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Breaking down the 40-man: December 2020

Toronto Blue Jays play the Seattle Mariners Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Six weeks ago on the eve of the offseason, I broke down the 40-man roster with a view towards the 2021 season. Since then, there have been four calendar milestones that drive roster transactions:

  1. Post-World Series free agency and “roster cleanup” to get down to the hard 40-man limit
  2. November 20th deadline to add prospects to 40-man
  3. December 2nd tender deadline
  4. Winter Meetings (such as they are) / Rule 5 Draft

While that last category was a dud and activity and the hot stove has been anything but with minimal league wide activity, there has nonetheless been a moderate amount of transactions resulting in a total of eight additions and 10 players removed (with Robbie Ray on both sides of the ledger). With the major calendar events wrapped up, let’s take stock of where the roster stands, with it breaking down as such:

40man breakdown 12.2020

The free agent category is now obsolete; likewise the two arbitration-related buckets are collapsed with the tender deadline passed into those offered arbitration. This accounts for all the losses (eight free agents and two non-tenders). As a result of the large cohort of free agent departures, there was no trimming from the bubble to accommodate additions, especially as opening those spots back during the season resulted in significant culling then.

The Blue Jays are up to seven players under contract for 2021 at a total of $58.5-million (cash, this doesn’t include pro-rated signing bonuses often seen elsewhere), up modestly from $50-million with the Ray signing and Rafael Dolis’s option exercised. The two players offered arbitration add a projected $5.5- to $8-million, the non-tenders having shed a net of $4- or $5-million in projected salary.

Add another 18-20 pre-arbitration players near the minimum (accounting for inevitable injuries) for call it $12-million, and the total is about $76-million — give or take a million or two — in 2021 payroll on the books for now as things stand.

We don’t know what the 2021 budget parameters are (and it not even be set in stone at this point), but even at the trough of the rebuilding cycle it stayed above $100-million. Even with considerable revenue uncertainty, there should be ample room to make upgrades — and the front office has certainly been signaling that rather than tamping down expectations.

With that major caveat in mind, let’s take a look at a prospective 2021 Opening Day roster with the current players:

2021 lineup 12.2020

(As usual, green is for players who can be unilaterally optioned in 2021; blue is for for those that cannot; priority is given to slotting in the latter at least where it’s close)

With most of the changes occurring on the edges or with prospects, there’s only a couple changes. Robbie Ray slots into the starting rotation, and the Travis Shaw non-tender moves Vladimir Guerrero Jr. back to 3B for lack of other options right now. That pushes Rowdy Tellez to first, backfilled by slotting in Alejandro Kirk at DH.

This virtually guarantees the addition of an infielder of some sort, since even if Vladdy were able to reclaim third base a backup plan who could become quality depth is needed. Santiago Espinal did a nice job, but a contender needs a better option as the first guy off the bench if and when injuries occur.

Bringing in a significant upgrade is the obvious answer, especially with plenty of options on the market. Adding a major outfielder isn’t so obvious without one of the incumbent starters going, though theoretically four could be rotated through the outfield spots and DH. Or the type of scenario where Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is moved as a centrepiece in a package to get help elsewhere.

I’ve included Breyvic Valera at end of the bench even though he’s not technically occupying a spot on the 40-man, but presumably will be back come Spring Training. Alternatively, one could slot Jonathan Davis as the primary back-up, moving Derek Fisher to that utility spot. It doesn’t matter at all, it’s just academic machinations at this point, but I think two infielders is more likely than two outfielders as reserves.

Then there’s the pitching, where the rotation can obviously use at least one major upgrade, and the bullpen needs some established options. I think it’s reasonable to expect major league signings/acquisitions of at least one starter and two relievers.

If they’re going to add three pitchers, and at a position player or two (net of anyone traded) over the next couple months, that means they’ll need 4-5 roster spots. That’s that’s the recent two waiver claims that filled up the 40-man roster are curious (and to a lesser extent, adding five prospects last month).

Looking at that first table, there’s the nine players under contracts or will have one through arbitration, and 23 more pre-arbitration players. That’s a mix of young core players, depth and unestablished players, and prospects. One obvious move would be to trade a catcher for help elsewhere, but other than that the rest are pretty much locked in — most of the non-starters don’t have much current trade value.

Shun Yamaguchi could be moved off the 40-man roster, either given an outright release or made to earn his way bac onto the 40-man, A more drastic option would be doing the same with Tanner Roark, since he’s not going to walk away from $12-million after his 2020 season and no one’s going to claim it. It would be a pretty big slap in the face though, and you’d need to add him back once the season started unless you were cutting bait entirely. I don’t that happening.

Yennsy Diaz, Hector Perez and Jacob Waguespack can all be sent outright at any point if they clear waivers. It’s more complicated with the other bubble guys, which was why I was surprised they added filled up the roster with two more in Anthony Castro and Walter Lockett. Sure, they can release them if and when they instead need spots...but when you know you’re almost certainly going to need spots it seems odd to add more marginal players you can’t necessarily keep on waivers.

I imagine I may be nearly alone in being curious to see how this ultimately sorts out. In any event, phase one of the winter is over. Phase two is welcome to start anytime.