The New York Yankees acquired one of the best hitters in the game earlier this week. Juan Soto has the best eye in baseball, leading the NL in walks each of the past three seasons. He’s coming off a 2023 year of 35 home runs, 109 RBI and an OPS of .930 (OPS+ 158, 58 percent above league-average), with a 5.5 bWAR.
The 25-year-old gives the Yankees one of the best offensive outfields in baseball alongside 2022 AL MVP Aaron Judge and the recently-acquired Alex Verdugo. As former MLB infielder and MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa said, “You hit Juan Soto in front of Aaron Judge... I'm taking the subway and I'm going to the game."
Soto is a likely only a one year rental for the upcoming season; his agent, Scott Boras, has a long history of pushing his superstar clients to test free agency. But he would have filled two key needs for the Blue Jays: a left fielder, allowing Daulton Varsho to move to center field, and a powerful left-handed bat in a heavily right-handed hitting lineup after the losses of Brandon Belt and Kevin Kiermaier.
Steamer projects him as the best player in baseball in 2024, slightly ahead of Judge, with 6.4 WAR over 666 plate appearances. It is his walk year after all, so he should have every incentive to perform.
Could Toronto have bettered NY’s offer for Soto?
The Padres received pitchers Michael King, Johnny Brito, Randy Vásquez, prospect Drew Thorpe (No. 99 on MLB Pipeline’s top-100) and catcher Kyle Higashioka.
But according to Jon Heyman of the NY Post prior to the Soto trade being consummated, “Word is the Padres [had] offers from about five teams for Soto… Complicating matters is that two of those teams are thought to be finalists for Ohtani… Those two teams are believed to be the Blue Jays and Giants, who appear to be among Ohtani finalists.”
Given San Diego’s clear need for starting pitching in 2024 after Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove, would a hypothetical Blue Jays package of Alek Manoah, Bowden Francis, Nate Pearson, Danny Jansen and Connor Cooke have trumped the Yankees offer for Soto and Trent Grisham?
Let’s remove emotion and consider such a package analytically using Steamer projections:
King vs. Manoah
King will be a free agent after the 2025 season, and is projected by Steamer to put up a 2.0 WAR over 144 innings in his age-29 season in 2024, including 23 starts. That compares with Manoah, who won’t be a free agent until after the 2027 season, and is projected at a 0.9 WAR over 126 innings and 23 starts in his age-26 season.
Manoah has a 3.32 ERA in 70 MLB starts covering 395.2 innings, with 386 strikeouts and 150 walks; his career ERA+ of 124 is 24 percent better than the average MLB pitcher over the last three seasons, and of course, Manoah was also a Cy Young finalist in 2022 before regressing badly in 2023.
King has a 3.38 ERA in 115 appearances over 5 seasons, including 19 starts and 247.2 innings, with 282 strikeouts against 83 walks, with an ERA+ of 126, i.e.. 26 percent better than an average MLB pitcher.
Given two more team years of control, the fact he’s three years younger than King, and a likely higher ceiling given a better resume as a starter if he can return to a reasonable facsimile of his rookie year or 2022 form, Manoah would have been a better return than King for a year of Soto.
Higashioka vs. Jansen
Both catchers are in their final year of arbitration eligibility and could potentially be free agents after next season should they not sign extensions. Steamer projects a WAR of 1.2 for Higashioka in his age 34 season in 2024. They project a 2.1 WAR for Danny Jansen in his age 29 season.
The advantage here again is with the potential Toronto offer given Jansen’s higher potential output and the five year age difference, which could mean potentially lower injury risk?
Brito vs. Francis
In his rookie season, Brito went 9-7 in 25 appearances for the Yankees, including 13 starts. He had a 4.28 ERA and 4.74 FIP in 90.1 innings pitched, and he was much better out of the bullpen, with a 1.43 ERA with a solid 24.3 percent strikeout rate in relief. Steamer projects that he will reproduce his 0.4 WAR again in 2024 in his age 26 season. He also still has two minor league options.
Francis is only projected to add a WAR of 0.1 in his age 28 season next year. He could be stretched out as a starter after making 7 starts for AAA Buffalo this year, but he had success as a reliever in 2023, with a 1.73 ERA and 3.86 FIP over 36.1 innings. He has one minor league option remaining.
This comparison likely favours the Yankees given Brito is younger and has more options.
Vásquez vs. Pearson
Also a rookie in 2023, Vásquez posted a 2.87 ERA and 4.98 FIP in 37.2 MLB innings, which included 5 starts. He struck out nearly 27 percent of batters faced in 17 starts with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year, and is projected to deliver a 1.1 WAR over 23 starts in his age 25 season in 2024. He has two minor league options remaining, and is still rookie-eligible so is technically still a prospect.
