In a recent episode of the JD Bunkis podcast on Sportsnet, MLB editor Ben Nicholson-Smith was blunt in his assessment of whether or not the Blue Jays’ offseason is now over after the Justin Turner signing.
He said, “This is probably the last big move.”
While that may come as a disappointment to Blue Jay fans, let’s unpack it a bit. After signing Turner to a one-year, $13M deal, with $1.5M in potential bonuses and incentives, the Blue Jays’ current luxury tax payroll for 2024 would fall somewhere around $251M, close to the same level as last season’s $258M.
That’s of course pending the Vladimir Guerrero Jr., arbitration hearing, where an arbitrator will either award him the $19.9M he’s filed for, or the $18.05M counter offer by Toronto’s front office. The decision is binary; the arbitrator must choose one or the other.
Given team president Mark Shapiro told us after last season’s disappointing playoff exit that he doesn’t expect “a dramatic philosophical shift in payroll: I expect us to stay in the same area,” just from a luxury tax payroll perspective, there’s not much more capacity to add any more big bats or pitchers to this roster.
With the competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold set at $237M this year, Toronto will trigger the luxury tax again in 2024 after paying a $5.5M tax on last year’s payroll. What that practically means as a tax payor for a 2nd consecutive year is a 30% tax on all overages above the $237M tax threshold, in addition to a 12% surcharge if they exceed that threshold by $20M ~ 40M. Doing the math says they’ll pay a minimum of $4.2M in luxury tax based on the current projected 2024 payroll.
And, as a competitive balance tax payor, Toronto will only receive a compensation pick after the 4th round of the amateur draft should they lose a player who rejected their qualifying offer (QO), like with Matt Chapman assuming he signs with another team. Those picks were at No.’s 132 ~ 137 last year, but will likely come after No. 125 this year given fewer QOs.
Also complicating matters should the Jays still try to sign one of the remaining free agents who rejected a QO after last season - Cody Bellinger or Blake Snell - is the fact that, because Toronto exceeded the CBT threshold in 2023, they would lose their 2nd- and 5th-highest selections in the the 2024 amateur draft, as well as $1M from their international bonus pool for the next signing period.
There’s also the 40-man roster, which is a full once again with the addition of Turner. The Blue Jays currently have 21 pitchers on their 40-man without officially adding Yariel Rodríguez yet, but only two catchers after they outrighted Brian Serven to Triple-A Buffalo. To add anyone else means they’ll have to subtract. Y-Rod will most likely replace one of the pitchers, so who else would lose out in a crunch?
Have the Jays done enough this offseason?
So if the Turner signing is indeed the “last big move” of this offseason, has the front office done enough to prevent this ball club from regressing again from 92 wins in 2022 and 89 wins in 2023, and falling out of the wild card chase in 2024? Clearly divisions rivals in New York, Boston and Baltimore have improved their chances for the upcoming season, and Tampa Bay is always competitive.
A 4th place finish in the AL East is a guarantee of no postseason baseball, so will the addition of Justin Turner, plus internal improvement from Guerrero, George Springer, Alek Manoah, Alejandro Kirk and Daulton Varsho be enough? Or will they waste another year of outstanding pitching and team control of Guerrero and Bo Bichette, who can both leave as free agents after 2025?
The Blue Jays lost 8.3 bWAR from last season with the departures of Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt, Whit Merrifield, Hyun Jin Ryu and Jay Jackson. They’ve since signed Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Turner, which adds back 2.2 bWAR, leaving a deficit of six wins based on the WAR methodology. Rodríguez has never pitched in MLB, and after only throwing 54.2 innings for the Chunichi Dragons in NPB in 2022, he only tossed 7.1 competitive innings in 2023 pitching for Cuba in the World Baseball Classic.
The good health of the pitching staff might not be repeatable - can only six starters make 158 out of 162 starts again after the departure of Ryu? Excluding infielder Ernie Clement and hard luck Hagen Danner, who only pitched 0.1 innings in his MLB debut before he strained his oblique, Toronto only used 24 pitchers last year versus an MLB team average of 28. Do they have enough MLB-ready pitching depth should that prove to be an outlier?
And do Justin Turner and IKF improve upon Brandon Belt and Matt Chapman from last year? Turner had an OPS of .800 versus Belt’s .858, and at age 39, has seen his OPS numbers decline in five of the past six seasons. IKF won a Gold Glove with Texas in 2020, but his OPS was only .646 last year versus Chapman’s .755 on a team with a flawed and mediocre offence.
If Turner can get close to his career batting average of .288 and OPS of .829, with his career averages of 20 home runs and 80 RBI, he’s going to be a solid addition. He’s not going to hit 35 home runs like J.D. Martinez could, or offer the upside of Jorge Soler, who has the potential to hammer 40+ dingers.
Turner is a ‘Hall of Very Good’ player, not a Hall of Famer like Dave Winfield, who in his age 40 season with Toronto hit 26 home runs with 108 RBI, with a slash line of .290/.377/.491/.867 with an OPS+ of 138 versus his career average of 130.
Winfield had a 4.1 bWAR as a DH that year, but was a 12x All-Star, 7x Gold Glover and 6x Silver Slugger. He came 5th in AL MVP voting in his one season in Toronto, and was a Silver Slugger that year. He led the Jays in OPS at .867, ahead of HoF Roberto Alomar, and was 2nd in both home runs and RBI behind Joe Carter. He also had an .899 OPS in the 1992 ALCS with 2 HRs and 3 RBI, and helped the Jays win their first ever World Series.
Of course, the Jays could trade someone off the current roster; however, GM Ross Atkins said they weren't looking to trade anyone off their MLB roster when he spoke to the media early in January. If they win their arbitration hearing against Guerrero, they might have ~$2M to sign some depth pitching, or they might want to leave some payroll capacity for trade deadline additions by July 30th.
But they likely don’t have the capacity to add back Matt Chapman, sign a marquee free agent like Bellinger or Snell, add Jorge Soler on a 3-year, $45M deal with a $15M AAV, or sign J.D. Martinez to a one-year, $20M deal. They likely couldn’t even add an OF like Michael A. Taylor, who Nicholson-Smith thinks would command a $10.5M AAV and want to start everyday.
As Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun concluded, “If it is the GM’s final meaningful foray into improving his team for 2024, it isn’t nearly enough.” Shi Davidi of Sportsnet went so far as to write, “Whether essentially running it back with the same team and expecting a different outcome was the right call will play out in the months ahead.” As the calendar turns to February, we won’t have to wait much longer to see how this does play out.