When all is said and done, the Blue Jays had a pretty good run this year…although with just one more win… What might have been. Nevertheless, it was encouraging to hear club President Mark Shapiro speak of “getting better” next year and expecting to have a World Series contender, quite a breath of fresh air from what seems like has been the norm for most of this century, with the bosses talking about fans being patient and the team ” just a few years away”. And Shapiro is right – Toronto is a big market, with good resources (both monetary and in way of minor league talent) ample enough for making a championship-calibre team next year very realistic. It wouldn’t take too much beyond luck in the stars keeping healthy and just one or two additions.
Compared to many teams, the Blue Jays have few worries with departing players this winter. Most of the key players are either young and under club control (Guerrero, Bichette), or veterans signed on for many years (Ryu, Springer) . But the lurking problem is the free agency of Cy Young-candidate Robbie Ray and all-star second baseman Marcus Semien. Keeping those two around is going to take some fine talking from GM Ross Atkins…and a lot of cash. I’d love to have both return for 2022, but realistically, I think they should pull out all the stops to bring back Ray…and perhaps let Semien go with a heartfelt “thank you” and handshake. And here’s why:
The importance of starting pitching is obvious. And the Jays aren’t terribly deep in it. This year it was actually a strong point for them, but they did have the Gods smiling on them a little by way of having all their main starters remain healthy almost all season. That rarely happens. Right now, as it stands, the ’22 Jays have Hyun-jin Ryu, Jose Berrios and Alex Manoah penned in for the rotation. After that … question marks. Ross Stripling? Decent at times this year, but so-so in overall terms. Young Anthony Kay or Nate Pearson? Kay’s been ok in spotty MLB use so far, but is far from proven; Pearson throws hard but hasn’t yet shown he can put things together for more than an inning or two at a time, leading me to wonder if he might not be better cast in the role he had at season’s end, a flame-throwing middle reliever. Clearly, at least one (and preferably two) really good, front-of-the-line starters are a necessity to even maintain this year’s 91 wins, let alone rise above. Keeping Ray, and maybe Steven Matz as well, is of major importance.
Now, middle infield is also important, no question about that. But good middle infielders are more readily available than star pitchers. Admittedly, Marcus Semien was not only “good” but very good. Many expect him to finish third in AL MVP voting (behind Shohei Ohtani, and the Jays own Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ) He was an all-star and is bound to win the Silver Slugger. He shifted to second base from his usual shortstop seamlessly and played solid defense all year. He even set an all-time MLB record for the most home runs by a second baseman in a season. And he was one of only a handful of players in the sport to not miss a game. His .265 batting average wasn’t head-turning, but most of his other numbers were – 115 runs scored, 39 doubles, 45 HR, 102 RBI, .873 OPS (33% above average) and a WAR of 7.1. All the while mentoring young Bo Bichette who played beside him at short. Coaches say he was always among the first players to show up for practices. There isn’t a bad thing to say about Marcus Semien’s Blue Jays season. And that, believe it or not, is a problem.
Semien signed on last winter for a single season, $18M deal. Many thought that a bit outlandishly high. While he had a good reputation as a decent defensive infielder and a good team player, his whole case was really built on the great 2019 season he had with Oakland when he was a serious MVP candidate. Besides that year, his results were rather ordinary – in fact, his OPS had been below league average every other year he’d played. But he proved himself in the crazy Jays ’21 season, setting the homer mark, while learning to play a new position in three different home stadiums no less! He’s bound to be there with Corey Seager and Carlos Correa as the most in-demand free agent infielders this coming winter. He’s going to be paid more than $18M a year…and probably for a lot of years. At current market rates, he’ll deserve it too. But that wouldn’t fit Toronto well.
Let’s suggest he is getting offers close to what the Jays paid outfielder George Springer – 6 years at $25M a year, for $150M total. Paying him that much for ’22 might be realistic for Toronto, and he’d be a great asset. Problem is, as the contract would wear on, he (already in his 30s) likely won’t get better, but the team payroll will skyrocket as players like Vladdy, Bo and Alex Manoah become eligible for arbitration. The $1M a year kids will soon themselves possibly be in Semien/Springer money. By about 2024, having Semien locked in at that amount for several more years would be a burden for the team and limit their abilities to retain all the young stars. Plus, Toronto is quite fortunate in having a number of highly-rated middle infielders coming through the pipes – Orvelis Martinez, Kevin Smith (who came up for a “cup of tea” this September) and Jordan Groshans are all among their top 10 prospects and Groshans and Smith could be Majors-ready next year. All three are expected to contend for jobs by 2023, as is Miguel Hiraldo, another top 10 prospect. Obviously, before long, having Semien around might not be a luxury the Jays would find to their advantage. That said, I’d still offer him a good one-year contract for a very competitive amount because it would be great to have him back . But I fully expect he’d turn it down once five, six, maybe seven year offers started rolling in. So what to do? Well, I have an idea.
Whit Merrifield. The Kansas City star second baseman. Wait- what? I put the idea out there on Twitter and got some positive feedback, although people said “I hadn’t heard his name being mentioned before”. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be, or couldn’t be.
Although a slightly different player than Semien (less power, more speed) Merrifield is the rare type of player who could fill the hole very well for 2022. Like Semien, he played all 162 games this season. In fact, he’s not missed a game since 2018, and he only missed 4 that year. He hit .277 with 10 HR and 74 RBI, but led the league in stolen bases (40) and doubles (42.) It’s the third time he led in steals, and he’s led the AL in triples before too. He averages about 17 HR per 162 games, but playing in the East, one might imagine him popping 20 or more for the Jays. His WAR this year was 3.5 – not Semien’s match, but still a huge plus for a team – and his last four year average is about the same. Defensively, he’s a match for Semien (.988 fielding pct, 8 errors, 103 double plays turned compared to Semien’s .985, 8 errors, 86 DP) and he is fully at home in the outfield as well, if need be. But best of all, he’s only under contract for next year and at an entirely affordable $2.95M. There is a club option for ’23, with a cheap buyout if declined. In short, he’s an adequate replacement for Semien at $15-20M less and by the time one of the young studs like Groshans is ready to take over, he’d be off as a free agent. Which is also why I believe KC might trade him…after all they tossed off their “franchise” pitcher Danny Duffy this summer. Realistic heads in Royals-land probably must realize their team which finished 74-88, 19 games out and was outscored by over 100 runs despite a red-hot two-week start to the season, will have a huge uphill battle to really compete in ’22. Merrifield, if he performs up to his usual measure, would probably bolt before they become a team capable of repeating their 2015 championship. Obviously, they won’t give him away…he’s a two-time all-star and one of the league’s better infielders. But he’s not George Brett either. If the Jays were to offer, say Cavan Biggio (whose role is looking uncertain now after a step backwards in ’21 and with so many infielders coming through the Jays ranks) and a middle-level young pitcher like Kay or Trent Thornton, I’d bet we’d see Whit in a different blue-and-white uniform come March.
Consider it a free tip, Mr. Atkins.