They say that pitching wins championships.
The team with the fourth-lowest ERA of any team in the postseason (3.28 ERA) was awarded the World Series trophy, with Atlanta Braves pitchers delivered when it meant the most.
Pitching is often the most heavily weighted portion of a team’s free agent budget because it’s the fastest and easiest way to augment a starting rotation. Adding two open market starting pitchers can transform an entire rotation.
With two free agents likely parting ways (Robbie Ray and Steven Matz), the Blue Jays need to somehow replace the combined 346 innings Ray and Matz pitched during the 2021 season.
Whether that’s through traditional starters, relievers, or a hybrid model remains to be seen, but there are plenty of attractive free agent options for the Blue Jays to help improve their rotation and bullpen for 2022.
1. Kevin Gausman (starting pitcher)
2021 stats: 2.81 ERA, 145 ERA+, 192 IP, 227 SO
2021 salary: $18.9 million
Arguably the belle of the free agent pitcher ball, Kevin Gausman will be in high demand this winter. Coming off the best season of his nine-year career, he helped anchor the San Francisco Giants towards their 107 NL West division title.
Gausman set career highs in ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and ERA+ as a member of the Giants. He’s also in the running for the NL Cy Young Award, and the right-hander has never finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting in his career.
Could the third time be the charm for the Blue Jays and Gausman? They’ve reportedly tried to sign him on previous occasions, and after signing a one-year deal with the Giants and taking their qualifying offer, he’s positioned himself for a huge payday this winter.
The Blue Jays theoretically have only one bullet in the barrel for a high-priced free agent pitcher, and that decision may come down to Robbie Ray or Gausman. Both had equally impressive seasons in 2021, but Gausman has the better overall track record.
If the Blue Jays only have the budget to sink into one marquee free agent pitcher, the safer bet would be with Gausman; someone who has eight seasons of an ERA+ of 100 or more, something Ray can only claim five times in his career.
2. Jon Gray (starting pitcher)
2021 stats: 4.59 ERA, 104 ERA+, 149 IP, 157 SO
2021 salary: $6 million
Digging a little further down into the bargain bin, Jon Gray’s overall numbers during the 2021 season weren’t very impressive, but his career numbers over the last seven years with the Rockies are pretty steady.
Away from Coors Field, Gray owns a lifetime 4.65 ERA, just slightly higher than his 4.54 career ERA pitching at home in Colorado. Overall, his strikeouts are farily consistent, averaging over 9 K’s per nine innings.
Gray has been nothing but durable, logging 151 career starts since his MLB debut in 2015. He can be prone to the long ball, but then again, which starter pitching at altitude isn’t?
He’d be a solid middle-of-the-rotation addition to the Blue Jays’ pitching staff, if the price is right, of course. Three years at $40 million total might be enough to convince him to ink with the Blue Jays.
3. Alex Wood (starting pitcher)
2021 stats: 3.83 ERA, 107 ERA+, 138.2 IP, 152 SO
2021 salary: $3 million
In retrospect, the San Francisco Giants really hit on their free agent starting pitchers, didn’t they? They signed veteran left-hander Alex Wood to a one-year, $3 million deal and he more than exceeded expectations for that measly contract.
Wood missed time during the season due to COVID-19, but otherwise had a pretty solid season with the NL West division champions. As the team’s number four starter, Wood made 26 starts and pitched to a 3.83 ERA.
Even at 30-years-old, Wood seems to have plenty of gas left in the tank as a starting pitcher, reaching his highest innings pitched threshold since the 2018 campaign.
Again, Wood wouldn’t be a number one target for the Blue Jays, but a nice compliment to their pitching staff, which is currently lacking of veteran arms.
4. Collin McHugh (reliever)
2021 stats: 1.55 ERA, 256 ERA+, 64 IP, 74 SO
2021 salary: $1.8 million
Maybe it was just the Tampa Bay Rays magic voodoo, but Collin McHugh had one of the best years of his career as a member of Tampa’s pitching staff. Split between starting and relieving, he posted a 1.55 ERA with a 256 ERA+.
Despite missing the 2020 season, McHugh returned in 2021 and dominated for the Rays, ranking among the 95th percentile and above for relievers in hard hit rate, xERA, xSLG, xwOBA, barrel and walk percentage.
McHugh would fit the bill as a multi-inning relief option for Charlie Montoyo to have at his disposal with a game late and close, but needing someone to bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and Jordan Romano.
5. Daniel Hudson (reliever)
2021 stats: 3.31 ERA, 122 ERA+, 51.2 IP, 75 SO
2021 salary: $6 million
Could a reunion with Daniel Hudson be in the works for the Blue Jays? The veteran reliever split time between the Nationals and the Padres last year, finishing with a 3.31 ERA and a 122 ERA+.
The Blue Jays’ bullpen was constantly in flux throughout the 2021 campaign, and signing a veteran reliever like Hudson may have eased a lot of those pain points throughout that tumultuous time.
Luckily, there’s still time to rectify that error, and reuniting with Hudson on a one-year deal as some back-end relief help would help shore up some late-inning relief options for the Blue Jays in 2022.