TORONTO — Now 72 hours removed from a heartbreaking, postseason-less finish to the 2021 campaign, the Toronto Blue Jays have a ton of time to figure out where things went wrong.
But the process of looking ahead to 2022 also begins immediately, and this winter promises to be just as intriguing, if not more so, than last off-season when GM Ross Atkins and the Jays were the talk of baseball.
This winter, there’s more of ownership’s money to spend, even more money coming off the books, and the expectation — both internally as well as externally — that this team will take another step forward and not tread water as a good but not great team.
“Obviously, we’re not where we want to be yet,” Atkins said on his end-of-season call Wednesday afternoon. “We need to be playing deep into the playoffs to take that next step, but we do feel the organization has continued to get better and improve and we’re in a better position than we were a year ago as we go into this off-season.”
Here are 10 key questions facing the Blue Jays this off-season, along with Atkins’ take on each subject.
1—What happens with free agents Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien?
Ahh, the million-dollar questions this winter, without a doubt. Or, more accurately, the $100-million-dollar questions.
The two best free-agent signings at any level of the market last winter not only propelled the Jays to their first 90-win season since 2015 and seventh in franchise history, but they also personally rebuilt their value, which was the exact intention when Ray, in November, and Semien, in January, inked one-year pacts.
Exactly how much money did they make themselves?
Well, Ray is going to go from earning $8 million in 2021 and giving the Jays a Cy Young-calibre season to sifting through nine-figure offers at $20-25 million per year.
Semien, on the heels of a 45-homer campaign in his age-30 year, is going to be in the same ballpark annually, and the contract needed to lure George Springer to Toronto last winter might be a good benchmark.
The Jays can afford the average annual value. With all of their young stars due significant raises in the coming years, the question is whether they can swallow the term.
You can only roster so many $100-million players.
ATKINS: “That dialogue will be constant, where we’re talking about their interest, our interest and hoping that they’re aligned … I think it bodes exceptionally well for us that we were a part of such significant years.”
2—How much money is there to spend?
One thing is certain: There’s definitely money to spend on upgrading the roster.
How much, just like every winter, is the question.
Even while enduring the worst situation of all 30 MLB clubs during the pandemic, Jays ownership seems committed to bumping spending once again, just as they’ve done the past two off-seasons in arming the front office with the ability to go above and beyond to lure Hyun Jin Ryu and George Springer.
There’s no doubt they’ll be major players once again, if only because it would make less-than-zero sense to turn the financial spigots off now.
Club president/CEO Mark Shapiro is on record many times, relaying the message from ownership: Winning is the best way to generate revenue.
With a full 81 home games at full capacity currently expected inside Rogers Centre starting next April, another splashy winter coming off a 91-win season would have baseball fans in this country buzzing.
That’s good for business.
This year, the Jays ran an opening day active roster payroll of about $135 million, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, while in-season additions and other calculations along the way got them to about $150 million, per Spotrac.
That placed them 11th in baseball, just ahead of the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox.
The Jays spent about $34 million less than the division-rival Boston Red Sox and $53 million less than the New York Yankees, per Spotrac.
With a number of contracts coming off the books, including the final dollars owed to Troy Tulowitzki, the Jays have extreme financial flexibility with less than $70 million currently committed for 2022 and most of their stars not yet arbitration eligible.
It would not be surprising to see the Jays run an opening day payroll in the range of $150 million, with some resources saved for in-season upgrades once again.
That kind of loot will make them a power player in free agency once again this winter and it gives Atkins & Co. all sorts of options to be creative, just like the Semien signing last year.
ATKINS: “We’ve always had it and Mark has done a remarkable job of every step of the way sharing our vision, helping ownership understand where our focus is, and giving rationale for why we want to do the things that we’re trying to do. We’ve always had that support and expect to have it moving forward.”
3—Depending on what happens with Ray and Steven Matz, there could be two openings in the Jays rotation next spring. Who fills them?
My man Steve Phillips and I will have our top 50 free-agent rankings ready to go once again in early November and there’s currently a deep group of rotation options that will interest the Jays.
From Ray, Kevin Gausman, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard at the top of the market, to Eduardo Rodriguez, Jon Gray, Anthony DeSclafani and Corey Kluber as secondary options, the starting pitcher crop is intriguing.
Of course, the Jays used the trade market to acquire Matz, and that route will be an option once again.
