Toronto Blue Jays Hot Stove: Staying Toasty in Tough AL East

The Toronto Blue Jays continue to try and break out of the giant shadows cast by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East ahead of the 2023 season. While general manager Ross Atkins and president Mark Shapiro have undergone heavy criticism for not pulling the trigger in the past, they have made some solid moves this winter, ahead of a season, that may be for their future with the organization.

2022 Season Record: 92-70 | Lost in Wild Card Round (2-0):

The Jays came into 2022 as one of the preseason favorites to win the World Series, but a slow start had oddsmakers and fans questioning their status. Toronto was able to turn things around and were looked at as contenders by August’s trade deadline. Management was criticized for not making the big move, instead going with a solid, if not spectacular, addition of Whit Merrifield from the Kansas City Royals.

While Whit added flexibility to the lineup, it was not the home run move the fanbase was looking for; in a year, the struggling New York Yankees looked flawed and beatable. The Jays did not catch New York for the division crown but earned themselves a wild card spot.

Elation and celebrations were short-lived after the Birds were swept by the Seattle Mariners and former Jay, who left via free agency after winning the 2021 Cy Young in Toronto, Robbie Ray.

Ironically the last team Toronto saw during the season was the first they would reacquaint with in the offseason.

Blue Jays Key Offseason Additions

Name Position  Contract Details
Daulton Varsho OF/C Trade – 2023: $2.7 million 
Chris Bassitt RHP              FA – 3-year, $63 million
Kevin Kiermaier CF FA – 1-Year, $9 million
Erik Swanson RHP Trade – 2023: $1.6 million

Ta-Ta Teoscar

Before we get to the team’s newest members, a familiar face was sent on his way out before the Houston Astros World Series trophy engraving had even fully set. The Jays sent long-time, popular and beloved outfielder Teoscar Hernandez to Seattle less than two weeks after the new world champions were crowned. Coming back was reliever Erik Swanson and pitching prospect Adam Macko.

Hernandez was one of Toronto’s top-run producers the past few seasons and anchored right field as an All-Star and two-time silver slugger.

Swanson has “swing and miss” stuff and does check off one of Toronto’s biggest needs; high leverage relief pitching. He is under team control until 2025 and should be a fixture in the late innings. The Jays say Macko has an impressive arsenal and could contribute in late 2023.

While it may not seem like a huge return for one of your best hitters, don’t forget Teoscar will be a free agent after this season, and the move does bring the club more financial flexibility.  

The New Breed

Toronto quickly filled the hole they created in the outfield by first inking Kevin Kiermaier to a one-year,   $9 million deal before trading for Daulton Varsho. Kiermaier is said to be a great locker room guy and has shown to be an elite defender in center. The former Tampa Bay Ray has three gold gloves and can do damage with his legs. Kiermaier stole 21 bags a few years ago and also showed some pop with 15 homers in 2017. Hitting from the left side is also a plus, for the righty-heavy lineup.

After locking down their first outfielder, the Jays shocked many by trading with the Arizona Diamondbacks for Varsho. While it addressed a huge need by bringing in a second left-handed bat with pop, some were surprised they gave up their top prospect.

Gabriel Moreno could become one of baseball’s best catchers after hitting over .300 in the minors and in his limited time with the big club. Toronto did deal from a position of strength, with Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk already proving they are legit big-league backstops on the roster.

Varsho is no slouch and is still in prospect-territory himself at just 26 years old. He’s under team control until 2026 and is an excellent defender who can play various outfield spots and catch. Varsho also has power and speed, with 27 home runs and 16 stolen bases, in a terrible D-backs lineup last year.

Toronto also addressed another glaring need by signing Chris Bassitt to a three-year deal worth $63 million. The highly underrated Bassitt strengthens an already strong Jays rotation.

