The pressing questions facing the Blue Jays right now
TORONTO — As the GM meetings came and went this week in Arizona, some of these questions have a semblance of an answer forming already.
Others might not be answered for weeks.
Some of them — to the dismay of the Toronto Blue Jays fan base — might never be answered satisfactorily, kind of like the pitching change heard 'round the country last month on what ended up being the final day of their 2023 season.
The Major League Baseball off-season is a winding road, an exercise in patience for both general managers and fans at the same time.
During the Mark Shapiro-Ross Atkins regime’s tenure, there has never been a winter more important than this one.
In one way or another, the trajectory of this franchise is about to change depending on what happens over the next two years.
Win a World Series and that trajectory is on a rocket ship skyward.
Don’t quite win but get the franchises cornerstones in place with long-term contracts and the window of contention will remain open.
Take a step back in 2024 and who knows where things go heading into the final season of team control for the two homegrown stars.
With numerous holes across the roster and a regressing offence, the front office needs to get it right and there are many important questions to answer.
Will the coaching staff return intact next season?
The John Schneider question — one that was never really in doubt for anyone outside of social media — was answered during exit pressers last month and the Jays cleared up the rest this week.
After a month of considering their options and sifting through what went wrong with the offence in 2023, hitting coach Guillermo Martinez returns for a sixth season, but Don Mattingly’s role will be increased on the hitting side.
The bench coach will take on the title of offensive coordinator, a position that’s becoming more en vogue across baseball with bigger coaching staffs.
The Texas Rangers have an OC and they just hit their way to a ring, so it has to work, right?
Whatever the Jays have planned, most of the voices in hitters’ ears will be the same next season. Does that put the burden on the front office or the players? I’m not really sure, but if the Jays don’t hit in April, changes will be in the offing and the fan base will be antsy early.
The talent brought in will have a lot to do with that.
The one new face on the coaching staff is Dominican native Carlos Febles, who takes over as third base coach after spending 17 years in the Boston Red Sox organization, including as third base coach from 2018 to 2023.
Febles and Guerrero Jr. have a previous relationship and having a Spanish-speaking coach is an important element for many reasons.
Veteran coach Dave Hudgens has also been reassigned to a yet-to-be-determined role within the organization.
What’s the No. 1 need for Blue Jays heading into free agency?
The overarching need is power and lots of it, but when it comes to positional need, I’m going with left field by a hair because that’s the easiest way to add that pop in this free-agent market.
There isn’t a whole lot available in free agency that’s going to move the needle when it comes to improvement at the other two obvious holes at second base and third base, but shifting Daulton Varsho to centre is an easy way to upgrade the lineup with some pop.
Whether it’s a platoon situation with Tommy Pham, Michael Brantley, Jorge Soler or Joc Pederson, or a blank cheque to Cody Bellinger to play left field, the Jays have clear options there and the position fits with the element they need.
My favourite target, actually, probably won’t provide much power at all, but KBO star Jung Hoo Lee’s contact rate and ability to get on base would help with some of the strikeout issues this group can face.
Not to mention plus defence.
Last year’s outfield was great with the gloves, but light on production.
That needs to change.
Does the core need a shakeup?
It’s really easy to look at this era up to this juncture and compare it to the late 1980s and point to the blockbuster trade that was eventually needed to get over the hump.
The sport has changed and it’s debatable whether a Tony Fernandez-and-Fred McGriff-for-Joe Carter-and-Roberto Alomar trade can even be executed these days, but after watching last season, it’s a very fair statement to say that maybe a dramatic shakeup of the core is in order this winter.
Does that mean trading Bo or Vladdy? Probably not, but there may not be an untouchable name on this roster right now, and that includes the stars.
At the very least, this front office will explore some dramatic trade possibilities this winter.
Who plays second base and third base next opening day?
If left field is the most important hole to fill, these two are 1A and 1B.
From a positional value perspective, they’re much more important than an outfielder, too.
This issue is the options available.
The Jays haven’t given up hope that Matt Chapman doesn’t find the massive contract he’s hoping for in free agency and would take something in the neighbourhood of $100 million over four or five years.
Considering he already turned down more than that from Toronto in the form of a long-term extension, it still seems unlikely that the Jays get their all-world defensive third baseman back, but it’s not a foregone conclusion.
Despite the strikeouts, losing Chapman does not make the Jays a better team no matter who they replace him with (unless you’re dreaming up a Nolan Arenado blockbuster).
A lot can happen in the coming weeks that will reshape the needs, but at this point the logical scenario is that one spot is filled from the outside via trade or free agency and the other is filled internally from some combination of Cavan Biggio, Davis Schneider and Santiago Espinal, who could be at risk of being non-tendered later this month.
With the lack of options in free agency at this positions, keep an eye on the trade market here.
How close is Ricky Tiedemann to being ready?
This is an important question to answer because it will have a lot to do with how they attack the one rotation hole that they do have.
Past that, however, there isn’t much.
Upper-minors rotation depth was already an issue last summer and building that up is important, although that won’t come with much fanfare.
As of today, Alek Manoah is the only name worth talking about as a candidate for the firth rotation spot.
Coming off mostly a lost season due to separate shoulder and biceps issues, Tiedemann’s stuff looked fantastic in the Arizona Fall League, but the 21-year-old lefty still has to prove he can handle the every-fifth-day workload and he still has never completed more than five full innings in a minor-league start.
