Jays sign Kevin Gausman!!!
On why Kevin Gausman makes sense for the Jays, why it's OK Robbie Ray will surely pitch elsewhere next year, and what's next for the team as their offseason acquisition phase really kicks into gear
The Blue Jays have landed a top-of-the-rotation starter, and added another nine-figure contract in the process, signing Kevin Gausman to a five-year, $110 million deal! So let’s talk about it!
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Kevin Gausman had a career year for the Giants in 2021, pitching to a 2.81 ERA (3.00 FIP) in 192 innings over 33 starts. He struck out 227 while walking just 50 and allowing only 20 home runs. Those are numbers that are comparable to the Cy Young campaign Robbie Ray had for the Blue Jays, and by some metrics even better — FanGraphs' version of WAR had Gausman at 4.8 wins compared to Ray's 3.9, for example. Like Ray, Gausman has been durable, making hay as a "two-pitch pitcher," and since 2019 has had just as sterling a strikeout rate while consistently producing better walk rates than Ray. Steamer projects Ray to be worth 3.7 WAR in 2022. It projects Gausman to be worth 3.6.
There are differences and caveats here of course — Ray is a fastball/slider guy, while Gausman is fastball/splitter; Ray has a longer track record of elite strikeout rates, Gausman has a longer record of preventing free passes; Gausman will be 31 in 2021, Ray will be 30; Gausman had his career year in a pitcher-friendly park in the NL West, Ray had his in the AL East — but obviously these two pitchers are going to be connected in the minds of Jays fans for a long time, and for good reason.
Signing Gausman will almost certainly rule out a reunion with Ray. Don’t shoot the messenger on that one, it’s just I’m pretty sure the idea of adding yet another $100 million pitcher to the trio of Gausman, José Berrios, and the still-expensive Hyun Jin Ryu probably isn’t on the cards. The Jays have made a choice here. But it’s an exciting choice! It certainly wasn’t clear that the team was going to be able to land any of the big fish on the free agent pitching market, so no matter which one it is, this is great for the team.
It’s also pretty funny, it turns out.
There is clear logic to what the Blue Jays are doing here, even if you maybe understandably wish they had chosen Ray instead. Gausman wasn’t eligible for a qualifying offer from the Giants because he’d been offered one a year ago and accepted, rejecting a three-year offer in the $40 million range from the Jays to stay in San Francisco, according to a tweet Sunday from Ken Rosenthal. Because of that Jays won’t relinquish a draft pick. As noted in my earlier piece, they will receive a pick because of Marcus Semien’s new deal with the Rangers, and now will add another when Ray signs elsewhere as well.
That’s seems like smart business if you think that the difference between one or the other isn’t all that great.
There are, of course, reasons to not think that. Ray thrived in the second half of the 2021 season — at least until September — while Gausman had a 4.33 ERA after the All-Star break (as noted by the Blue Jays From the Couch piece I cited in my earlier post). His spin rate, though not elite to begin with (his fastball ranked in the 60th percentile in 2021), took a bit of a dip following the “sticky stuff” crackdown in the middle of the season, though by the end of the year seemed to have largely rebounded.
Cause for alarm? Evidently not for the Blue Jays, who have evidently liked this guy for a long time, and are once again now putting their money where their mouths have always been. And frankly, even though the dollars per year are clearly different, in a world where Steven Matz requires a four-year free agent deal, getting Gausman for five just seems like the cost of doing business these days. It’s two million dollars per year more for one more year than the Jays gave 33-year-old Hyun Jin Ryu two winters. And at the time Ryu was just a year removed of having a three year innings totals that looked like this: 4 2/3 (2016), 126 2/3 (2017), 82 1/3 (2018).
That deal was scarier, still felt great at the time, and feels pretty fine even today, even though it didn’t go as well as anyone would have liked in 2021.
Of course, as with Ryu, a big part of the reason the Jays are comfortable taking the plunge here is that Gausman is really good!
