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Do the Blue Jays have to land a star player this offseason?

Is this offseason a failure if they don’t land an impact player in his prime?

MLB: Wild Card-Cincinnati Reds at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Blue Jays season ended 106 days ago. Spring Training ostensibly begins in about 30 days. And yet it feels like the offseason has barely happened, with almost all the top free agents still unsigned.

Coming off a promising 2020 and with the teardown phase firmly in the rear view mirror, the Jays were poised to advance the transition from the building phase to legitimate contender. The easiest way — and clearest signal — to do that would be acquiring a star level player in his prime. Whether it’s more smoke or fire, the Jays have been linked to almost everyone and with the other teams now having aggressively upgraded, the lack of activity is starting to cause frustrations to boil over.

Let’s stipulate one thing at the outset: if impact upgrades are available and can be made at even reasonable prices, I’m all for it. If the past year had truly heralded a financial Armageddon for this offseason’s market, it made all the sense in the world for the Blue Jays to step in and take advantage.

But that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Granted, so little has transpired, particularly at the top end of the market, that it’s more a matter of reading tea leaves than unequivocal empirical data. At any rate, the asking prices a month before Spring Training theoretically starts — Trevor Bauer reportedly looking for upwards of $200-million; George Springer reportedly holding out for $175-million, D.J. LeMahieu for $125-million — are not reflective of a buyer’s market. Liam Hendriks certainly did very well in securing $54-million guaranteed.

The question then is: if this is the price range, do the Blue Jays have to chase the market and acquire one of these guys come hell or highwater, essentially whatever the cost. That is, will be their offseason be a failure if they don’t land one of these players? One certainly gets the impression a very large segment of the fanbase is of this view.

I submit the answer is most certainly not.

Before delving deeper, I will stipulate it would be an unequivocal failure by the front office in one respect: expectation management. It is a truism to underpromise and overdeliver. The Blue Jays have been linked to the top available players, and for better or worse the fanbase has big expectations. This was probably inevitable given the team’s outlook and level of resources potentially available.

Management certainly shouldn’t be wasting time and energy on every rumour that hits the media, but far from prevaricating or sounding caution, they have instead seemingly leaned into the notion. If nothing else else, there’s a friendly house organ to pass along well-placed noncommittal whispers. Even if the intention was to do something big and it just doesn’t materialize, you play with the bull, you get the horns.

The case for an impact addition is objectively strong. Even as more of a .500 team than a traditional playoff team/real contender, that nonetheless was a huge improvement over 95 losses in 2019 (almost 15 games over a full season). Despite having barely done anything yet this winter while losing some 2020 contributions to free agency, the Blue Jays already project around or perhaps a bit better than .500 for 2021. Even without expanded playoffs, that puts them on the fringes of contention.

There’s room to quibble with some of those projections (I wouldn’t pencil Robbie Ray in for 2+ WAR), but fundamentally that’s due to having a young core of projected average or better regulars in place. Even with some very impressive debuts creating high bars to exceed, as a group their best days should be ahead of them and are likely to be more productive and better in 2021 than 2020.

Even better, despite that strong foundation, there’s clear opportunities to target for clear upgrades: a regular somewhere on the infield (barring very high conviction that both Vlad can hold down third and Rowdy Tellez is for real) and bolstering the rotation. Adding a 4-5 win player in either of these areas crowds out replacement level expected production at the margin, single handedly pushing projected wins into the mid-80s and expected contention.

Add to that a very favourable payroll situation, both in the short and long term. At the outset of the offseason, the payroll for an internal roster figured at $70- to 75-million, and even with Ray in the fold that only projects just north of $75-million net of some trimming on the margins (we’ll have a little more clarity when arbitration figures are exchanged tomorrow).

That’s significant 2021 spending capacity even if they only approached the modest $110-million (full season) levels of the past few years, to say nothing of much higher previous levels more befitting a competitive larger market team. The long-term picture is just as clean, with the Jays well below the MLB average of future commitments and without a pile of dead money.

But all this lining up doesn’t mean it’s only avenue, or even necessarily the best one.

