Blue Jays: The right time to chase a Canadian free agent

The Blue Jays will likely look to add to their starting rotation this off-season, and there may be a Canadian hurler well worth trying to sign.

Based on most expectations, I think we should consider the 2020 season a successful one for the Toronto Blue Jays. They went from a 67-win team in 2019 (.414) to a 32-28 (.533) club this year during the shortened season, and their talented young core took some important steps.

Now that they’ve tasted some success and shown the front office that they’re moving in the right direction, it’s expected that the Blue Jays could be fairly aggressive this winter while looking to push this group another step forward in 2021. The greatest need remains in the starting rotation, and while I expected that the Jays will try to re-sign some of their own, there’s another arm that intrigues me a great deal that could be a free agent, and that’s James Paxton.

With the recent exception of Russel Martin coming to Toronto ahead of the 2015 season, I usually roll my eyes when I read reports of their pursuing Canadian baseball players. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in the talent of Canadians and think there will be more playing at the highest level in the years ahead, but it often feels like the Blue Jays are reaching a bit. It’s a story that sells pretty easily, but at the end of the day, I don’t really care where a player is born as long as they can play.

As for Paxton, he’s proven himself as a valuable MLB commodity over the years, provided he’s been healthy. That’s been a bit of a problem for him in recent years, and he only made five starts for the Yankees in 2020, but it’s not enough to make me think the Blue Jays will shy away, for a few reasons. He did make 29 starts in 2019 after producing 28 the year before, so it’s not as if he’s a chronic injury case, but he has had some back trouble, which can be cause for concern.

That being said, I almost feel like his questionable health could work in the favour of the odds of Paxton landing in Toronto. It’ll almost certainly drive down his value on the open market, which could allow the Blue Jays to make him an offer and still pursue someone like Taijuan Walker as well. And in the event that Paxton does struggle to stay healthy, the Blue Jays have a fair bit of depth in their starting stables, even if next year’s rotation is pretty up in the air. Beyond Hyun Jin Ryu, Nate Pearson, Ross Stripling, and Tanner Roark, they’ll have depth in the form of Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather, Ryan Borucki, Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch, and more. They can afford to take a high-upside risk, at least as things stand right now.

I also love the idea of plucking an asset away from the Yankees, who might be in a position where they have to let Paxton walk regardless. There’s no doubt that they can afford to sign whomever they want, but all teams across the team have shown that they want to avoid the higher tiers of the luxury tax, including the Yankees. After shelling out more than 243 million for their roster iin 2020 (pre-prorated salaries), and also wanting to re-sign others like Masahiro Tanaka and DJ LeMahieu, they won’t be able to keep everyone.

As an eight-year veteran with a 57-33 record, a 3.58 ERA and a 1.213 WHIP over 136 starts and 753.1 innings, Paxton could slot nicely near the top of the rotation for the Blue Jays, both in 2021 and likely for a few years beyond that. He’ll turn 32 next month, and as long as he can avoid the IL, there’s an argument that he’ll still be in his prime. He was slated to make 12.5 million before the schedule was shortened, and I suspect that even with a rough season added to the resume that he’ll still seek a small raise. My guess is he’ll still get at least four years and 60-70 million, and that’s a range that I wouldn’t write him off for the Blue Jays either.

Maybe it’s because I was at the Rogers Centre the night that he no-hit the Blue Jays while still in Seattle, or maybe I am just a sucker for a good Canadian story, but there are a lot of reasons why I think the Blue Jays have to at least check in on James Paxton this off-season. It’s a bonus that he happens to be Canadian, and it feels like the right time to try to sign a Canuck again.