Don’t kid yourself here. The Jays certainly have thought about not what Gausman himself brings already, but what they can help him unlock — and presumably sold him on exactly that kind of stuff, in addition to simply having the kind of organization and major league roster that now actually appeals to free agents. The Giants are no slouches in this deparment, so maybe there’s not a whole lot left to mine. But we keep hearing about pitchers under the Jays’ watch adding velocity — something Ray did last winter, for example, adding about 1 mph to his average fastball — and while Gausman doesn’t need that to be an exciting addition to this rotation, some extra velo or spin could potentially make him even more of a weapon.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The next step for the Jays is to keep on adding to their 2022 roster. We knew all along that this had to be a win-now team, but with this deal they’ve made a clear statement affirming that. Their work isn’t done, though I can’t help but wonder if their next major move won’t come on the trade market — something they can feel a little more comfortable doing knowing now that they’re getting a pair of extra draft picks back next winter without having yet relinquished one. That means we might be waiting a while for the next shoe to drop, as the roster freeze during the lockout seems like an ideal time for management types to work the phones to come up with trades, so I suspect we’ll see a flurry of trade announcements coming out of the lockout (whenever that ends!), while teams will take these next couple days to get free agent deals done.
At this point it’s hard to see another free agent signing of this magnitude coming for the Jays, though I suppose we shouldn’t rule it out. But a look at their future financial picture shows that it would certainly be a good idea for the club to prioritize putting short-term money on the books this winter.
We don't know the terms of the deal yet, but if we just take the $22 million AAV and spread it over five years we start to see the Jays' payroll getting toward unprecedented territory for this ownership group. According to Cot's, which estimates the salaries of the Jays' arbitration and pre-arb players, another $22 million in 2022 would take payroll up over $139 million — and they’ll certainly need to keep adding to that.
Add $22 million in 2023 and they'll have nearly $104 million committed to just seven players — Gausman ($22 million), Ryu ($20 million), Berríos ($16 million), George Springer ($24.2 million), Randal Grichuk ($10.3 million), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. ($5.8 million), and Yimi García ($5.5 million). You can add another $25 million at least for the combined salaries of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Teoscar Hernández, and you're already at about $130 million before even talking about somewhat hefty arb-1 salaries for Bo Bichette and Jordan Romano, a few other arb-eligible and pre-arb guys, and whatever additions the club will want to make.
Move to 2024 and it looks better at first, because with Ryu, Grichuk, Gurriel, and (potentially) García off the books the Jays would then have $65 million to start for Gausman, Springer, and Berríos. But Teoscar will be a free agent that winter, Vlad will potentially getting up toward $20 million in his own right, Bo will surely top $10 million in his first arb year, etc. etc. Extensions for Vlad and Bo will have to be seriously explored that winter, if not sooner, which will add plenty to the books in the coming years — especially if Teoscar is kept around, though my way-too-early suspicion is that he may be a casualty of the need for "agility," much like Semien and Ray have been this winter.
They can definitely make it all work within the parameters that seem vaguely expected from here, but I'm not sure how much more than the $65 million or so they'll be paying Springer, Berríos, and Gausman in 2025 and 2026 they'll want to commit that far down the road right now. Adding someone with a shorter commitment or still in his arbitration years or on a team-friendly extension (*COUGH* José Ramírez *COUGH) makes much more sense than adding another big ticket free agent this winter, and bumping that $65 million for three aging players in 2024/25 up to $90 million for four aging players, I think. And if adding those two draft picks from Semien and Ray landing elsewhere makes the Jays that much more comfortable with dealing some prospects away to do it, I think it's very possible they'll have played this offseason superbly.
We’ve got a long way to go as yet, but locking in a rotation of Berríos, Gausman, Ryu, and Alek Manoah to a team with Guerrero, Bichette, Springer, Hernández, and more is a very good start.
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