There was a time in the not-too-distant-past when the Toronto Blue Jays were among the biggest spenders in baseball. For a five-year stretch from 2012 to 2017, the Blue Jays ranked within upper-third of team payrolls in Major League Baseball.
It wasn’t until 2018 when their $151 million payroll nudged them just below the top 10 spending teams. Last year saw the Blue Jays’ payroll dip down to $111 million and put them within MLB’s bottom-third spending teams.
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With very few payroll commitments heading into the 2020 season, Toronto was on track to have one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball. But then a funny thing happened; the purse strings opened up.
The Blue Jays went from one of the most inactive teams in free agency to one of the biggest offseason spenders in baseball. To date, Toronto’s offseason spending has reached a franchise-record $114.35 million.
Where the Jays were near-dormant last winter, Toronto was aggressive on the free agent market this offseason. Jeff Passan of ESPN ranked the top spending teams this winter and the Blue Jays have spent the sixth-most money on free agents heading into the 2020 season.
Free agent spending leaders this winter, in which teams have guaranteed just shy of $2 billion:
White Sox: $195.5M
Blue Jays: $108M
Next highest: Rangers, $49.5M
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) January 6, 2020
Thus far, the Blue Jays have outspent big market teams like the Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, and Houston Astros. In defence of those clubs, they already have the makings of playoff-calibre teams and don’t need to spend north of $100 million on free agents to put a winning product on the field in 2020.
Last year, the Blue Jays spent a mere $13 million on free agents, which included Matt Shoemaker, Freddy Galvis, Clay Buchholz, and David Phelps. This winter, the front office took an uncharacteristic approach and paid top dollar for Hyun-Jin Ryu — $80 million in total — and committed $24 million to Tanner Roark, $6.35 million to Shun Yamaguchi and $4 million to Travis Shaw.
I say “uncharacteristic” of this Blue Jays front office because over the last few years, their M.O. has been about saving, not spending; making cost-effective moves and accumulating players under multiple years of team control.
It’s been about quantity, not quality. It seems like that tone has shifted this offseason.
The Blue Jays made a significant investment in a starting pitcher. The second-largest free agent signing in team history and the largest individual sum of money signed to free agent pitcher Blue Jays history.
Back in July, general manager Ross Atkins boasted about the team’s financial flexibility in the coming years.
“When that depth has transitioned and we feel as though it’s time to double and triple down, [we’ll] be as aggressive as anyone. We’ll have more opportunity to do that more than any team in baseball,” Akins told Sportsnet.
“We’ll have one of the better young farm systems, we’ll have the youngest team in baseball… and when we see that young pitching transitioning and that core coming together, we’ll have waves of talent coming behind it, and more financial flexibility than anyone.”
This flurry of free agent activity implies that the Blue Jays are at least trying to win, something they did very little of in 2019.
It’s an interesting time for the franchise. Suddenly, if the Blue Jays see a marked improvement on the field next year in 2020, ownership has shown the money is available if Atkins wants to spend next winter.
If the team increases their win total and the front office asks for money to spend on someone like James Paxton, Trevor Bauer, or Mookie Betts to help push them over the top, then the funding is available to double down again next offseason, if necessary.
And if there are improvements on the field, then maybe the Blue Jays have the makings to become a sleeper team in 2021. That would require a lot of things to go right next season, but it’s hard to foresee the Blue Jays performing any worse than they did in 2019.
Most of the organization’s top prospects have already broken into the Major Leagues, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio. Aside from Nate Pearson, the prospects who could make a significant impact on the big league roster in the near future have already arrived.
As impressive as it is to have drafted and developed homegrown position players, the Blue Jays realized they need to supplement that core with some reinforcements. Like Ryu, for example.
The next big moves within the next few years will come in free agency and in trade. If the Ryu signing indicated what’s in store for this organization, it’s not a matter of if the Blue Jays will make a splash, it’s when.