Blue Jays free agent targets: Starting pitchers

The Blue Jays came close to signing Justin Verlander last winter and could take another run at him this year. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

While the Toronto Blue Jays’ spending spree from one winter ago leaves them with a tight budget for 2023, they are still expected to be big players in the offseason sweepstakes.

The Jays’ pitching let the team down last season, so it would be wise for them to bulk up their group of arms through free agency. With the MLB GM meetings beginning Tuesday in Las Vegas, now is a perfect time to examine some of the Blue Jays’ top starting pitching targets.

Justin Verlander, RHP

Verlander’s resume speaks for itself. The 39-year-old has done it all, boasting two (soon to be three) Cy Young awards, an MVP, and now a second World Series ring to his name. The right-hander is expected to opt out of his $25-million player option with the Houston Astros, putting him on the open market, where his financial needs might just be a perfect fit with Toronto’s budget.

Verlander will be 40 by Opening Day, which means he likely won’t command a deal longer than two years. Since the Blue Jays will, in all likelihood, steer clear of long-term deals with pitchers this offseason, Verlander could slide into the top of the Blue Jays' rotation on a high-salary, low-term deal.

There’s some history with Toronto, too. In June, Verlander told ESPN’s Jeff Passan that he decided between the Blue Jays and Astros last winter. George Springer did his best to recruit Verlander back then and it’s likely the Blue Jays centre fielder makes another sales pitch to the righty for 2023.

Sean Manaea, LHP

Manaea could be the type of back-end starter Toronto desperately needed in 2022. All those shaky Yusei Kikuchi outings or cameos from Mitch White could’ve easily been soaked up by the consistent presence of the lefty Manaea.

Don’t get it wrong, though, the 30-year-old had his own issues with the San Diego Padres a year ago. Manaea tossed 158 innings but saw his K/9 drop while his BB/9 and HR/9 shot up a tick. Altogether, his 4.91 ERA at the spacious Petco Park led to an ugly 75 ERA+.

So, why would the Blue Jays want this guy? Well, there’s a strong baseline. Manaea’s track record going back to his time with the Oakland Athletics suggests this is a guy who doesn’t walk a ton of hitters and can get solid swing-and-miss. In 2022, for some reason, Manaea’s changeup imploded. His changeup went from being his best pitch in 2021 (minus-10 run value) to one of the worst off-speed offerings in baseball (11 run value).

A deal with Manaea would likely end up in the Kikuchi range (three years, $36 million). If the Jays do indeed break the bank for Manaea, they’ll accept significant risk. At the same time, his floor is much higher than Kikuchi’s, especially if he sorts out his changeup.

Sean Manaea is an intriguing bounce-back candidate for the Blue Jays to pursue. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Sean Manaea is an intriguing bounce-back candidate for the Blue Jays to pursue. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Nathan Eovaldi, RHP

Eovaldi has stated his preference to return to the Boston Red Sox, but if the door is open for him to go elsewhere, Toronto should swoop in.

The 32-year-old has never been an ace in his career, even before his Tommy John surgery in 2016 and the messy rehab that followed, which is why the Jays are a better fit than Boston. Eovaldi, a hard-thrower with boatloads of AL East experience, could slide into the back end of the Blue Jays' rotation and the team could even ensure his health by skipping a start or two down the stretch. With the questionable statuses of José Berríos and Kikuchi, Toronto would love to have a reliable arm like Eovaldi’s.

There are some serious concerns about Eovaldi’s stuff fading down the stretch. The righty began 2022 by averaging 96.8 mph on his four-seam fastball in April. By September, that average velocity was just 94 mph. As you’d expect, those dips in velo resulted in hitters teeing off for a whopping .800 slugging on the fastball from July onward.

Eovaldi’s fastball regression would factor into the price, leaving him as yet another affordable short-term solution to the Blue Jays’ pitching issues.

Nathan Eovaldi has plenty of experience pitching in the AL East. (Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Nathan Eovaldi has plenty of experience pitching in the AL East. (Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Noah Syndergaard, RHP

Ah yes, a full-circle moment. Syndergaard, who was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2010 and infamously traded to the New York Mets for R.A. Dickey in 2012, has been on Toronto’s radar for a while. The Jays showed legitimate interest in “Thor” last winter, then again at the 2022 trade deadline, but couldn’t work out a deal.

Now the 30-year-old graces the open market once more, this time coming off a respectable season (134.2 innings, 3.94 ERA) split between the Los Angeles Angels and the Philadelphia Phillies. The right-hander was nowhere near the calibre of pitcher he used to be, but Syndergaard still proved useful, pitching to a 103 ERA+ and preventing the home-run ball (0.9 HR/9).

The veteran is now a completely different pitcher. Gone are his days of triple-digit fastballs and high-strikeout outings. Instead, Syndergaard has morphed quite nicely into a mid-90s guy with a penchant for using all three of his off-speeds to induce weak contact. His sinker-slider profile plays well in Toronto’s rotation.

Syndergaard is a “station-to-station” free agent candidate. His 2022 season wasn’t hearty enough for a team to commit to a four-year deal, for example, which means he’ll likely settle for a high-salary, low-term deal for the second consecutive offseason. That’s right in the Blue Jays’ wheelhouse.

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