The opportunity set for an impact upgrade this winter, if not necessarily limited, was not broad and certainly not ideal. The pitching side of the free agent market was outright weak, effectively amounting to Bauer. The position side offers more, but no perfect fits either. Springer and Realmuto are at positions of reasonable existing depth; D.J. LeMahieu has been far more ordinary away from Yankee Stadium and would displace Cavan Biggio. Francisco Lindor was the obvious trade target, but with the risk of being a one year rental.

On the flip side, next year’s free agent market is a lot more star-studded and promising for impact talent availability. Not all will make it to the market, and there could be a lot more suitors competing. But on the other hand, if 2021 is rough economically, and the potential for a major labour fight, the economic fallout could arguably be worse. The Jays shouldn’t be dealing with uncertainty around where they play, and contending in 2021 would make them more attractive to free agents who want to win now.

Moreover, because the Jays have so many areas where they can upgrade despite a decent baseline (filling out the bullpen to the needs above), spreading the available budget around to multiple player is a feasible strategy. There’s actually good depth in quality infield regulars: Justin Turner, Marcus Semien, Didi Gregorius and Andrelton Simmons could all fit on a shorter term deal.

Starting pitching remains much slimmer pickings. I’d be happy to slot in Masahiro Tanaka behind Hyun Jin-Ryu and go from there, but there’s been no indication that’s on the table. The Jays have the luxury of the flexibility to gamble — Corey Kluber and James Paxton offer significant upside with uncertainty. Pairing one of them on a shorter deal with more of a depth addition like J.A. Happ could offer a compelling combination of upside and insurance against a repeat of 2020 pitching shortages. A reunion with Taijuan Walker could be a solid move too.

An offseason where they added an infielder of that calibre, a starting pitcher or two along those lines, and then a couple quality arms to the bullpen would strike me as pretty good. It wouldn’t make them a guaranteed contender, but should push them into the mid-80s win projection where if more things go well than poorly, they could win 90 games and maybe surprise in the playoffs. If things go poorly, they retain strategic flexibility to retool without it being compounded by having accelerated the timeline unnecessarily.

Why not an impact guy and then the rest of that? In an ideal world, it would be guns AND butter. Unless the payroll is going north of $150-million for 2021, if you’re paying $30- or $35-million to one of those guys, that’s not going to happen. It’s impossible to say without seeing what players actually get, but if the top end of the market goes nuts, I think there’s a good chance this path would actually deliver more.

The most compelling indictment of a failure to land a prime-aged impact talent for 2021 is that with that strong young core, they need to add the impact upgrades now, while they’re cheap and remain under team control. Competitive windows in sports are usually shorter than they appear, and that makes them most precious. Certainly, the Jays should not be punting 2021; it would be frankly derelict if they didn’t spend/add significant projected wins at all before the season started.

But that does not imply they have to be, or even should be, all-in starting in 2021. While a nucleus of players have graduated to the majors, there’s a strong pipeline behind them who should provide substantial reinforcement in the coming years. There’s every reason to believe on balance that the core a winter or two from now is just as strong or even stronger.

More broadly though, that thinking bothers me in that it implicitly assumes a small market mindset: win now before good players (can) leave. And granted, after six years there’s no way to force them to stay. Say what you want about Rogers and their commitment to the Jays — and they’ll never chase championships like an Ilitch or Steinbrenner — but the resources have been there when justified and certainly to keep players around. Shawn Green was the last homegrown star to leave the Jays for well, greener pastures. That was more than 20 years ago in drastically worse circumstances.

Or to put it in slightly different terms: it’s 1983, not 1990. The Blue Jays are an improving team with exciting players and potential, but whose future is in front of it; not the team compelled to drastic action because it’s now or never. It is a rising and not a setting sun.

Rarely do need, timeline, and resources all line up so well; potential economic fallout from 2020 reducing demand strongly at the high end of the market adding circumstantial opportunity would push a compelling trifecta into overwhelming territory. But it strikes me that somewhere along the line, the reasonable expectation of a brutal winter market transformed opportunity into an absolute necessity for most of the fanbase. Even if the original assumption doesn’t hold or come to pass, the expected results nonetheless remain (unduly) amplified.


Is this winter a failure for the front office if they do not make an impact addition?

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