It’s a big off-season for the Blue Jays — and all of baseball

November 3, 2021
It's a big off-season for the Blue Jays — and all of baseball

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A big off-season for the Blue Jays — and all of baseball — is here

Atlanta won the World Series last night. That’s a pretty stunning turnaround for a team that was below .500 as late as Aug. 4 and only five games above water on Sept. 18. Atlanta lost its brightest young star, outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., to a torn ACL in July, and its ace, Charlie Morton, to a broken leg in Game 1 of the World Series. And yet, thanks partly to some shrewd manoeuvring by Canadian GM Alex Anthopoulos, it still won its first championship in 26 years.

If Atlanta could do it, then there’s certainly hope for another team that hasn’t won a World Series since the ’90s. The Toronto Blue Jays missed the playoffs by just one game this year with 91 wins — three more than Atlanta, which played in a much softer division. Toronto has an exciting young core, led by MVP-calibre slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and dazzling shortstop Bo Bichette, a strong supporting cast and a solid pitching rotation. With a few breaks, a title is within reach.

But first, the Jays will have to navigate a tricky off-season where they’ll try to hang onto some key players and maybe make a few upgrades — assuming, that is, baseball can avoid blowing itself up again. Here are the main things to keep an eye on as we head into the winter:

Can the Jays keep Marcus Semien and Robbie Ray?

Semien’s decision to bet on himself by signing a one-year, $18-million US deal with Toronto last January paid off splendidly for both sides. He smashed 45 home runs — an all-time record for a second baseman — stole 15 bases and finished second to Guerrero in Wins Above Replacement among AL hitters. Now he’s going to really get paid. If Toronto won’t give the 31-year-old the long-term deal he wants (and deserves), someone else will.

Ray is in a similar boat. Though he doesn’t have as solid a track record as Semien, who finished third in AL MVP voting in 2019 with Oakland, and pitchers are generally more volatile than hitters, the 30-year-old lefty is hitting free agency on the heels of a career year. Ray is up for a Cy Young Award after leading the majors in strikeouts and topping the AL in innings pitched and ERA. He’ll command a big contract too.

The Jays would obviously like to keep both Ray and Semien, and they’ve shown a willingness to spend on free agents in recent years. Before the 2020 season they brought in starting pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu for $20 million a year, and last winter they dropped a franchise-record $150 million over six years on outfielder George Springer. But the Jays don’t have an unlimited budget — like, say, the Dodgers — and they know that Guerrero and Bichette will soon need to be paid like the stars they are. Because of the way baseball treats young players, the Jays were able to pay them less than $1.2 million combined this year. Those days are numbered. Teoscar Hernandez, a steal this year at $4.3 million for 32 homers and 116 RBIs, is also due a big raise. And Toronto must decide what to do with lefty starter Steven Matz, who’s a free agent after a surprisingly strong season that saw him match Ryu for the team lead in wins with 14.

Who else might be out there?

The big names potentially available in free agency include a pair of excellent young shortstops — Houston’s Carlos Correa and the Dodgers’ Corey Seager — and a pair of recent National League MVPs — San Francisco third baseman/outfielder Kris Bryant and Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman. The latter’s parents are both Canadian, but it would be pretty shocking if Atlanta let the reigning NL MVP go after winning the World Series. Colorado’s Trevor Story and the Mets’ Javier Baez are potential fallback options at short if a team strikes out on Semien, Correa and Seager.

The biggest-name pitcher on the market is the Dodgers’ Max Scherzer, and San Francisco’s Kevin Gausman should draw attention as well. Former Jay Marcus Stroman is a free agent too, but let’s not even go there.

Will baseball avoid another brutal labour war?

Free agents can begin signing with teams as soon as Sunday, but the action might be put on hold with the collective bargaining agreement between players and owners set to expire on Dec. 1. A quarter century has passed since the sport’s last work stoppage — the devastating 7½-month strike of 1994-95 that wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years. Another disaster of those proportions is unlikely, but the sides seem to be bracing for a potentially ugly battle.

The players are concerned, among other things, about the decline of their average salary at a time when Major League Baseball is raking in more money than ever. Teams are leaning on younger, cheaper talent to fill out their rosters, and players are tired (as many fans are) of them exploiting service-time rules by delaying a hot prospect’s arrival in the majors so that he’ll hit free agency a year later than he ought to (a la Guerrero with the Jays). Players also want the luxury-tax threshold raised to better reflect the increase in owners’ revenues. The owners, more or less, just want to be left alone to continue raking in obscene amounts of money.

OK, I can already picture you rolling your eyes over another squabble between billionaires and millionaires who can’t ever seem to co-operate on how to divvy up the unimaginable fortune handed to them by baseball fans every year. So I’ll stop. But if this stuff doesn’t get resolved in a timely fashion, it’s not just free agency that could be delayed. Some fear the start of spring training and maybe even the regular season might be in jeopardy too. Read more about the issues in the looming labour battle here.

Robbie Ray is set to cash in after a career year. (Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

And quickly…

Two superstar athletes tested positive for COVID-19. Sidney Crosby is experiencing “mild symptoms,” according to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and has been placed in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol. It’s unclear how long he’ll be out, but symptomatic NHL players typically are isolated from their team for 10 days. Meanwhile, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reportedly will miss Sunday’s game at Kansas City and, under NFL rules, can’t return to his team for at least 10 days because he is unvaccinated. The reigning league MVP, it should be noted, had given the media and fans the impression he was in fact vaccinated. Read more about Rodgers’ situation here and Crosby’s here.

You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.

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