With Chris Bassett, the Blue Jays relied on reliability to boost the turnover

The Blue Jays have been among the most active teams in free agency over the past three seasons, transforming themselves from a bottom player into a contender and shaking up their reputation as a team that never expends – or attracts – free agents. This trend continued this year.

After staying quiet in the early weeks of this year’s free-agent frenzy, the Blue Jays are finally getting in on the action, signing right fielder Chris Bassett to a three-year, $63 million deal, a big league source confirmed.

Toronto’s first major free agent signing for the winter tackles one of her top priorities and fills a gap in her rotation. Bassett’s addition now makes Toronto’s rotation among the deepest in the MLS on paper, with Alec Manuah, Kevin Gusman, and Jose Berrios all on board.

Bassett, who will soon be 34, was among the best rookies on the market — he ranked seventh in the Athletic Aaron Jaliman’s roster for free starting pitchers – and with an average annual worth of $21 million, he commands the third highest annual salary for free agent pitchers signed so far this year, after Jacob DeGrum and Justin Verlander. However, the relatively short term makes this look like a manageable deal for a club that already has plenty of money tied up in their rotation. The move could ultimately be a smart pick, depending on how Bassett performs during his tenure in Toronto.

The Blue Jays had an open spot in their rotation after Ross Stripling — who took over in June for the injured Hyun Jin Ryu — left in free agency. Throughout the offseason, General Manager Ross Atkins noted that the addition of a starting pitcher was a definite need.

The Blue Jays have looked at a variety of starters to fill that niche as they’ve targeted attributes like pitching, stability, and playoff experience. The club had some interest in Verlander, though once the New York Mets were seriously involved, they were priced out of contention for three-time Cy Young winner. The club has offered Kyle Gibson a one-year contract, according to the report the athlete, but chose to sign with the Baltimore Orioles instead. Andrew Henie was another target who went elsewhere.

In the end, one of the many road maps the front office laid out weeks earlier led to an agreement with Bassett. If the Blue Jays sacrificed some upside in bringing in compared to some of the other starters that have been out there – the right-hander succeeds without flashy strike elements – they make up for it by acquiring one of those reliable starters past four seasons.

Bassett was the Mets’ most reliable starter last season, reaching a 3.42 ERA in 30 starts with 167 strikeouts and 49 walks in 181 2/3 innings pitched. Since 2019 while competing with the A’s and Mets, his ERA of 3.31 ranks ninth among pitchers with at least 500 home runs. Since he was plagued with injuries early in his career, he’s made at least 25 games over the past three full Major League seasons. (He started 11 games in the abbreviated 2020 season.)

Bassett doesn’t have the highest quality stuff, but instead uses his deep pitch blend to keep hitters balanced. His best pitch is a 92-94 mph diver who ranked as the second best diver in last year’s majors, Each Statcast has a stat run value. This pitch generates a lot of ground balls while the four-seam fastball, slider, cutter, and curveball can also miss the bat. His strikeout rate is respectable — 23.1 percent since 2019 — and he’s had above-average walk rates in the past four seasons. But the key to its success is damage reduction. He held batters to an average exit speed of 85.7 mph which ranked in the 95th percentile, per Statcast, while his hit rate of 32.8 percent was well above average as well, ranking in the 87th percentile. He’s averaged one home run (1.01) allowed per nine home runs over the past four seasons.

Bassett will turn 34 in February, but due to time lost to injury in his 20s, he doesn’t have miles on his arm like other pitchers his age.

If there’s a trend to watch, it’s how Bassett performs at the Rogers Centre, which plays like a neutral park and is expected to remain that way after the stadium’s renovation. In Oakland and New York, Bassett played at pitcher-friendly parks and stretched the home/road split to 2.68 and 4.26, respectively.

No matter how he adapts to the Toronto promotion, his durability will likely be an asset. Manoah and Gausman draft as the Blue Jays’ top rookies. Bassett will likely swing behind them in a rotational midfield role, and his continued presence should take some of the burden off Berrios, who will be trying to make a transition from a shaky 2022 season, his first since signing a seven-year, $131 contract. A million stretches with the blue jays. The Blue Jays are confident that Berríos will regain his former form, but adding an arm like Bassett at least gives them a man they can count on for third down.

However, there are still questions at the back of their rotation – although at least now there is one questionable point, not two. Yusei Kikuchi had an uneven first season in Toronto, eventually losing his spot in the rotation. He signed for two more seasons, but will have to earn a spot in the rotation after spring training. The Blue Jays also have the option of creatively filling the bottom five with a mix of Kikuchi, Mitch White, and Nate Pearson, all of whom can project collegiate roles. The Blue Jays could remain open to more additions to their rotation as well, though the Bassett move looks set to be the all-important rookie free agent deal this winter.

On the surface, a three-year, $63 million agreement for a starting pitcher about to turn 34 is reasonable, especially in a year when the offer price has been high. Even if Bassett’s performance declines toward the end of the deal, the Blue Jays shouldn’t be affected by the length of his contract, which expires after the 2025 season, which coincides with the time of the arrivals of Bo Pechet and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Eligible for free agency and therefore major paychecks due.

The deal costs a little more than just money. Because Bassett turned down a qualifying offer from the Mets, his former team, the Blue Jays stand to lose the second-highest draft pick in 2023 and $500,000 in international bonus spending. It’s the second time in three winters the front office hasn’t been shy about signing a guy with a QO attached to it, with George Springer as the previous example. The Blue Jays’ farm system is in a healthy place and can likely keep one less pick going in the upcoming draft, especially after receiving two more picks in the 2022 draft and losing both Robbie Ray and Marcus Simien to free agency.

The Blue Jays scheduled this season to improve run blocking and prioritize adding the starting pitcher. At Bassitt, they bring in a pitcher who can be at his best as good as a #2 in a noteworthy rotation, with a pitcher as the middle-spinning arm the team can count on.

The front office should still do work to improve the menu before opening day. The pitch is still an area the club needs and they can still add on the pitch front. Whether they trade one of their three catchers remains a pivotal question for them off-season as well.

But, by landing Bassett, the Blue Jays are meeting a major need with one of the best options out there and adding a signature of their own to keep up with the rest of the division. It started slow and fans were reminded to be patient, but now, one quick step later, Toronto’s offseason is looking a lot better.

(Top photo by Chris Bassett: Brad Mills/USA Today)


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