patkins” if he fails to improve his roster, and especially his pitching, in the coming days through the Winter Meetings and Rule 5 Draft to be held on December 12th?
To date this offseason, the front office has made only minor moves; trading for two club options on 32-year old back of the rotation starter Chase Anderson (who the Brewers were rumored to be buying out), picking up reliever Anthony Bass off waivers, and signing reliever A.J. Cole to a minor league deal that effectively swapped a comparable Justin Shafer off the 40-man roster in a trade with the Reds for cash considerations, and added Cole as minor league depth without using a 40-man slot.
None of these signings dramatically improves the talent level of the 26-man roster compared with the Jays 2019 Opening Day roster, which included starter Marcus Stroman.
Pitching, Pitching, Pitching
Following the Jays’ July 2019 trade deadline moves, Mark Shapiro pointed to “waves” of young pitching prospects in the system, and said,
"“In my mind … we’ve got to figure out at a minimum three starters from that entire group in a championship window. And then recognize we’re going to either sign for or trade for a couple of starters … that’s just the reality.“"
He echoed that further, stating that over the next few years, “Clearly starting pitching is the area where we’ve got to spend the bulk of our resources, maybe some bullpen pieces as well.”
As per Keegan Matheson of MLB.com,
"“The Blue Jays turned to 21 different starters in 2019, including a long list of openers and bullpen games as they maneuvered around injuries, poor performance and trades. A team ERA of 5.25 from the starting pitching won’t cut it, and the front office knows that.”"
“We’ll look to add pitching in every possible way,” general manager Ross Atkins said after the season ended. “Free agency is obviously one way. We’ll consider trades if they’re there. We have to continue to think about developing the core that is here. It’s not good enough just to have depth. We have to have guys who can contribute in significant ways.”
Signees Clay Buchholz and Matt Shoemaker, paired with trade acquisition Clayton Richard, cost Toronto a combined $8 million in commitments last offseason. The $8.5 million contract for Chase Anderson already improves upon that dollar amount, but with the added financial flexibility after retained salaries for Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales dropped off, and no further commitments to Justin Smoak, Devon Travis, Ryan Tepera and others, only $77 million or so has been committed so far to the 2020 payroll, including the expected salaries of the thirty-one pre-arbitration and six arbitration-eligible players on the 40-man roster.
That means the front office would need to spend an additional $50 million between now and Opening Day 2020 next March just to get back to their 2019 Opening Day payroll, plus active rosters increase by one to 26 players. That could change further with next Monday’s non-tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players Matt Shoemaker, Brandon Drury, Derek Law, and Luke Maile. They could either be traded or non-tendered and designated for assignment to free up room on the 40-man roster for a Rule 5 Draft pick or two, or for players acquired via free agency and trades.
Naughty or Nice?
With $50 million to spend in the next four months just to equal the 2019 Opening Day payroll, Atkins and his colleagues have a busy few months of shopping ahead. A number of teams, notably the Braves, White Sox and Padres, are addressing needs and a number of free agents have already dropped off the board. Trades are being consummated, and the longer the Blue Jays wait, it becomes less likely they are to find willing trade partners or premium free agent talent.
So what can Jays fans look forward to in terms of an early Christmas present from San Diego? We already got one lump of Cole in our stocking, just not one named Gerrit. Or will we be left with another case of Blue flu “of not bringing attractive players that fans find interesting to their market”?
Shi Davidi of Sportsnet reports the Jays made an offer to right-hander Kyle Gibson before he signed with the Rangers, but it was presumably less than the $30 million over three years Gibson got. They were apparently also in on Jake Odorizzi, too, but their offer obviously wasn’t enough to prevent him from betting on himself getting a better deal next year and accepting the Twins $17.8 million qualifying offer.
With most insiders assuming Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg won’t sign in Toronto, a number of potential top of the rotation free-agent starters still remain on the board, notably Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dallas Keuchel, Cole Hamels, Michael Pineda, Tanner Roark, Julio Teheran and Wade Miley (who Atkins has pursued previously).
Looking back at some of the bigger free agent signings of recent years at the Winter Meetings, there are a number of parallels to suggest that Atkins should be looking to make some bold moves:
Jon Lester: The 2014 Cubs finished 73-89, in last place in the NL Central. President Theo Epstein and his general manager Jed Hoyer had been rebuilding the Cubs since being hired in October 2011. With the arrival of manager Joe Maddon from the Rays, and a young core headlined by Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell & Jorge Soler, and breakout starters Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendriks all pointing towards the opening of their competitive window, the soon to be 31-year old Jon Lester accepted a six year/$155 million free-agent deal to join a club that appeared to be on the cusp of something special. The contract was the largest in Cubs franchise history and gave Lester what was, at the time, the second-largest average annual value (AAV) for a pitcher all time. In 2015, they won a wildcard under Maddon, and by 2016, Lester’s 19-5, 2.44 ERA in 32 regular season starts and pivotal relief in Game 7 helped to end a 108-year World Series title drought.
The Lester signing at the 2014 Winter Meetings, coincidentally also in San Diego that year, came in Epstein and Hoyer’s 4th offseason and announced to the world that their competitive window was open.