Nate Pearson was a top-10 prospect ahead of the 2020 season, but is now 27-years old and has failed to live up to expectations. Steamer projects a 0.2 WAR in 2024, and while the stuff is tantalizing, the control is not, as evidenced by a 9.9 percent walk rate this year. In parts of three seasons, Pearson owns a 5.00 ERA and 5.36 FIP over 75.2 innings, with 79 strikeouts vs. 43 walks. He has one option left.
At this stage, Vásquez probably trumps Pearson thanks to age, performance metrics, and the fact that Pearson is arbitration eligible and only has three years of team control left versus six years for Vásquez, who is pre-arbitration eligible and therefore cheaper.
Thorpe vs. Cooke
Toronto appears unwilling to deal top prospect Ricky Tiedemann, their 21-year-old lefty who was named the Arizona Fall League Pitcher of the Year. He’s the second-highest ranked southpaw on MLB Pipeline’s top 100 ranking, and No. 31 overall.
Which means the Yankees offer of No. 99 MLB ranked prospect Drew Thorpe would have trumped any pitching prospect the Blue Jays were willing to part with. The 23-year-old Thorpe was named the Pitching Prospect of the Year Award at the MiLB Awards Show, and has a 65-grade changeup to go with 55-grade control on an 80-grade scouting scale.
That allowed him to lead all Minor League pitchers in 2023 with 182 strikeouts and helped him to the fourth lowest ERA (2.52) among qualified full-season pitchers over 139.1 innings, with an 11.76 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 rate. He made 5 starts at Double-A Somerset where he went 4-0 with a 1.48 ERA over 30.1 innings, with 44 strikeouts against only 5 walks.
We’ve added 24-year-old Connor Cooke to the Blue Jays potential package for comparative purposes given Baseball America recently named him as Toronto’s 10th-best prospect, and the fact that he features both a 60-grade fastball, which tops out at 98 mph, and slider, which Baseball America ranks as the best in the entire Blue Jays organization.
Where does this leave the Blue Jays?
Both New York and Toronto have the financial flexibility to take on Soto’s projected $33M arbitration award for 2024, as well as the $4.9M award expected for two-time Gold Glover Trent Grisham. However, after losing backup catcher Tyler Heineman off of waivers to the Mets, the Blue Jays are down to just Alejandro Kirk and Jansen as catching depth on the 40-man roster. The Yankees have five catchers on their 40-man.
While including Manoah and Jansen might have swayed the Padres to consider a Jays offer for Soto over King and Higashioka from the Yankees, the other three pitchers involved were all probably better than anything the Blue Jays were willing to offer. And without Tiedemann included, the Yankees offer was likely better than our hypothetical Jays offer above.
Certainly, AL East teams are working hard to improve themselves this offseason. Soto gives the Yankees a strong hitting lineup with two potential MVP talents now, including Judge. They’ve also added outfielder Alex Verdugo and Trent Grisham. The Orioles, who’ve already signed Craig Kimbrel, and Yankees are both rumored to have interest in former Jays reliever Jordan Hicks. And the Red Sox just added Canadian slugger Tyler O’Neill from the Cardinals.
Another valid concern is that the quality of free agent position players drops off pretty steeply after Shohei Ohtani and Cody Bellinger. Could Toronto pursue a reunion with Gold Glove third baseman Matt Chapman, despite the fact he was a big part of the flawed offence this season?
They also need left-handed power to balance out a heavily right-handed lineup, so could they swing a trade for 32-year-old Christian Yelich from the Brewers despite his no-trade clause, and the fact he’s owed $136.5M through 2028 in his age 36 season?
Or could they sign a left-handed hitting free agent like outfielders Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario or Michael Brantley to play left field? Do any of those players improve this club dramatically over lefty-swinging Kiermaier and Belt? It comes down to whether or not the Jays have a big left-handed bat like Ohtani or Bellinger to replace Belt and Kiermaier, and leads to legitimate questions about whether this is going to be a better team in 2024 and beyond.
If the Blue Jays were to regress in 2024, then beat reporters and analysts are going to be talking about realizing value for Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., before they likely walk as free agents after the 2025 season. The competitive window is perilously close to closing without an addition like Ohtani, Soto or Bellinger. If the Jays miss on them all, we could be discussing how Bo and Vlad will only return compensatory draft picks if they’re not traded before becoming free agents in two years.