Blue Jays strike out at MLB Winter Meetings as AL rivals beef up

MLB teams handed out a staggering $1.1 billion to free agents this week, but the Blue Jays couldn’t ink a single deal. (CP Photos)
MLB teams handed out a staggering $1.1 billion to free agents this week, but the Blue Jays couldn’t ink a single deal. (CP Photos)

The season hasn’t even started, and the Toronto Blue Jays are already playing from behind.

At this year's MLB Winter Meetings in San Diego, teams gave out a staggering $1.1 billion, including two contracts totaling $300 million or more, to free agents, but the Jays, one of the busiest teams in the previous offseason, couldn’t ink a single deal. Toronto’s closest rivals, though, got much better.

The New York Yankees retained Aaron Judge (nine years, $360 million) and Anthony Rizzo (two years, $40 million); the Boston Red Sox offset their loss of Xander Bogaerts by splurging on closer Kenley Jansen (two years, $32 million) and Japanese superstar Masataka Yoshida (five years, $90 million). Heck, even the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays added some key pieces.

The AL East is baseball’s most competitive division. If you’re a club with playoff aspirations and you’re not spending in free agency, it’ll be hard to win.

The near misses

The Blue Jays are always flirtatious at the Winter Meetings, and the same script played out this year. Toronto was "in" on lots of players — the Jays were closest to a deal with starter Andrew Heaney, per Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith — but just couldn’t get it done. Heaney chose the Rangers for $25 million over two years, while Kyle Gibson, who the Jays also reportedly showed interest, chose the Orioles on a one-year, $10-million deal. Ouch.

Toronto was outmaneuvered on the position player side, too. Cody Bellinger, another player in whom Toronto had some moderate interest, went to the rebuilding Chicago Cubs for one year and $17.5 million. Brandon Nimmo, another outfielder coveted by Toronto, got a remarkable eight years and $162 million to return to the New York Mets.

Additionally, the Blue Jays couldn’t cut a deal involving one of their catchers. Part of that failure stems from their best potential trade partner, the St. Louis Cardinals, opting to sign catcher Willson Contreras to a hefty five-year, $87-million pact.

While the Contreras situation wasn’t a direct missed opportunity, it still closes some doors for Toronto’s front office, which likely enjoyed the thought of Dylan Carlson or Lars Nootbaar patrolling the outfield in a Blue Jays uniform.

To be fair, some of the price tags this winter have been outrageous. The Blue Jays had renewed interest in Justin Verlander on a short-term deal, but they were never going to outbid the Mets’ $86 million over two years. Taijuan Walker made sense as a middle-of-the-rotation signing for Toronto, but, again, there’s no justification for matching the bloated four-year, $72-million deal given to him by the Philadelphia Phillies.

What’s next?

I won’t regurgitate the rhetoric about “stressing patience” as the Blue Jays try to find a free agent within their price valuation. No fan wants to hear that. But the market seems to move in spurts, so, even if significant time passes before Toronto makes a move, the club better be prepared for the next wave of spending.

When the time comes, the Blue Jays desperately need another competent outfielder. Number one, signing someone like Andrew Benintendi, for example, would complete the necessary second leg of the two-step plan initiated by the Teoscar Hernández trade. Without an above-average outfielder to fill his shoes, that trade is rotten. Losing out on Nimmo was a real gut punch, and now the outfield market isn’t as appealing. Pressure is mounting, though, and with each waning day Toronto doesn’t add to its offence, the optimism surrounding the Hernández swap withers.

Trading a catcher now becomes imperative, assuming Toronto gets an appropriate offer. Top-tier catching, especially bat-first catching, is very hard to find in today’s game, hence why the catching market is so fierce this winter.

The Blue Jays are blessed with two offensively gifted signal-callers in Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk, but must jockey for position in the sellers’ market with the Oakland A’s, who are aggressively shopping Sean Murphy. The Cleveland Guardians, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, Cubs and Red Sox are all reportedly looking to upgrade behind the dish.

Blue Jays fans better hope a trade works out because the problem now is that there are so few pieces remaining in free agency. B-tier players have received A-tier money this winter, which puts the Blue Jays in a compromised position. Are they now forced to overpay for players such as Benintendi or, gulp, Joey Gallo?

It might not seem like it, but there’s still a way for the Blue Jays to succeed this offseason, and the time still exists to get things done. But each time another AL team beefs up its roster and hands out stacks of cash, Toronto slips further and further behind.

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