Blue Jays: Why free agents want to return to Toronto

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 4: Matt Shoemaker #34 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during a game against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on August 4, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 4: Matt Shoemaker #34 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during a game against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park on August 4, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

It sounds like a few of the Blue Jays’ pending free agents are interested in returning. What does the franchise have going for them to make that the case?

As the Blue Jays front office looks ahead to the off-season, they can take comfort in knowing that most of the core of their current roster is under contract control for several years. However, there are still a few key contributors set to hit the free agent market, and some decisions to be made from Ross Atkins and company.

Arguably the greatest need this off-season is in the starting rotation, which is also the area that the Blue Jays could lose the most players as free agents. As of now, the list of pending free agent starters includes Taijuan Walker, Matt Shoemaker, Robbie Ray, and maybe Chase Anderson as well if the Jays choose not to exercise his 9.5 million dollar option for 2021. My guess is they’ll try to retain at least one of them and likely more, and fortunately the Blue Jays have a few things going for them in that regard.

The most important part? It sounds like the veteran pitchers have had positive experiences during their Blue Jay tenures. Earlier this month Sportsnet’s Alex Seixeiro tweeted that both Walker and Ray loved their time in Toronto (or rather, Buffalo, I suppose), implying that they could both be retainable if the interest was mutual. That was followed by Shoemaker making an appearance on “the Good Show” this week, speaking highly of the organization and also making it clear that he’ll consider a reunion.

"“I just want to go to a team that’s just hungry, right? And the Jays are hungry, man. Like, we’ve got this really young team who just love the game, fiery players, really talented.”"

After many years as a tougher free agent destination to sell, has anything changed for the Blue Jays?

Other than dollars and cents, the most important factor for a lot of free agents is going somewhere that they’ll have a chance to win, just as Shoemaker described. For the Jays, they just jumped from a 67-win team in 2019 (.414 winning percentage), to a 32-28 squad (.522) that qualified for the expanded post-season. Their roster also features some extremely talented young players that haven’t even come close to reaching their potential yet, like Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and many others. It’s not hard to see that the future should be very bright in Toronto, and that makes for an attractive situation to sign up to join.

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A few days ago I wrote about how I was a little concerned about Charlie Montoyo’s usage of the starters in 2020, and whether or not that could deter potential free agents from considering the Blue Jays. It would appear that it’s not an issue at all, at least for three veteran pitchers with a recent first-hand experience. I feel like that says a lot for Montoyo, and for pitching coach Pete Walker. I wondered if their more modern analytical approach could turn off some veterans, but I’m sure there are pros and cons with that as well. I’m also willing to admit that sometimes I’m just flat-out wrong with some speculation.

It also helps a lot that the Blue Jays should have plenty of budget available for the next few seasons, especially as guys like Bichette, Guerrero Jr., and more remain on pre-arbitration eligible contracts. That could be a huge advantage after a season that saw there being no ticket revenue for teams across the league, and players and their agents are aware of which teams could be potential spenders. It doesn’t hurt that they forked out 80 million to sign Hyun Jin Ryu to a four-year contract last winter either, showing a willingness to spend. Not that I expect that Blue Jays to go crazy in this regard, but there should be more than enough money to retain all of Walker, Shoemaker, and Ray if they decide that’s best for the future.

Shoemaker and others also spoke of a positive clubhouse atmosphere through the 2020 season, and when you add that to a team with a bright future and available payroll, suddenly Toronto becomes a lot more attractive to free agents. There will always be some players that want to avoid the AL East and the likes of the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox, but with talent a lot more evenly distributed around baseball these days, it’s not the deterrent it once was.

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These days, I don’t blame free agents for seeing the Blue Jays as a more than viable option, and I’m excited to see if and how Ross Atkins and company can work that to their advantage.