He will likely slide in as the number three starter behind 2022 Cy Young award finalist Alek Manoah and K machine Kevin Gausman. Bassitt is coming off a career year with the New York Mets. The 33-year-old put up personal bests in wins (15), strikeouts (167), and innings pitched (181.2) and should fit in nicely in T.O.

Bassitt will be tasked with filling in for Toronto’s most significant loss via free agency.

Current Projected Payroll: $204 Million:

Per FanGraphs, the Blue Jays’ opening day payroll is projected to be $204 million. They have certainly moved from Main Street to Wall Street with the near-$30 million payroll jump following 2022. While the Jays are still a ways away from the league’s top payroll of the New York Mets ($376 million) or the AL’s most expensive team, the Yankees ($271 million), they jump into the top seven in the league with the third-highest payroll in the American League. 

2022 Toronto Blue Jays Notable Free Agents:

Name Position 2023 Team
Ross Stripling     SP San Francisco Giants
David Phelps   RP              Unsigned
Raimel Tapia OF Unsigned
Bradley Zimmer      OF Los Angeles Dodgers

 

Starting pitcher Ross Stripling is undoubtedly Toronto’s biggest FA loss this offseason, and the one Bassitt will be expected to at least equal on the mound. Following a season to remember, Stripling earned a two-year, $25 million contract with the San Francisco Giants.

The man they called “Chicken Strips” put up career bests across the board in 2022 with 10 wins, 134.1 innings, a 3.01 ERA, and 1.02 WHIP.

Toronto Blue Jays Team Needs:

  • Back End Starting Pitcher
  • High Leverage Relief Pitcher

While Toronto was able to address these needs in part with the acquisitions of Chris Bassitt and Erik Swanson, they could still use a few more pieces. 

In the bullpen, it would be nice to see the Jays add someone like former Detroit Tiger Michael Fulmer. The right-handed free agent has an ERA around three over the past three years, and 25 holds over the past two years.

Liam Hendriks is expensive but is a three-time All-Star that led the AL in saves in 2021. Unlike Hendriks, who the Jays would have to trade for with the Chicago White Sox, veteran lefty Will Smith is a free agent and would be much cheaper.

In the rotation, Toronto has big question marks after their big three. Who knows which Jose Berrios shows up this season from start to start? Yusei Kikuchi, Mitch White, and Hyun Jin Ryu (out until July) raise even more eyebrows. While Berrios is pretty set as the number four unless they make a move, that backend of the rotation still needs insurance.

Johnny Cueto could be an interesting possibility and continues to show he can still pitch year after year. Cueto is a free agent and had an ERA of 3.35 to go along with 18 quality starts last year. The 36-year-old veteran starter would come at a reasonable price, having made $4.2 million on a one-year deal with the White Sox last season. 

Near 40-year-old Cole Hamels hasn’t pitched since 2020 but could be worth the role of the dice. The veteran lefty does have 163 wins under his belt and would come nicely priced.

Down on the Farm:

While Toronto has dealt some of their top prospects over the past couple of years, there still are some players to be excited about.

Orelvis Martinez tops that list for the Blue Jays. The 21-year-old Dominican hit 30 home runs and drove in 76 runs in 118 games for the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats last year. Orelvis split last season between third and short and is the team’s second-ranked prospect after coming into last season ranked 38th in all of baseball by MLB.

Yosver Zulueta seems big-league ready and could help Toronto in an area of need. The 24-year-old right-hander has major-league stuff and regularly hits 99 mph with his fastball. “Zulu,” as he’s known, also features two solid breaking pitches with a mid-80s slider and low-80s curveball. Add an above-average changeup, and Yosver could make the jump to the Toronto pen in 2023. The Cuban hurler had 84 Ks in 55 innings over four levels of minor league baseball last year.

Blue Jays Futures Odds on FanDuel Sportsbook

Toronto broke the top ten on the World Series futures board, sitting eighth with +1500 odds. They sit third behind the Yankees and Astros to take the American League and are right behind New York (+100) at +220 to nab the AL East.