Blue Jays should have used the Marcus Semien money on starting pitching
When the Blue Jays signed Marcus Semien to a 1 year, $18 million deal in January, I was pretty bullish on the deal on the contingency that they would still spend money on starting pitching. As it turned out, that signing ate the rest of the Blue Jays budget for the offseason. Considering that the Blue Jays have one of the best positional outlooks in baseball and a clogged infield, it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that they bolstered the biggest strength of the team while neglecting the starting rotation (besides adding minor back-end pieces like Robbie Ray and Steven Matz)
Going into spring training, the Jays already had one of the worst rotations in baseball on paper. Even with a Cy Young finalist (Ryu) and top pitching prospect (Pearson) in 2020, they still finished a measly 24th in starting rotation ERA. It only adds insult to injury that Nate Pearson aggravated a groin injury in a bullpen session a few days ago while depth option Thomas Hatch left the game on Wednesday with an elbow scare and what looked like a potential “Tommy John” injury. As it currently stands, the opening day rotation is expected to be some combination of Hyun Jin Ryu, Robbie Ray, Steven Matz, Tanner Roark and Ross Stripling to fill in for Nate Pearson while he rehabs.
In my view, the issue with the Blue Jays rotation isn’t depth, it is quality. The club has diluted their pitching with back-end options over the past few years like Ray, Matz and Roark while completely neglecting the need for quality innings. So I revert back to my original statement, why pay $18 million to a guy who plays in the middle infield, which wasn’t a huge need. Its also a little sketchy that besides 2019, he has produced a sub-100 OPS+ his entire career.
There were a couple starters that the Blue Jays could’ve acquired this season with the $18 million AAV (or less) given to Semien. Here are a couple options that could’ve improved the rotation significantly.
(1) Taijuan Walker
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Taijuan Walker ended up signing with the Mets for two years, $20 million despite voicing his wishes to come back to Toronto throughout the offseason. Walker is expected to fill Noah Syndergaard’s spot in the rotation while he is on the 60 day IL.
This would’ve been a steal for the Blue Jays. Despite not pitching much in recent years due to injuries, Taijuan Walker probably has the most untapped potential out of any pitcher in free agency this offseason. He is still on the right side of 30 and the eye test definitely warrants his nasty stuff. He is a former top 5 prospect featuring a devastating 90 mph splitter, a hard change up in the upper 80s and a mid 90s fastball, among a few other plus offerings.
The fact that the Jays gave Roark a 2 year, $24 million pact is mind boggling. The guy had a made a career out of being mediocre. I’m not saying the Jays could’ve got Walker for 2 years, $20 million like the Mets but if he’d accept an offer anywhere near that, then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that they didn’t push harder to sign a starter of his stature.
(2) Yu Darvish
Yu Darvish and his $22 million for 2021 was transferred from the Cubs to the Padres for veteran innings eater, Zach Davies and four no-name prospects. Most people saw this deal as more of a salary dump by the Cubs, considering the meagre return.
Darvish had a very good year in 2020, finishing as the NL Cy Young runner-up with an ERA of 2.01. Seeing as the Jays were among the most aggressive spenders in baseball this offseason, this acquisition would have been a no brainer, especially because the conservative Blue Jays front office wouldn’t have had to give up a top prospect and they easily would have been able to afford the contract (assuming that they nix the Semien signing in this scenario). In terms of the “Zach Davies” part of the package, the Blue Jays have a treasure box of back end depth that they could’ve matched to Zach Davies like Tanner Roark or Ross Stripling.
In all fairness, Yu Darvish has a no trade clause in place but he has shown interest in playing in Toronto in the past. That’s not to say that he would’ve chosen Toronto but I felt like the front office should have at least been more engaged in trade talks. Given the ask for the Cubs, this would’ve been a perfect trade scenario for the Blue Jays.
(3) Corey Kluber
Corey Kluber ended up signing with the Yankees for 1-year and $11 million. Despite only making eight starts between 2019-2020, Corey Kluber has one of the best resumes over the past seven years. He took home the Cy Young award in 2017 and 2014 and in his most recent healthy season, he tossed a full 33 starts and finished as a Cy Young finalist.
It makes very little sense that the Jays had virtually no contact with Corey Kluber over the course of the offseason. Sure, he has been very hurt over the past few years, but Kluber’s situation sort of mirrors Marcus Semien. After having a career year where he finished 3rd in MVP voting, Semien fell back to reality with his career sub-100 OPS+ but the Jays still paid him because the upside is there. Well, with Corey Kluber, he is only one extra year removed from being elite but he was also one of the best pitchers in baseball for a 5-year stretch while Semien has only done it for one year. If the Blue Jays really wanted a high upside, bounce back candidate, then they would’ve been much better off going after the guy who has two Cy Young awards since 2014.
If the Blue Jays were able to make this signing for anywhere near what the Yankees paid, then they’d still have a couple million leftover to allocate to an elite reliever. That would’ve been a much better allocation of resources in terms of team needs than signing the middle infielder, Marcus Semien.
Honourable Mention: Blake Snell
Blake Snell would be great and all but given the competitive landscape of the American League East, Blue Jays fans have to realize the Rays were never going to trade Snell in an inter-division trade. To make things a little more uncomfortable for the Blue Jays front office, they probably would’ve had to throw in a tier one pitching prospect as the Padres gave up top prospect Luis Patino to make the trade happen.
For the Jays, it probably would’ve meant giving up Simeon Woods Richardson or Alek Manoah, both of whom were acquired in the past two years through trade and the draft, respectively. Jays GM, Ross Atkins has been very conservative with top prospects since the beginning of his tenure. Everything considered, this trade was never realistic for the Blue Jays.