ATKINS: “We actually spend a lot of time thinking individually before we come together as a group. We’ve asked well over 30 very detailed, specific questions to our entire baseball operations group, for them to think individually about how we can improve the team, and then we’ll bring those thoughts and ideas together and discuss them and come up with those lists and those targets that feel make the most sense for everyone.”
4—Who is the opening day third baseman?
As of today, when you look around the diamond, with the Semien decision pending, there’s a clear hole at third base.
Or is there?
After posting a .311/.376/.405 slash line with a pair of homers across 246 plate appearances and making 62 starts at the hot corner, Santiago Espinal’s season deserves some more digging.
It’s very clear he doesn’t have ideal power for the position and fits more as a utility piece, but it’s very likely the Jays try to employ a platoon or two next season, especially if it helps upgrade the defence.
In addition to his ability to get on base at a decent clip and put the ball in play (12.2 per cent K rate), Espinal’s glove stood out.
Defensive Runs Saved assigned him a plus-8 DRS grade at third base, while Statcast’s Outs Above Average had Espinal as the eighth-best defensive third baseman in baseball at plus-5.
There isn’t a ton on the third base market in free agency, but a left-handed hitter with a solid glove to pair with Espinal might be ideal.
ATKINS: “I think that we don’t have to do it, but I think it’s an area where we can (improve). Between Cavan Biggio, Santiago Espinal, Breyvic Valera did a great job, Kevin Smith is an exceptional defender and had a remarkable year in Triple-A … there are ways for us to field teams without signing a third baseman, but it is an area that we will obviously be thinking about in free agency and trade.”
5—Did Bo Bichette show enough progress with the glove to stay at shortstop?
Internally, the Jays seem very confident in Bichette’s work at the most important spot on the diamond and the eye test backed that up as the season went along.
After some initial struggles in April and May, Bichette’s internal clock began slowing down and the 23-year-old started to look calm and confident in the field, allowing him to make all the routine plays.
With the ability to make the spectacular play from time to time, DRS liked Bichette’s work in his first full MLB season, giving him a plus-3 grade across his 1,271.1 innings at the position.
Outs Above Average on the other hand, which is a range-based metric, did not, as Bichette finished 39th in baseball with a minus-6 mark.
Gleyber Torres was minus-9 for the Yankees and that eventually got him bumped to second base in September.
For Bichette, the OAA issue aligns with the eye-test issue.
He was an ugly minus-13 ranging into the hole to his right, one of only two double-digit negative grades amongst the 49 shortstops with enough innings to qualify.
To sum things up, Bichette did show progress defensively, but he’s still far from a finished product.
It’s good enough to avoid the awkward conversation of a potential move to second base.
ATKINS: “He was unbelievable. I think I said it a lot last year, he’s such an easy guy to bet on and believe in as someone that’s going to improve and I think he’s just scratching the surface. It was every day it looked like he was making strides and progress and his foundation was super strong, so that says a lot. We’re obviously committed to him and believe in him and believe he’s going to be a very, very good major-league shortstop for a long time. But we’re open to acquiring other guys who have played a lot of shortstop, as you saw last year.”
6—How do they avoid the same bullpen mistakes this winter?
When the Blue Jays arrived at spring training in February, the plan was to rely on three bullpen holdovers from 2020 and a trio of free-agent signings.
The three signings?
Kirby Yates, David Phelps and Tyler Chatwood.
The first two tossed a combined 10.1 innings — all from Phelps — before going down with season-ending injuries, while Chatwood ran up a 5.46 ERA and imploded in some key spots before being released.
Rafael Dolis, who was so key to the ‘pen in 2020, suffered the same fate, walking 27 batters across his 32 frames.
Lefty Ryan Borucki also found himself demoted to Triple-A after struggling.
Of the six arms the Jays went into the season wanting to rely on, only Jordan Romano met expectations.
With a strong track record of finding under-the-radar bullpen arms — the Jays front office redeemed themselves with the mid-season acquisitions of Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards — we’ll give Atkins a mulligan on this one.
Getting the bullpen right is key this winter, but even with the volatility of relievers, it at least looks like there’s a decent group to build around with Romano, Cimber, Richards, Tim Mayza, and a healthy Julian Merryweather.
If you’re wondering how Nate Pearson will factor in, the 25-year-old will be stretched out this winter and rejoin the rotation competition next spring, but it may not be as a traditional starter due to workload concerns.
ATKINS: “We definitely had a lot more depth in that area towards the end of the year, so having a starting point of Romano, Mayza, Borucki, Cimber, Richards and depending on where things land with Merryweather … we’re hopeful Pearson will be someone who will be more of an extended outing, closer to a starter look for us … it's a great starting point.”