If the Jays believe the young southpaw will be ready to contribute in June or July, they may look for more stopgap-type options.
The wrinkle involved here is there’s no way their top four starters are making every single start and avoiding the IL again, so they definitely have to address the rotation in some fashion.
A Tyler Mahle signing would give them a really good second-half option when he’s ready to return from Tommy John.
What are the chances of Alek Manoah being in the opening day rotation?
A quick one here.
The answer right now would be “pretty good,” but it’s only November and he won’t be the only name in the mix come February.
Far from it.
The real question is if the relationship between the club and the Manoah camp is beyond repair, are they quietly able to shop and trade the former Cy Young candidate this winter?
The Jays would likely be scared to do so without receiving pretty good value, but Manoah and his camp may still want more than just a promise of being able to compete for a spot on the team based on the way last season ended.
With the strength of the free-agent class being starting pitching, why not build a super rotation?
If the aforementioned scenario with depth options leading to Tiedemann landing the fifth spot in the rotation at some point next summer is the obvious one, what’s the outside-the-box option?
Well, it’s taking a good chunk of resources and throwing it at Yoshinobu Yamamoto or Aaron Nola or Jordan Montgomery or Shota Imanaga and building what would unquestionably be one of the deepest rotations in baseball.
It makes a whole lot of sense. Almost too much sense.
You can never have enough starting pitching and if prices are suppressed because of a well-stocked market, then go ahead and dive in and shop in the premium aisles.
Yamamoto would be an absolute coup and there’s interest … from all 30 teams.
How is the Jays’ minor-league pipeline viewed by trade partners?
This question will be answered by February — it just might take some reading between the lines.
From the outside, and as someone who’s very familiar with this system in relation to those around baseball, the Jays would seem to have enough trade chips to do what they want.
The balancing act for a front office is just how empty you want to leave it.
Tiedemann is a blue-chipper, we all know that.
But would Brandon Barriera, Arjun Nimmala, Martinez or Barger interest other clubs as a trade headliner?
It’s truly impossible to say.
They're good prospects and interesting prospects, but every team in baseball has a handful of those and beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
If the Jays can’t swing a relatively major trade, it’s probably not going to be because they didn’t want to.
It’ll be because they simply couldn’t.
How do they fix Vladimir Guerrero Jr.?
Nobody had the answer to this all season long and most of it is on Vladdy to find the mechanical fix once he’s away from the daily grind this winter.
The equation for this club is entirely different if the 2021 MVP candidate ever shows up again.
Is George Springer on the decline and should he lead off in 2024?
The answer to the first part of this question is a resounding yes.
That’s just how age works in sports and the numbers unfortunately back it up, too.
On the bright side, Springer played 154 games in 2023 and he avoided the injured list entirely, the first time he’s done that in his three seasons with the Jays.
Unfortunately, with three more years to go heading into his age-34 season, Springer also just posted the worst fWAR and power numbers of his 10-year career.
At just 2.2 Wins Above Replacement across 683 trips to the plate, Springer’s power dropped significantly and he posted a 104 wRC+, also the lowest of his career.
It creates some interesting questions about a player still so key to the Jays’ hopes over the next two years.
If Springer plateaus from here, that’s probably fine.
If the decline continues in 2024, it’s going to be uh-oh territory for the Jays and that’s not because it’ll be a bad contract. It’s because they need Springer to be good in order to win enough.
With that in mind, maybe the front office decides the longtime leadoff hitter would be better served in a run-producing spot behind the big boys.
That started to happen in the second half this year and Springer spent 14 games batting cleanup and eight games in the five-hole.
A career .273/.357/.488 (.844 OPS) hitter out the top spot in the lineup, Springer limped to a .256/.326/.393 (.719 OPS) slash line leading off in 2023.
Since every single hole is hard to fill, is there an area of the roster that the Jays can avoid improving this winter?
The Jays found the bullpen blueprint this year.
Build a good base in the off-season and have options on hand early, but the time to really improve a ‘pen is in July and the Jays did just that when they landed Jordan Hicks, who was lights-out for his entire Jays tenure.
Could they use another high-leverage arm to replace Hicks? Absolutely.
Can they add a depth arm or two and get by for two months to start next season? That’s probably the likely scenario.
How about those aforementioned Bichette and Vladdy Jr. contracts?
Here’s what we know: Bo Bichette is signed and sealed for the next two seasons at base salaries of $11 million and $16.5 million in 2024 and 2025, respectively, per Spotrac.
Meanwhile, Vladdy is walking year to year through the arbitration process as most players do, and after making $14.5 million in 2023, he’s slated for another significant raise, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting around $20.4 million for 2024.
When dreaming up potential extensions for either player this winter, here are the two important questions to ask yourself:
1. Do you think Bo and Vladdy believe they’ve hit their ceiling?
The answer to that question is clearly no, especially in Guerrero Jr.’s case.
2. Do you think the Jays will pay the ceiling price on these two stars right now?
The answer to that is probably no.
With where things stand today, the Jays would clearly love to get a bargain before that peak year, but the issue with finding common ground there is it’s extremely hard to envision either player — each with former big-league fathers who made some money — taking any sort of discount this close to free agency when both believe they’re capable of so much more.
Both players get two chances to put up massive numbers and cash in, whether that’s in Toronto or elsewhere.
That has to be the only thing on their minds right now and it’s hard to envision a long-term deal being so over-the-top lucrative that they’d decide to sign now and skip a chance to see what the open market has to offer at a prime age.