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How the Jays Did in the 2023 SB Nation Off-Season Simulation

MLB: New York Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, my first representing the Jays in the SB Nation off-season simulation, the Jays were adding as they stepped into the centre of this window of contention. Everyone who had helped them make it to the wildcard in 2022 was still there, and it was just a matter of trying to upgrade around the edges. The difficulty was that money looked tight, with payroll already at an all time high and $24m in effectively dead money committed to an injured Hyun-Jin Ryu and a long traded Randal Grichuk.

This year, things are a little different. The financial situation was actually much better, both because ownership has shown that it’s willing to spend into the luxury tax after all, and because there is no significant money owed to players who won’t be on the opening day roster. There are bigger holes to fill, though. Four players who contributed at least 1.5 WAR to the 2023 effort are free agents, and to make matters worse it’s a brutal market, with just 18 such players available across all of baseball.

To recap, the sim covers trades, free agent signings, and arbitration tender decisions. Actual arbitration negotiation and hearings are skipped, as are 40 man roster decisions and the Rule 5 draft. Extensions aren’t allowed either, to take some load off Max Rieper of Royals Review, who runs the whole thing himself. I had a suggested budget for the 26 man roster of $230 million, which is $20m larger than last year’s opening day payroll and would keep the Jays in the bottom tier of the luxury tax. You can see a full summary of how the sim played out over at Royals Review.

My self-imposed goals were straightforward:

  • Fill the Lineup Holes: the Jays lost three everyday hitters and a near everyday utility player, all of whom added significant value this year. I expected prospects to have to pick up some of that slack, but none are so obviously ready or so highly regarded that they had to be penciled in.
  • Add a Starter: I believe Alek Manoah is capable of a bounce-back, but I’m not prepared to just pencil him into a job. Let him come to spring training and take it. The Jays also made it through the entire year with no significant starting pitcher injuries in 2023. I had to assume that wouldn’t happen again.
  • Stay Flexible and Young Where Possible: I see 2024 as something of a pivot point for the Jays. If it goes well, defined as winning more than 90 games and actually making and winning a playoff game, they’ll be all in on 2025 as the last guaranteed year with this core. If it doesn’t, they may want to pivot, trade some older and more expensive players, and try a short turnaround rebuild to open a new window in 2026 or 27. That argued for either signing young guys who will still be in their primes four years from now, or keeping things shorter term so that money can be dumped if it becomes necessary.

The Sim

First up were option decisions. Whit Merrifield was easy. He’s a handy player and seemed to be a good addition to the clubhouse last year, but he’s not worth close to $18m, so he gets a $0.5m buyout instead. Chad Green is more complicated. He pitched just 12 innings after returning from Tommy John, and the headline results (a 5.25 ERA) weren’t good. That’s often deceptive in tiny samples, though, and his 12:3 K:BB ratio, 2.67 FIP, and 95.6mph average fastball suggested he’s still the quality setup man he was in New York. I ended up deciding to exercise the Jays’ first option, locking him up for 3 years at $9m each. Last year, three setup type relievers (Robert Suarez, Rafael Montero, and Taylor Rogers) got 3+ year deals with AAVs between $9.2 and $11.5m. None are clearly better than Green if you assume he’s fully back to form. That’s just what high end but non-elite relievers get these days, so $9m a year for Green seemed pretty good. In real life, we’ve since learned that the Jays turned down that option (and Green turned down his 1 year, $6.25m player option) but picked up their secondary option for 2 years and $21m. Effectively they paid a $3m premium over the next two seasons to get out of the third, when Green will be 35. Personally, I’d be happy to keep him but the Jays’ real life call is a little safer.

Next, I had to tender contracts to arbitration eligible players. I broke them down into three categories:

  • Easy yes: Vlad ($20.4m), Romano (7.7), Varsho (5.5), Jansen (5.2), Mayza (3.2), Swanson (2.7), Kirk (2.6), Cabrera (1.4), Pearson (0.8). Vlad wasn’t worth that salary this year, but his upside demands that he be kept around. Romano, Varsho, Jansen, Mayza, Swanson, Kirk and Cabrera were all worth more than these salaries. Pearson remains an enigma, but at barely more than the minimum they may as well give his talent one more year to translate into results. He has an option if it doesn’t work out in the majors.
  • Yes, but I had to think about it: Cavan Biggio (3.7) - Biggio does enough well to be useful as a utility infielder/lefty bench bat. He doesn’t have the glove to stick as a pure utility infielder or the bat to be a DH/pinch hitter, but he’s close enough to sort of fill both roles. At $3.7m he’s getting a little pricey for his role, but his late season turnaround was easily enough to justify bringing him back
  • Santiago Espinal (2.5) - had a bad year with the bat and, much more worryingly, with the glove. Espinal’s whole value is that he can provide solid to plus D anywhere across the infield with enough contact to not be a total 0 at the plate. He needs to rebound, but at just 29 years old and with a solid track record, I’m betting he can.
  • Trevor Richards (2.4) - this one will probably be controversial, but I decided to keep Richards for two reasons. First, his underlying numbers suggest he deserves better luck than he’s had the last two years. He does tend to get hit hard, but not hard enough to justify a 5 ERA. StatCast’s xERA, which forecasts ERA based on how hard balls are hit off a pitcher, thinks he deserved a 3.58 ERA last year. He also had a swinging strike rate of 16.2% last year, 13th among all relievers with 30+ IP, ahead of the likes of Josh Hader and Jhoan Duran. I’m reluctant to give up on a guy who can do that. Second, he’s comfortable in multi-inning roles, and I really value having a guy who can stretch out to 3 innings when needed. I wish he was less prone to spontaneous combustion than a Tesla, but the highs justify dealing with the lows and the price is right.
  • No: Adam Cimber (3.2) - Cimber was awful last year even before his shoulder gave out. He was very effective for a long time, but with an 86mph fastball his margin was always extremely fine. At 33 and coming off the scariest possible type of injury for a pitcher, I’m not willing to guarantee significant money on the bet that he can return to form

Finally, I issued a qualifying offer to Matt Chapman. This was an easy call, because he’s the third most attractive free agent hitter on the market this winter after Shohei Ohtani and Cody Bellinger, and fourth place (probably Jeimer Candelario) is a looong ways back. He’ll be in line for nine figures, and so his rejection of the offer was quick and expected.

With my own players sorted, it was time to hit the free agent and trade markets. I’ll cover that in a second post tomorrow.