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Kevin Gausman Helps Blue Jays Keep Pace in Loaded AL East

Toronto signed him to a reported five-year, $110 million deal. He could be a better investment than bringing back AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray.

On a day when the Blue Jays saw their star second baseman sign with the Rangers, Toronto wasted no time in lining up its next big move.

There’s no replacing Marcus Semien, but the Blue Jays took a sizable step toward getting back to the postseason with their reported five-year, $110 million deal with right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman, which gives Toronto a much-needed boost to its rotation with reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray still a free agent.

Jun 17, 2021; San Francisco, California, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Kevin Gausman (34) delivers a pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the first inning at Oracle Park.

The Blue Jays hit the lottery last year with Ray, who signed on a one-year, $8 million contract in the offseason and put together a career year on a hefty discount. Re-signing Ray—or replacing him with a pitcher of similar caliber—was always going to be expensive. That Toronto committed to doing so and invested considerable resources toward the cause signals the club won’t be content with being the bridesmaid in a loaded AL East. The Blue Jays had more wins (91) last season than any of the nonplayoff teams. Even without Semien, they quite possibly have the best lineup in a division that also features the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. Without bolstering their rotation, though, they seemed destined to remain just behind the pack, especially with the loss of Steven Matz (who signed with the Cardinals) and the uncertainty of whether Ray would return.

Gausman immediately bolsters Toronto's chances next season and moving forward. He joins a rotation that already has José Berríos, Hyun Jin Ryu and Alek Manoah, with highly touted right-hander Nate Pearson also in the fold.

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Replacing a Cy Young winner is no small task, but Gausman could be a better investment for the Blue Jays than Ray. Gausman, who turns 31 on Jan. 6, is only nine months older than Ray, and each had a career 4.26 ERA entering the 2021 season. The pair had remarkably similar numbers in virtually the same amount of playing time last year:

IPK%BB%HR/9ERAERA+FIP

Gausman

192.0

29.3%

6.5%

0.94

2.81

3.55

3.00

Ray

193.1

32.1%

6.7%

1.54

2.84

3.60

3.69

In the Statcast head-to-head, the numbers are pretty even, too, with Gausman holding slight advantages in multiple categories: The right-hander didn’t get hit quite as hard as Ray, and he induced swings-and-misses more frequently. Even as Ray unlocked increased control and brought his walk rate way down, it still wasn’t quite as low as Gausman’s.

A repeat of 2021 might be too much to ask for from Gausman, but the same would have been true for Ray. Gausman’s home run rate is likely to increase going from the Giants to the Blue Jays—San Francisco's Oracle Park ranked 29th in the league in propensity to give up the long ball, while Toronto's Rogers Centre was the 10th-best homer-hitting park in 2021, though the Jays played only 36 games there due to the COVID-19 pandemic—but it also likely won’t reach Ray’s mark of 1.54 HR/9 from a season ago, which would be the highest of Gausman’s career—a career that includes loads of time pitching in the bandbox that is Camden Yards.

Gausman’s arrival obviously won’t replace Semien, and the rotation still has a Matz-sized hole in it yet to be filled externally. But Toronto's offense is still as deep as any in baseball, with young, proven talent scattered throughout the lineup. The bullpen still needs addressing after ranking 16th in ERA (4.08) and 25th in fWAR (1.6) a year ago, and the front office will likely need to get creative with the budget after allocating so much money for five years of Gausman.

In the grand scheme of things, though, that’s a small-picture concern. With the giant payrolls in New York and Boston—and Tampa Bay's seeming to be always two steps ahead of the competition—the Blue Jays needed to act quickly to avoid falling behind. Semien’s departure and Gausman’s arrival happening in one day might end up being a net neutral, but the latter move was a necessary step toward keeping pace in baseball’s toughest tier.

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