Entering the offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays had a very clearly defined shopping list: an outfielder who could hit with power from the left side, a third baseman to replace Matt Chapman, and another power bat to replace Brandon Belt. But like anyone who’s shopped at a Trader Joe’s when their new monthly specials first hit the shelves, that focus is now gone.
Team president Mark Shapiro said after the season, “I don’t expect a dramatic philosophical shift in payroll. I expect us to stay in the same area.” That would imply a luxury tax payroll near $257M for 2024, which leaves ~$32M more in annual payroll capacity above a current projected 2024 competitive balance tax (CBT) payroll of $225M after spending $18M so far on Kiermaier and IKF.
Yes, there was a failed attempt to trade for lefty slugger Juan Soto, who ended up with the division rival Yankees. Indeed, Shohei Ohtani’s agent at CAA appears to have used the Blue Jays as a ‘stalking horse’ to drive up his client’s asking price with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And the Jays have legitimately been mentioned as the favourites in the Cody Bellinger free agent sweepstakes.
So what has general manager Ross Atkins done since missing out on Ohtani and Soto? Signed a soon-to-be 37-year old journeyman reliever with a 5.01 career ERA as Triple-A depth in Paolo Espino; re-signed Kevin Kiermaier to run back the same outfield as 2023; and, in a head scratching move, spent $15M of Rogers’ money on year another a right-handed hitting utility infielder with a career OPS of .660 in Isiah Kiner-Falefa.
Yes, Kiermaier hits from their left side, and put up a 3.9 bWAR in 2023, helped by his Gold Glove-winning defence in CF. But he only hit 8 home runs in 129 games, the most he’s played since 2019 with Tampa Bay. He’ll be 34-years old in April, and over a year and a half removed from his 2022 hip surgery.
But he’d also mentioned a desire to play more games on grass ahead of becoming a free agent this year: “Being on the turf my entire career, I enjoy being on the grass. My body feels so much better being on grass.” Kiermaier is what he is at this stage of his career: a mostly glove first guy who will be about league average on OPS, and maybe give you 8~10 home runs if he can play 130 games. That’s the ceiling.
Which brings us to the odd Kiner-Falefa signing. Sportsnet writer Ben Nicholson Smith tweeted that “IKF raises [the Blue Jays] floor because of his versatility.” That’s a stretch given this team’s weakness is offence, and Kiner-Falefa actually lowers the floor in that regard. He’s a 0.1 bWAR player with a career OPS of .660, 19% below league average in his six seasons.
IKF also hits from the right side, with only 26 home runs in six MLB seasons. He’s basically like Santiago Espinal with a better glove and the ability to play the outfield, but lower OPS. Both will be starting their age-29 season in 2024, but Espy has a career OPS of .698, 38 points better than Kiner-Falefa, and is only projected to earn $2.5M in arbitration for 2024 versus a $7.5M AAV for IKF.
Espinal, IKF, Davis Schneider and Ernie Clement are all righ-handed hitting utility infielders. Cavan Biggio hits from the left side. Then add in top infield prospects like Orelvis Martinez, Addison Barger, Leo Jimenez and Damiano Palmegiani, and there’s a very crowded picture, with 9 or 10 players vying for at-bats at 2B and 3B.
None of them are obvious offensive upgrades over Whit Merrifield (.700 OPS and 11 HRs in 2023) and Matt Chapman (4.4 bWAR in 2023 with a .755 OPS and 17 HRs); and like IKF, Biggio, Schneider and Barger can all play OF as well.
As Gregor Chisholm of the Toronto Star wrote, “As the search continues for a big bat, the Blue Jays are killing time by building Major League Baseball's most redundant roster.” Bizarrely, Toronto now carries 12 infielders on their 40-man roster versus only two catchers in Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk, and four outfielders including Kiermaier. Perhaps IKF is the backup plan in CF and at catcher?"
As Blue Jays MLB reporter Keegan Matheson notes on that redundancy, “This move means something, but we won’t know exactly what until we see the Blue Jays’ next move, then the next and the next. They’re doubling down on versatility.” In other words, in isolation, its a meaningless move.
The IKF signing only makes sense if something much bigger is cooking
So with ~$32M more to spend and glaring holes still offensively, where to from here? It’s fair to take Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins at their word that they want to make a big move to extend the current competitive window before Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and Bo Bichette can test free agency after the 2025 season.
Adding IKF as a two year bridge to younger infield prospects like Josh Kasevich and Arjun Nimmala would certainly mean that any of Biggio, Espinal, Schneider, Clement, Martinez, Jimenez, Barger and Palmegiani could be traded given the surplus of utility infielders. The Jays have also been rumoured to be “open” to trading Alek Manoah, George Springer and other prospects.
With the Cleveland Guardians at risk of losing their TV broadcast contract with Diamond Sports Group, could the seven-year, $141M José Ramírez contract be a burden on Ross Atkins’ former colleagues in Ohio? He was a finalist for the AL Gold Glove at 3B behind winner Matt Chapman this year, with a DRS of +1 and OAA of +6, but more importantly, an OPS of .831 which was 31% above MLB average.
The trade simulator at Baseball Trade Values - which is a crude tool to estimate potential trades, suggests the Jays would have to pony up big time to acquire the 31-year old, switch-hitting third baseman who put up a 5.1 bWAR in 2023, while earning his 5th All-Star nod. 12 of his 24 home runs came from the left-side, where he slashed .303/.383/.483/.865 and drove in 49 of his 80 RBI. But would the Jays be willing to part with Manoah, top prospect Ricky Tiedemann, Schneider, Martinez and Jimenez to acquire five years of control of Ramírez?
Again, in isolation the IKF signing is a head scratcher that doesn’t improve this ball club. As constructed today, the roster would be dependent on mean reversion to career averages from Vlad, Springer and Kirk, and improved production from pretty much everyone else. And the front office would also be betting on continued extreme good health from the starting rotation, where six starters made a combined 158 starts in 162 games.
There are still big bats available in free agency - Cody Bellinger, Teoscar Hernandez, Jorge Soler, Rhys Hoskins, Matt Chapman and J.D. Martinez. Besides Ramírez, there are still big bats available on the trade market like Luis Robert Jr., Christian Yelich and Max Kepler.
And ownership could certainly commit to extending some of their young core to franchise record breaking, long term contract extensions, with $300M+ deals for Guerrero and Bichette, and smaller deals for Jansen, Kirk and closer Jordan Romano.
Have faith Blue Jays fans. With 90 days until Opening Day in Tampa Bay, surely these are just peripheral moves to the main event?