Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins has admitted the club is looking to add multiple bats this winter and it seems they are setting their sights high in that pursuit. Jeff Passan of ESPN reported earlier this week that the club was looking to make a big splash and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic today reports that at least one person in the industry considers them a sleeper for Shohei Ohtani. Additionally, Jesse Rogers of ESPN reports they are interested in outfielder Cody Bellinger and infielder Jeimer Candelario. Bob Nightengale of USA Today also connected the Jays to Bellinger earlier this week.
That the Jays are looking to add some thump to their lineup is not surprising. The club’s offense fared decently in 2023, with an overall wRC+ of 107 that put them in the back of the top 10 out of the 30 clubs in the league. Their 20.9% strikeout rate was better than average, with only five clubs getting punched out at a lower clip, but the 188 home runs hit by the Jays was 16th. Matt Chapman, Brandon Belt, Whit Merrifield and Kevin Kiermaier all became free agents at season’s end, subtracting four regulars from the group.
The club has already been publicly connected to a few names, including having interest in a Chapman reunion as well has exploring trades for players like Eugenio Suárez of the Mariners and Dylan Carlson of the Cardinals. But the club appears to also be exploring the possibility of signing a top free agent.
Ohtani is, of course, the biggest splash imaginable. He’s hit 124 home runs over the past three years while walking in 13.6% of his plate appearances, leading to a slash of .277/.379/.585. That translates into a wRC+ of 157, indicating he was 57% better than the league average hitter in that time. He won’t be pitching in 2024 as he recovers from elbow surgery but a return to the mound in 2025 is something he will surely be attempting. The Jays will have a rotation spot opening up at that time with Yusei Kikuchi set to return to free agency after 2024.
Though Ohtani will be exclusively a designated hitter next year, that won’t be a problem for the Jays, with Atkins already declaring the club is open to such an addition. Belt played some first base in 2023 but was mostly a DH, so Ohtani or someone else could take on a similar role to the one Belt had.
As for Bellinger, the Jays were interested in him last year before he signed a one-year deal with the Cubs. The outfielder was miserable at the plate in 2021 and 2022, seemingly due to injury, but bounced back in 2023. He hit 26 home runs and only struck out at a 25.6% clip. His overall batting line was .307/.356/.525, leading to a wRC+ of 134. He also stole 20 bases and was worth four Outs Above Average in center field. Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating weren’t as high on his defense this year but they still have considered him to be above-average in his career. With Kiermaier’s departure, the Jays have George Springer and Daulton Varsho in two outfield spots but could easily fit Bellinger in there. His ability to play first base on occasion could be a useful bonus as well.
Candelario is a corner infielder and would fit as a replacement for Chapman at third in Toronto. Like Bellinger, Candelario had a bounceback season in 2023 after being non-tendered. Between the Nats and the Cubs, he hit 22 home runs and walked in 9.2% of plate appearances. He hit .251/.336/.471 overall for a wRC+ of 117. DRS has never liked his glovework at third but UZR and OAA consider him to be around league average. His 2022 campaign was a disaster but his 2021 and 2023 seasons look quite similar and he was even better in the shortened 2020 season.
It’s perhaps notable that Candelario is a switch-hitter while each of Bellinger and Ohtani are left-handed. With players this good, the handedness may not matter as much as simply upgrading the lineup overall, but they would add some balance to a lineup that currently projects to lean right-handed. The departures of Kiermaier and Belt leave the Jays with just Varsho and Biggio as lefties who seem likely to get regular at-bats, with Spencer Horwitz and Nathan Lukes perhaps in depth roles. Addison Barger is also on the roster but has yet to make his major league debut. Tyler Heineman is a switch-hitter but is third on the catching depth chart behind Danny Jansen and Alejandro Kirk.
The Jays will undoubtedly have plenty of competition in these pursuits. Ohtani’s unique talents and marketability have led to widespread interest around the league, while Bellinger and Candelario have had plenty of suitors as well. The Jays currently have a 2024 payroll of $205MM and a competitive balance tax figure of $216MM, per Roster Resource, though non-tendering a couple members of their arbitration class could knock those numbers down some.
MLBTR’s predicted Ohtani to get a record-setting deal of $528MM over 12 years, Bellinger to get $264MM over the same length and Candelario $70MM over four years. The Jays have given out some sizeable contracts in recent years, including Springer getting $150MM while Kevin Gausman got $110MM. Signing Ohtani or Bellinger would require them to go to a new level but they may be willing to do so in order to make the big splash they seek. Cot’s Baseball Contracts estimated their Opening Day payroll was $210MM in 2023, though their CBT number went into the $260MM range. President/CEO Mark Shapiro has indicated the club expects payroll to be in a similar range in 2024.