7—Who forms the catching tandem to start 2022?
The Jays ended the season with three catchers on their roster, rotating them all and using them in different spots.
If you could combine Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Reese McGuire into one man, you’d have a heck of a backstop with Jansen’s intangibles, Kirk’s bat and McGuire’s arm.
Unfortunately, that’s not possible and the Jays will have decisions to make this winter.
All three had their moments this season and the group combined to post 2.9 fWAR, placing them 13th in baseball.
It’s very likely at least one is traded this winter and the arrival of top prospect Gabriel Moreno looms, leaving Atkins in position to deal from a position of strength.
Moreno, who finished his age-21 season with three games in Triple-A, is likely to be ready by June.
There isn’t much on the free agent market at this position, which could benefit the Jays when it comes time to trade one.
ATKINS: “It’s definitely an area where you feel good about having depth because of the lack of free agents available, the lack of players via trade that area available in that position. Incredible progress by Alejandro Kirk and Reese McGuire and the way Jano finished the year, he finished as one of the better catchers in the game.”
8—Are Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez the starting corner outfielders again next year?
Neither has done anything to be pushed out of town, but if you’re wondering what the next step is for a team with an elite offence and a solid starting rotation that helped them win 91 games, it’s likely through defensive improvements and bullpen upgrades.
The former often goes unnoticed unless it’s obvious.
In the outfield corners, the Jays are not very good defensively and it quietly hurts them.
Hernandez and Gurriel can both provide game-changing plays with their arms, but far too often balls hit the grass because of circuitous routes.
Both can be an adventure when the focus wanes over the course of a long season.
Take one look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ philosophy and you can see where some of that nine game gap between the AL East foes can be made up.
The Rays employ Kevin Kiermaier, Manuel Margot and Randy Arozarena across their outfield, sacrificing offence for defence in a couple of those cases and it’s worked out.
The other aspect of this is as relatively young, controllable, and already productive assets, Gurriel and Hernandez would be the easy way to improve the pitching staff, or maybe even find an impact infielder if Semien walks and there’s still a hole at third base.
Expect upgrading the defence to be a priority again this off-season and it might come in creative fashion.
ATKINS: “We don’t want to paint ourselves into boxes. We want to make sure we keep all avenues for creativity open, and that’s what we’re focused on now. How do we continue to make this organization as good as it can be? What additions can we make in the short term and long term? What are the most creative ways to do that?”
9—Is there another top prospect ready to make an impact next season like Alek Manoah did this year?
You already know the answer to this one if you’ve made it this far without skimming.
Moreno, as you read in question No. 7, is going to factor into the Jays’ catching equation next summer and the talent level will give him a chance to have an impact.
While expecting a catcher as young as Moreno to have a huge impact with the bat right away is probably a mistake, the right-handed Venezuelan is that good.
Before an errant pitch broke his thumb and sent him to the IL, Moreno was tearing apart Double-A, running up a .373/.441/.651 slash line with eight homers in 32 games and showing off elite bat-to-ball skill as an aggressive hitter.
He could be dynamic near the bottom of the Jays lineup once he polishes things up defensively.
ATKINS: “Jordan Groshans, Otto Lopez, Kevin Smith, Josh Palacios, all those guys being in Triple-A, potentially with Gabriel Moreno, very confident Thomas Hatch and Anthony Kay are going to have better years and Zach Logue has had a remarkable year and will slide into that Triple-A rotation again for us and then Nate Pearson is still a huge part of our depth and potential moving forward. I feel like our farm system is in a decent spot.”
10—What is the future for manager Charlie Montoyo and the rest of his coaching staff?
There’s no guesswork here. As you’ll read below from Atkins, the entire coaching staff has been asked to return, led by Montoyo, who’s heading into the final year of his contract in 2022.
Rather than being canned like social media would like from time to time over the course of the summer, Montoyo is closer to being in line for an extension.
He’ll also be up for American League manager of the year next month, and has a great chance to win, one year after finishing third in voting.
As far as the rest of the staff, the Jays have one of the best pitching coaches in the business in Pete Walker and hitting coach Guillermo Martinez just led a powerful, record-setting offence.
ATKINS: “They’ll all be back and, again, that’s a testament to Charlie’s leadership, to the work that they’ve put in from three years ago. They’ve put our players in positions to improve, and that is a lot to ask at this level. It’s not just putting them in positions to have good performances, it’s putting them in positions to get better. We’re exceptionally pleased with all of them.”