C.C. Sabathia: One of the biggest Winter Meetings deals did not actually take place at the Winter Meetings. On day two of the 2008 Meetings at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Yankees GM Brian Cashman left Vegas to fly to the Bay Area to make a final pitch to the big, 28-year old left-hander. A record-setting (at the time) seven-year/$161 million deal got it done, and the Yankees won the 2009 World Series in Sabathia’s first season in New York after he went 19-8 with a 3.37 ERA in 230 innings over 34 starts. At those Winter Meetings, the Yankees also agreed on a 5-year/$82.5 million deal with A.J. Burnett to join Sabathia at the top of a revamped Yankees rotation. Burnett would go 13-9 with a 4.04 ERA over 207 innings in 33 starts.
As co-Chairman Hank Steinbrenner said at the time of the two signings,
"“I can sense the excitement and the confidence that’s spreading around the entire organization about what we’re getting done and what we may get done still. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the confidence and the excitement right now among the team [and organization] is contagious.”"
Jayson Werth: Just as the baseball universe was arriving at the Winter Meetings in Orlando, Florida in December 2010, the Washington Nationals – who had lost 93 games in 2010 – signed 31-year-old Werth to a seven-year/$126 million deal. It was the 13th-richest contract ever at the time of signing and signaled that the Nats were serious about competing again after five 5th place finishes in the previous six seasons after moving from Montreal. Stephen Strasburg had exceeded his rookie limits that season and they’d just drafted Bryce Harper with the 1st overall pick in the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft.
Werth was never an All-Star in Washington, but Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo does credit him with teaching their young core how to win and helping them mature into a division winner and making the playoffs in four of his seven seasons with the club. He also hit what was then the biggest home run in franchise history in the 2012 NL Division Series, although that was surpassed by the heroics of Howie Kendrick, Juan Soto, and friends this year.
Bark with the big dogs, or get off the porch
Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins are now in their fifth offseason in Toronto, They have talked ad nauseum about the importance of adding a top of the rotation starting pitching talent, about a new willingness to spend, and about looking to add pitching in every possible way. By all accounts, they’ve checked-in on multiple players, and gathered the information needed to make educated decisions.
The next few weeks offer a chance to make a splash at the Baseball Winter Meetings via trades, free agency signings, and the Rule 5 draft. Is it time to be bold? Using the models followed in Chicago and Washington, the answer is yes. Adding an innings eater like Burnett and an ace like Sabathia, like the Yankees did in 2008, would also make a strong statement.
So what would mark a successful Winter Meetings to make or break the off-season for GM Ross Atkins?
- Extending closer Ken Giles so that potential free-agent starters know they’ll have a lockdown closer in the bullpen
- Assuming they tender Matt Shoemaker on Monday, they should still be targeting two more rotation spots. Given Shoemaker’s injury history, they should target at least one innings-eater to protect the younger arms, like Wade Miley or Julio Teheran
- A top of the rotation starter like Zack Wheeler, Hyun-Jin Ryu or Dallas Keuchel
- Defensive upgrades at 1B and CF, preferably with veterans who can get on base:
- a deal to bring in Wil Myers (if the Padres pick up half of his remaining contract, as they’re rumored to be willing to do) who played Gold Glove calibre defense at 1B in 2016-17 and sports a career .327 OBP, would help.
- Former Gold Glove CF Ender Inciarte and his career .338 OBP might also be available given the logjam in the Braves outfield.
- Posted Japanese 1B/OF Yoshitomo Tsutsugo could also be of interest
- Catchers Gabriel Moreno and Riley Adams both need to be protected after 2020, so why not move one of them and a back of the rotation starter for Inciarte? Or if you don’t want to trade a pitcher, throw in one of Chavez Young, Kevin Smith or Samad Taylor, who will also need to be protected next year?
Rogers and the Jays front office know from all of their information gathering and failed signings of Odorizzi and Gibson that they are going to have to overpay to attract talent upgrades. And as Andrew Friedman, Dodgers President of Baseball Operations said during the 2016 Winter Meetings: “If you’re always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent.”
The Winter Meetings offer a chance for the Blue Jays ownership and front office to define the start of their competitive window and surround their young core with elite talent. Just promoting rookies from the minors and making low-risk waiver claims, minor trades and reclamation-type free agent signings won’t satisfy a restless fan base that has voted in droves, with the largest year-over-year declines in attendance now for two consecutive seasons.
Ross Atkins and his staff should be turning over every rock they can looking for potential talent upgrades. If he’s satisfied with this 40-man roster and doesn’t make a significant trade or signing, then we’ve got bigger issues.
Heading into the Baseball Winter Meetings this year, the Jays brain trust finds themselves in a similar position as the 2010 Washington Nationals and the 2014 Chicago Cubs. Money isn’t an issue with at least $50 million to spend just to maintain the 2019 Opening Day payroll. The young core needs protection in the line-up and veteran leadership that can help teach them how to win at the MLB level. Veteran starters who can eat innings and mentor young guns like Nate Pearson, Alek Manoah, and Simeon Woods-Richardson are essential. The time to act is now.