The Blue Jays Misplayed Their Hand in Free Agency This Offseason

The Blue Jays struck out on high-profile free agents this year, seemingly misreading the offseason market in a crucial year.

TAMPA, FL - FEBRUARY 15: General manager Ross Atkins of the Toronto Blue Jays speaks during the 2024 Grapefruit League Spring Training Media Day at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Thursday, February 15, 2024 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

After a disappointing finish to the 2023 campaign, the Toronto Blue Jays headed into the offseason with some roster moves on the horizon, regardless of whether they were active or not.

Numerous players from the active roster were free-agent eligible – 3B Matt Chapman, OF Kevin Kiermaier, RHP Jordan Hicks, LHP Hyun Jin Ryu, UTIL Whit Merrifield, and 1B/DH Brandon Belt – and the club was either going to need to bring in some players to fill their spots or rely on internal options to get them by.

Fast forward to spring training and it is safe to say the Blue Jays offseason plans and moves have ranked poorly across the board. While numerous teams within the AL East improved their rosters this winter, the Jays front office made more moves on the coaching staff than they did on the field, and the transactions they did make didn’t seem to address the biggest need for the club heading into the 2024 season – their lineup.

Offensive woes for the Jays in 2023

Last season, the Jays bats ranked in the middle of the pack in numerous offensive categories such as OBP (8th), AVG (8th), OPS (11th), SLG (13th), and home runs (16th), with numerous players such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., George Springer, and Alejandro Kirk regressing from what was expected from them at the plate.

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To put in perspective how the Jays bats struggled at times, Belt led the squad in terms of OPS (.858) and he missed some considerable time this campaign after two separate IL stints, limiting him to just 339 at-bats. Bo Bichette was the only bat that one could argue met the expectations set by the organization and fanbase, producing a .814 OPS with 20 home runs while leading the team with his .306 average.

What the Jays lacked last season was some power in the lineup, especially since Guerrero, Chapman, and Kirk struggled at times with the long ball. The Jays also struggled mightily with runners in scoring position, one of the reasons the club produced just one run in their AL Wild Card series against the Minnesota Twins.

Collectively, the Jays ranked 18th in runs (527) and 20th with a .730 OPS with runners in scoring position, as well as finishing fourth in terms of grounding into double plays with 49, tying the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland Athletics.

Looking at the Blue Jays offseason additions

To summarize the offseason, the Jays brought Kiermaier back on a one-year pact and also added utility player Isiah Kiner-Falefa (two-year deal), infielder Justin Turner (one-year), and right-hander Yariel Rodríguez to a five-year deal, the most guaranteed money going to the Cuban product at $32 million.

Of the group, the only player who helped improve the Jays lineup was Turner, who historically has been an above-average hitter (125 OPS+) with some sneaky pop in his bat. The remaining group has been average (Kiermaier) or significantly below average, with Kiner-Falefa’s highest OPS+ mark coming back in 2020 at 93.

Both Kiermaier and IKF are defense-first players excelling with their gloves and, in IKF’s case, ability to play numerous positions.

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While both add value from a fielding perspective, the Jays are currently in a position where they don’t need defensive-minded players versus offensive-producing bats that can handle themselves at the plate.

With Daulton Varsho already part of the outfield core and able to handle regular centre field reps (and arguably an even better fielder than Kiermaier as of right now) and the numerous utility-type players the Jays already employ in Santiago Espinal and Cavan Biggio, adding Kiermaier and IKF didn’t address the biggest needs for the Jays this winter.

The front office strikes out on the free-agent market

To add insult to injury, the Blue Jays struck out on every high-profile free agent they were heavily tied to, starting right out of the gate with Shohei Ohtani.

Whether the two-way star was actually interested in joining Toronto is a debated topic amongst the Jays fanbase, although the two sides did meet repeatedly. The addition of an MLB insider-backed plane fiasco that had fans thinking he was heading North of the border to put pen to paper was all on the table before ultimately he signed the next day with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Blue Jays reportedly made a competitive offer to Ohtani before he signed with the Dodgers, again fueling the topic of whether there was actual interest but at the end of the day, he ended up donning a different blue jersey.

Missing out on Ohtani is going to sting, as he is one of the best players across the globe, but it signaled to fans that the organization was at least willing to spend to improve the team. As those fans later found out, it wouldn’t include some of the top names on the free-agent market.

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Ideal Fits Continue to Sign Elsewhere

Two players stood out in particular for potential fits for the Jays, Chapman and outfielder Cody Bellinger. While the club was tied to both players throughout the winter, neither player ultimately signed with the team. Bellinger returned to the Cubs while Chapman took his talents back to California but this time with the Giants, with both players inking short-term deals with their respective clubs.

