The Toronto Blue Jays have a decision to make.
With Steven Matz leaving for the NL Central, the Blue Jays' options to fill two rotation holes continue to dwindle. Toronto was connected to almost every free agent starter to fall off the board, from Andrew Heaney to Matz, but if they're looking to add an ace two names stick out.
Beyond an unlikely marriage with Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, or Marcus Stroman, Toronto's best bets for top-of-rotation arm in free agency lie with Robbie Ray and Kevin Gausman. The Blue Jays are pretty familiar with both.
Ray made 37 appearances for Toronto in 2020 and 2021, re-finding his All-Star form and capturing a new level in 2021. The lefty entered free agency off a Cy Young winning season where he led the American League in ERA, innings, and strikeouts.
A long-time Baltimore Oriole, Gausman has slipped through Toronto's fingers in recent years. The Blue Jays offered the righty a multi-year deal before he accepted the qualifying offer last winter, per reports, and entered this offseason with interest in Gausman once again, per a team source.
Both arms remain on the market, they're both 30, the pair project to get similar lengthy deals in free agency, and both have a compelling case to front the Blue Jays' rotation in 2022. So, which ace should Toronto target?
The Case For Robbie Ray:
Ray has the high ceiling and we saw it in 2021. Maybe there's more for the lefty to unlock, but winning the Cy Young in a near-unanimous vote is about as good as it gets for most.
Ray was worth 3.9 fWAR in 2021 and Steamer projects a 3.7 fWAR season in 2022, buying the pitcher he's become. Unlike Gausman, who had never posted a sub-3.5 ERA before 2021, Ray's award-winning season mirrors his peak in Arizona. Ray was an All-Star in 2017, posting a 2.89 ERA and receiving Cy Young votes. While 2021 out of nowhere, when you toss out 2020 and add in his new low walk rate, the Cy Young winning season kinda makes sense—building on five straight seasons of sub-4.4 FIP from 2015 to 2019.
While some home run prone pitchers struggle at Rogers Centre, Ray flourished in Toronto. Rogers Centre was Ray's best park in 2021, where he posted a 2.04 ERA and .830 WHIP in front of Toronto's home fans. Ray's success at the dome also helped him improve throughout the season, posting a lower ERA and WHIP during the second half. Gausman, instead, posted a 4.42 ERA and 1.371 WHIP in the second half after earning 1.73 ERA and .820 WHIP in his first 18 starts.
Projected to receive a five-year, $130 million deal by MLB Trade Rumors, signing Ray would be a commitment to the 2021 pitcher he was, a belief in the elite heights he achieved. The Jays believed in Ray in 2021, letting him work deeper into games than any other starter and readjusting their rotation late to set him up for crucial starts. For 2022, they could double down on that belief, or they could turn to another.
The Case For Kevin Gausman:
The repeated and real interest the Blue Jays have in Gausman should not be ignored. They've been eying him for a while, and he showed why in 2021.
Gausman and Ray's 2021 seasons were eerily similar, with nearly identical innings pitched (192 vs 193.1), ERA (2.81 vs 2.84), and WHIP (1.04 vs 1.05). Where the former Giant makes his case for the contract comes with projectability.
Gausman enters free agency with back-to-back sub-3.1 FIP seasons and an expected ERA of below 3.6 in 2021. He had the eighth-most 'valuable' pitching season in all of baseball last year, and. was worth $7 million more than Ray, per FanGraphs dollars-WAR calculation.
Attacking NL lineups and pitching in a far pitcher-friendly San Francisco helped Gausman's ability to keep the ball in the park, a struggle for both him and Ray, but expected stats don't love Ray's 2021 quite as much as Gausman's. Toronto's lefty outperformed his FIP and xERA by almost a full run, and Gausman ranked higher in suppressing barrels, inducing chases, and was marginally superior in stats like xwOBA, XERA, and xSLG.
Where it gets difficult with Gausman could be convincing him on Toronto. Money talks, but Ray has been in the city, he's worked with the staff and flourished at Rogers Centre. Free agency is a dance that requires two—Gausman wouldn't tango last winter and Ray may be the more natural partner.
Gausman and Ray are comparable starters who reached similar heights in 2021 and will get paid similarly large amounts because of it.
The Blue Jays have two needs in the rotation, but it's hard to see them signing both these top earners. They may like both Gausman and Ray, but if Toronto makes a free-agent splash on an elite pitcher, they'll will have to decide on one.