Toronto Blue Jays: Run it Back, please

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It’s not the Toronto Blue Jays fault that Major League Baseball placed them in the American League East. Technically, they’re not even the furthest west of the AL East teams. That would be the Tampa Bay Rays, who are actually further west than Cleveland, so why don’t we have them swap divisions to right this wrong?

We can’t, so Toronto remains merely the fourth best team in the AL East, but the gap between these four teams is the closest it’s ever been. After making the expanded Wild Card in 2020 and getting swept, the Blue Jays were far better this year with a breakout year from Robbie Ray and an under the radar find in Marcus Semien. They made a furious push by acquiring José Berríos at the deadline and came up just shy. Pythagorean W-L said they were a 99 win team based on run differential, which would’ve put them only one game back of the Rays.

Next year is the time to seize on this core of players. With Berríos back for a full season, the Blue Jays are primed to make with a young foundation of position players and a very good starting rotation. The only problem is that Ray and Semien are impending free agents and they’ll (rightfully) look for a raise in their next contract.

To this I say, bring them back. Semien was less desired due to a lackluster 2020 after his standout 2019 season. I’m not putting much weight into the weird 2020 season and instead betting that a top half of lineup featuring Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, Teoscar Hernández and Marcus Semien will have this team contending for the next few years.

Semien is a great overall middle infielder both offensively and defensively and is arguably more valuable as a shortstop. It will cost them probably $20 million or more given he played at $18 million this past year (also based on José Altuve’s contract). That being said, having him as the starting second basemen and possible insurance against a Bo Bichette injury raises this team’s floor and ceiling. It also re-assigns players like Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to more appropriate complementary roles as utility/platoon players.

Ray is likewise going to command around $20 million or more on the market, but I don’t think that should scare the Blue Jays, given that they were the team that helped him reach his Cy Young potential. A front line of Ray, Berríos, Alek Manoah and Hyun-jin Ryu is going to be competitive for a team that needs to face an offensively stacked division for nearly a third of their schedule. There’s also Steven Matz, who performed well as a mid-rotation starter, but I’m not sure that the front office will commit to him and Ray, even if the rotation would be deeper and better with them. They’ll probably be content with leaving the fifth rotation spot to Nate Pearson (if he’s healthy) or Ross Stripling instead.

There’s a lot of ways this all can go and to me that’s what makes it exciting. The one thing I think could preclude the signing of Semien and Ray is that the Jays have never seriously approached the competitive balance tax threshold before, even during their most recent playoff run back in the mid-2010s. Committing anywhere from $40–$50 million to just two players might be too much for the ownership group. Especially since I don’t see them agreeing to under-market extensions with Bichette or Guerrero Jr. before free agency, there would then be a large payroll figure when those players come to arbitration.

At the same time, Spotrac projects them to have over $144 million in space before hitting the competitive balance tax. Coincidentally, MLB Trade Rumors just released their projections for arbitration. I totaled the MLBTR projections for Toronto’s players and it comes out to $43.1 million. Let’s go really wild and say they commit $60 million to Semien and Ray, then we’re still looking at ~$41 million remaining in competitive balance tax space, which is right in line with their 2021 payroll. I’d also love to see them attempt to extend Berríos because I think he is a valuable starter, for his durability alone, but again I don’t believe it will happen.

We’ll never know the true financial benefit of making the playoffs because teams don’t have open accounting books, but I think that an additional amount of player salary can be offset by a successful playoff run. I believe the value in retaining Semien and Ray comes in the form of their depth and protection against injuries. Which of these lineups look better to you?

My lineup projections based on official Toronto Depth Chart from MLB.com

The alternative for someone with the versatility and offensive production like Semien would be signing Javier Báez, who can slot in at second base or shortstop, (maybe third base too?) while hitting 30 home runs. The issue being that Báez’s bat is extremely volatile, with it being equally likely he posts a sub .300 OBP with a 35% strikeout percentage for half a season or a .360 OBP with 9 home runs in 45 games like he did with the Mets. Plus, Báez isn’t going to be cheap on the free agent market either, and is signing him worth the feast and famine nature of his offense?

Really, I think that if they don’t take advantage of their window right now with the pieces they have, they won’t get the chance to play for a world series. Boston and New York will always be competitive and big spenders (relative to the rest of the league), while the Rays seem to have perfected their low budget player development machine. It leaves little to no room for the Jays to compete for the division title as constructed. But winning the division and avoiding a winner take all game is a significant perk. They’re a good team as they stand, but they could be a great team if they invest the money in this current roster and bring back the two main contributors that had them on the cusp of the playoffs this year.

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