As the rest of the Blue Jays said their farewells after the 2022 season came to an abrupt close—'until the spring', 'see you in Florida', 'have a good winter'—Ross Stripling's goodbyes came with a caveat.
"See you next spring ... hopefully."
One of just three free agents on last season's Blue Jays squad, Stripling entered the offseason set to cash in on one of the best seasons of his career. He may still end up a Blue Jay, one way or another, but on Monday, Stripling filed for free agency along with 130 other MLB players.
Currently, the right-hander can discuss extension terms with the Blue Jays as the team mulls a potential qualifying offer (see below), but on Thursday, he is free to sign with any of MLB's 30 teams.
The Qualifying Offer
Toronto's first decision around Stripling's free agency comes in the form of the qualifying offer. As the Jays did with free agents Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien last year, the organization could offer Stripling a pre-set one-year offer ($19.65 million), ensuring the team gets draft-pick compensation if the player declines and walks. Stripling, or any qualified player, could also accept the $19.65 million one-year deal.
Despite Stripling's strong walk year (3.01 ERA, 2.7 bWAR), he didn't quite push himself into the tier of automatic qualify. The Jays found themselves in a similar situation with Steven Matz last winter, with the lefty posting strong 2021 numbers with a fluctuating track record. Deciding if it's worth tying up almost $20 million in one mid-rotation starter, the Jays chose not to qualify Matz, who entered free agency alongside a group of comparable hurlers who also went unqualified:
None of Matz, DeSclafani, or Gray received a qualifying offer last offseason, but all three earned multi-year contracts with annual values over $10 million in free agency. Stripling's recent rate stats may push him above this tier in some regards, but he doesn't have the established workload or innings of these comps, either. Stripling set his career high in innings pitched this season at 134.1, while Matz, DeSclafani, and Gray all had three seasons with at least 150 IP, each.
The Jays have until Thursday (Nov. 10) to offer Stripling a qualifying offer. Stripling would have 10 days (until Nov. 20) to accept or decline.
Given Toronto's recent precedent with Matz, the other market comparables, and Stripling's lack of logged innings, it's unlikely the Blue Jays will offer him the $19.65 million QO. So, the righty will hit the open market on Thursday after a career year, without any draft pick compensation attached.
Stripling's Free Agency Market
An established starter, with bullpen flexibility, coming off a 3.01 ERA season without a qualifying pick attached is sure to garner some interest from pitching-needy teams. The most obvious of those landing spots is the Blue Jays, who have open rotation spot(s) to fill and will still be in the Stripling market even if they choose not to qualify.
The Jays have confidence in Stripling to fill a mid-rotation spot—he was their choice for Game 3 of the Wild Card series that didn't happen. But, we've also seen them let options like Ray, Semien, and Matz all leave in free agency for larger contracts. Stripling expressed interest in returning to Toronto after the season, telling Inside the Blue Jays he'd "love to be a part" of the "exciting core" that Toronto currently has. But, these things almost always come down to money.
Like Matz and the other free agent starter comps, Stripling seems destined for a multi-year deal with an AAV over $10 million. The Athletic's Keith Law said he "wouldn't go over two years, but I'd give him $12 million or so per." But, as the open market so often requires, it's the team willing to give that extra year that often wins out. A deal around the range of Yusei Kikuchi's contract with Toronto last offseason (three years, $36 million) could be where the contract ultimately lands.
Stripling is a fit for most teams needing a stable mid-rotation option, but he does make particular sense for the Rangers. Texas is deprived of reliable veteran pitching, and Stripling grew up, went to college, and trains in the offseason in Texas. The Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals, Tigers, Angels, and Royals could also fit.