It’s not for a lack of trying at least with Chapman, as the Jays reportedly offered him an extension worth over $100 million early in the offseason but he declined, willing to test the market instead under the guise of super agent Scott Boras. There was no reported contract offer to Bellinger or if there was, it was kept under wraps.

The Jays may not have been willing to give Bellinger the short-term option-laded deal and $26.6M AAV he will earn with the Cubs but the deal Chapman signed with the Giants should have been easily doable for Toronto. There was no draft pick compensation for the club as they presented him the qualifying offer in the first place and the tax on the contract that would have pushed them across the second threshold of the CBT would have been peanuts for Rogers Communications, owners of the Blue Jays.

Without knowledge of the inner workings of the deal and process, it is possible that the four-time Gold Glove winner had his heart set on the west coast over a return to Toronto and a pact between the two was never in the cards. There also is the added notion that ownership potentially didn’t give the front office the green light to spend anymore, tying the hands of the Blue Jays from adding either Chapman or Bellinger.

Missed Opportunities Bite the Jays

On paper, both Bellinger and Chapman checked quite a few boxes for the Jays on the field and at the plate. Both have 20+ home run power and Bellinger’s left-handed bat would have complimented the lineup well given the abundance of right-handers on the Jays’ current roster. They weren’t without risk, as most deals that push $20 million rarely don’t have the potential to backfire, but either player would have been a sizeable upgrade to the Blue Jays roster heading into the 2024 season and beyond.

Regardless of the reason(s) for either player not signing with the Jays, whether via player or organization, given the outlook of the winter as a whole, it just seems to be another ‘L’ for the Blue Jays front office that hasn’t improved in a division that only got stronger.

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To go from adding a high-profile free agent each winter dating back to the 2019/2020 offseason to barely moving the needle heading into the 2024 season is a tough blow when division rivals are trading for arms such as Corbin Burnes or landing bats such as Juan Soto. From potentially landing Ohtani to missing out on Bellinger and Chapman to adding more defensive-minded players versus impact bats, one could easily argue that the Blue Jays have regressed in comparison to getting better with the players they have added.

Even with the third baseman’s noted struggles at the plate last year following his April hot streak and him fitting the mould of a ‘fielding first’ type of player, Chapman was still an average hitter on the year (104 OPS+) and the Jays replaced him with a historically worse plate presence in Kiner-Falefa.

Minimal Improvements to a Roster That Needed More

Not to forget that the club will be without players that netted them a collective 7.9 fWAR last year, the front office is instead seeming to hedge a lot of bets on internal options to pick up the slack, a risky move for a club that doesn’t have Bichette or Guerrero on a long-term deal and a postseason window currently at its peak with those two slated for free agency after the 2025 season.

General manager Ross Atkins spoke about relying on the coaching staff to improve the already rostered Jays bats earlier into the offseason but the hope from fans was still in place that more external bats would be added, with only one coming in the form of Turner.

That’s another issue with the Jays winter proceedings outside of the free agency woes, as the club was unable to find an agreement to avoid arbitration with their star first baseman, instead heading through the process with Guerrero and ultimately losing as well, with the arbitrators ruling in favour of the player.

While both camps are saying all the right things following the procedure, it was a task that could have been avoided at the end of the day by the ‘trial and file’ Jays organization, which has yet to follow the idea set by numerous teams across the league in terms of locking down talented young players to long-term deals.

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Blue Jays Front Office Produces Dismal Results

Looking ahead, this campaign could easily be ‘make or break’ for Atkins, who seems to be hedging a lot of faith on players being able to bounce back after under-producing in 2023 as well as internal options being able to pick up some of the slack at the plate for lost veteran talent.

It’s a gamble that could cost him his job if the Blue Jays are unable to find a win in October this year, with James Click already on hand and able to step in if necessary.

The Jays’ front office could still sign an impact bat like J.D. Martinez or Adam Duvall or trade for some offensive help before the season gets underway, but until either one of those comes to fruition, this offseason seems like a letdown.

Adding in the Guerrero arbitration status, the pending free agency status of numerous players, the jumbled press conferences from Atkins (that seem to be a PR department’s worst nightmare), and the increased ticket prices due to stadium renovations, Jays fans are not pleased with the organization.

After a rebuilding process that tested the most diehard fan to end the 2010s to struggling to produce a postseason-winning club that wasn’t built by a previous GM, the faith of the Blue Jays fanbase is starting to wane and the “Fire Shatkins” crowd has been in droves as of late, a testament to the lack of productivity in a crucial offseason.

Whether the moves the Jays front office made this winter will pan out or not will be up in the air until the regular seasons gets underway. Until then, there is an unhappy crowd brewing North of the border and some decisions at the executive level could be made sooner than later especially if the Blue Jays struggle early this season.

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