Friday, June 2, 2023

Three ways the Blue Jays can improve their infield after losing Marcus Semien to free agency

Although they did not qualify for the postseason, the case can be made the Toronto Blue Jays were one of the three best teams in the American League in 2021. Their powerhouse offense and strong rotation were undermined by a fallible bullpen, which is why Toronto went home in October rather than to the postseason. Nothing can sink a season quite like a bad bullpen.

Here’s where the Blue Jays ranked among the 15 AL teams in various categories this past season:

  • Runs scored: 846 (3rd most)
  • Runs allowed: 663 (4th fewest)
  • Run differential: plus-183 (3rd best)
  • Position player WAR: 30.5 (2nd most)
  • Pitcher WAR: 22.9 (2nd most)

The Blue Jays lost two key pieces of their 2021 roster to free agency prior to the lockout: Cy Young winner Robbie Ray signed with the Mariners, and third place MVP finisher Marcus Semien signed with the Rangers. Toronto adequately replaced Ray with Kevin Gausman. They’ve yet to replace Semien, however. There’s an open spot on the infield at the moment.

“Adding another infielder either in a significant way or just to complement some of the other young infielders that we have would be a good outcome,” Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins told reporters, including TSN’s Scott Mitchell, prior to the owners’ lockout. “Don’t feel like we absolutely have to, but we’d like to add another infielder to that mix.”  

The Blue Jays are locked into Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at first base and Bo Bichette at shortstop. Worst case scenario is they’ll begin next season with Cavan Biggio at second and Santiago Espinal, who replaced Biggio as the starting third baseman down the stretch this past season, at third base. That said, there’s still so much offseason to go. Why not look for an upgrade?

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Blue Jays have roughly $137.5 million on the books next season. That includes Gausman, the José Berríos extension, and arbitration projections. Toronto ran payrolls in the $162 million range as recently as 2017 and 2018. They have to prepare for Guerrero and Bichette extensions, though Hyun-Jin Ryu ($20 million per year) and Randal Grichuk ($10.3 million per year) will be off the books in two years. Point is, Toronto should have money to spend this winter.

It is no surprise then that, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the Blue Jays were “very much” in on Corey Seager before he joined Semien with the Rangers. With all due respect to Semien, Seager would have been the ideal infield addition given his age (27) and ultra-productive lefty bat. As good as the Blue Jays are offensively, their lineup lacks a lefty impact hitter. They’re very right-handed.

Once the lockout ends, the Blue Jays (and every other team) will have to scramble to finish their offseason business prior to spring training. That includes continuing to fortify the bullpen, and also bringing in an infielder to replace Semien. Biggio and Espinal are fine players, though ideally one would fill a utility role. Relying on both as regulars is not ideal.

The Blue Jays have money to spend and need to replace Semien. What are their options? Let’s dive in.

Top of the free agent market

Even after the pre-lockout free agent frenzy, there are two top tier middle infielders available: Carlos Correa and Trevor Story. Correa could join his pal George Springer in Toronto and add to a lineup that is already heavy on devastating righty hitters. Story comes with throwing concerns, though Toronto could slide him over to second base, if necessary.

An outside the box thought: bring in a new first baseman and move Guerrero back to third base. Vlad Jr. settled in nicely at first this year and I wouldn’t mess with that, though this is something to consider, particularly with honorary Canadian Freddie Freeman still available. Dream with me:

  1. CF George Springer
  2. 3B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
  3. 1B Freddie Freeman
  4. DH Teoscar Hernández
  5. SS Bo Bichette
  6. LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
  7. RF Randal Grichuk
  8. C Alejandro Kirk

  9. 2B Cavan Biggio/Santiago Espinal

The only other elite non-first base infielder remaining in free agency is Kris Bryant, who could neatly slot in at third base for the Blue Jays, and also provide added depth in the outfield. I think Toronto would rather add a legitimate middle infielder in a perfect world, though it’s possible Bryant at his price makes more sense than Story and especially Correa at their prices. 

Because he’s a year younger, Correa’s contract figures to exceed Seager’s, and if the Blue Jays stopped short of placing the high bid on Seager, they probably won’t win a Correa bidding war. Story is very good too, and it’s not completely crazy to think he could get squeezed into a one-year contract a la Semien last offseason. That won’t be the case with Bryant (or Freeman).

Mid-range free agents

At the moment the middle of the free agent infield market isn’t all that appealing. Kyle Seager is still available and he would give the Blue Jays a lefty bat with power, something they currently lack, plus he’d add defensive value at third base. As a bottom of the order guy, sure, it could work. Seager wouldn’t the best or most inspired Semien replacement, but it could work.

The rest of the mid-range free agent infielder market features stopgaps like Andrelton Simmons, Josh Harrison, José Iglesias, and Jonathan Villar. Players who won’t move the needle much, if at all. Given where they are in the competitive cycle (i.e. ready to win right now), the Blue Jays should aim higher than the middle of the market. Consider this the last resort section.

The trade market

Toronto ostensibly has money to spend and free agency is the easiest way to spend that money, though it can be leveraged in the trade market too. Teams will straight up give you good players as long as you pay their salaries these days. Look no further than the Reds dumping Tucker Barnhart and Wade Miley, or what the Braves did at this year’s trade deadline.

The trade market is loaded with high-end infielders. Consider:

Ramírez would be difficult to acquire because he’s so good and so affordable, and Cleveland doesn’t have any other significant salaries they want to shed. But could you get a better deal for Chapman if you take on, say, the $7 million owed to Elvis Andrus or the $8.25 million owed to Stephen Piscotty? Call about Marte and Arizona would probably ask about getting out of the $17.5 million they owe Nick Ahmed.

You don’t have to try too hard to see how the Blue Jays can leverage their payroll room by taking on a bad contract to lower the prospect cost for another player, like with Andrus and Chapman, or Ahmed and Marte. There is plenty of precedent for such a move. Just last offseason Cleveland attached Carlos Carrasco to Francisco Lindor to shed his contract. It happens all the time.

The other thing the Blue Jays have going for them is catching depth, which is always a valuable trade chip. Kirk is highly regarded and Gabriel Moreno is one of the top prospects in baseball. Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire are viable big leaguers too. Trading a catcher to address a need elsewhere on the roster is a smart move, and Kirk and Moreno are significant young players who would open a lot of doors. Put Moreno on the table and you’d have the D-Backs’ attention with regards to Marte.

Ideally the Blue Jays would just spend their money on a top free agent and keep all their prospects. You can’t completely close the door on trades though, especially now that the free agent market has thinned considerably. And hey, take on a bad contract in a trade you might get to keep your very best prospects too, the way the Dodgers did with David Price in the Mookie Betts trade.

The Blue Jays have a great offense and four above-average starters in Berríos, Gausman, Ryu, and Alek Manoah. The bullpen isn’t top notch but is fixable. Replacing Semien won’t be that easy though, and truth be told, his 2021 production might be irreplaceable. There are still ways to replace some of that production, maybe even most of it, and Toronto has the money and prospects to spend. Now it’s just a matter of finding the best, most sensible deal.

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