While we still have a few weeks before the start of free agency, there are some considerations to keep in mind as the Blue Jays look to replace the +11.1 bWAR from their four offensive free agents in Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt, Kevin Kiermaier and Whit Merrifield.
Based on some of the early ‘hot stove’ chatter from Jays beat pundits like Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith, we can likely assume that improving the offence, over a 2023 lineup that ranked 14th in MLB in runs scored and 16th in home runs and RBI, will be a key focus, with as many as four new bats needed.
Players officially become free agents the day after the World Series wraps. Teams have a five day “quiet period” to negotiate exclusively with their own free agents, but five days after the World Series is the final day to tender a Qualifying Offer (QO) to eligible free agents. Players receiving a QO then have until November 14th at 4 p.m. ET to accept or decline the offer, which is based off the mean salary of the 125 highest paid players in MLB and is expected to be around $20.5M this year.
The trade market also reopens, and after the five days, the free-agent market opens as well. Also important is that players on the 60-day injured list need to be reinstated to the 40-man roster, which includes pitchers Adam Cimber, Hagen Danner and infielder Otto Lopez for Toronto.
The Blue Jays will likely make a qualifying offer to Matt Chapman knowing that he and his agent Scott Boras will be looking for a multi-year deal, and he is unlikely to accept. That would give Toronto a compensatory draft pick assuming he does reject the QO. Given the Jays do not receive revenue-sharing funds from MLB, and because they will pay the competitive balance tax (CBT) on their 2023 payroll, that compensatory pick would come after the 4th round of the 2024 draft. Mark Polishuk of MLBTR notes that in the 2023 draft, these picks fell between 132nd and 137th overall.
As per Polishuk of MLBTR, another added cost of being a CBT payor (i.e. paying a luxury tax on their 2023 payroll) this season is that, if Toronto’s front office signs a free agent who rejected a QO this November, they would have to give up $1M in international bonus pool money, as well as two draft picks — their second and fifth-highest selections in the 2024 amateur draft. If they signed two qualified free agents, as a luxury tax payor, they would also forfeit their next-highest draft picks, i.e. a total of four picks — their second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth-highest selections.
Why is that relevant? Well, some of the best available bats in a thin 2023-24 free agent market are likely to receive qualifying offers, and would therefore trigger the additional penalties. In addition to Chapman, the top candidates amongst hitters to receive a QO are Shohei Ohtani, Cody Bellinger, J.D. Martinez, Teoscar Hernández, Jorge Soler, Rhys Hoskins and possibly old friend Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
There are still some good bats that are ineligible to receive a QO, either because they’d previously received one, or they weren't continuously with an organization, either in the minors or majors, from Opening Day until the end of the regular season this year.
Free agent-to-be hitters who’d previously received a QO include: Brandon Belt, Josh Donaldson, Carlos Santana, Jason Heyward, Michael Conforto, Joc Peterson, AJ Pollock, Justin Turner and Yasmani Grandal. Those likely FAs who were not with the same organization for the full season include C.J. Cron, Jeimer Candelario, Tommy Pham, Amed Rosario, Hunter Renfroe and Harrison Bader.
The Jays were in on Bellinger last offseason, and with Scott Boras as his agent, we can expect the sweet left-handed swinging 2019 NL MVP will be looking for a rich, multi-year contract entering his age 28 season. He put up a +4.4 bWAR in 2023 with 26 home runs and 97 RBI in 130 games and 556 plate appearances, while slashing .307/.356/.525/.881 with an OPS+ of 133. He also led the National League with 12 sacrifice flies, an area where the Blue Jays struggled with only 32 as a team. Those 26 home runs would have tied for the team lead with Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and he would have led the Jays in runs batted in.
Bellinger also has nine home runs and 33 RBI in 69 postseason games, including a pair of home runs and eight RBI in 18 World Series games, all with the Dodgers. He’s ready to cash in after betting on himself with a one-year, $17.5M deal with the Cubs.
We can also dream about signing Shohei Ohtani; or, the triumphant return of Teoscar, who the Jays were rumoured to be pursuing at the trade deadline. But all of those players would cost draft picks and international bonus pool money, while Candelario and Pham wouldn’t cost either. The Jays will likely get one compensatory pick for Chapman, but that would come after the fourth round.