Extension candidate: Blue Jays RHP Jose Berrios
“However, it still wasn’t enough to get the Blue Jays into the playoffs” is the inevitable add-on to any description of the Jays’ many positives in 2021, as despite winning 91 games, Toronto fell a game short of a wild card berth. For instance, Jose Berrios came as advertised for the Jays, posting a 3.58 ERA, 26.8% strikeout rate, and 4.5% walk rate over 70 1/3 innings after Toronto acquired the righty from the Twins in a blockbuster of a trade deadline swap.
The Jays had the third-highest fWAR (7.1) of any group of starting pitchers in baseball from August 1 onward, as Berrios joined with Robbie Ray, Hyun Jin Ryu, Alek Manoah, and Steven Matz to quietly turn Toronto’s rotation into one of the best in the league. Berrios threw the second-most innings of any in that group, as his durable right arm proved especially valuable when Ryu battled some injury problems down the stretch.
And yet, it was still wasn’t….you know the rest. While the Jays’ window of contention still looks to be wide open going forward, their near-miss in 2021 was costly since free agents Ray, Matz, and Marcus Semien could all be playing in other uniforms next year. The clock is also now ticking a little louder on Berrios, who is under control for one more season before hitting free agency himself after the 2022 campaign.
That extra year of team control only added to Berrios’ value as a Twins trade chip, and in landing Berrios, the Blue Jays gained some insurance if Ray and/or Matz do leave this winter. But, that insurance came with a steep premium, as the Jays had to surrender two consensus top-100 prospects to Minnesota — Austin Martin (the fifth overall pick of the 2020 draft), and Simeon Woods Richardson, one of the young arms the Jays acquired as part of the Marcus Stroman trade in 2019.
Toronto was willing to meet the Twins’ asking price in ordre to have Berrios on hand for two postseason pushes, and now that first push has come up empty-handed. Signing Berrios to a contract extension would certainly alleviate a lot of the extra pressure inevitably associated with that trade, not to mention the more important big-picture aspect of locking up a front-of-the-rotation arm for years to come.
Looking at recent extensions for starting pitchers, Lance McCullers Jr. signed a five-year, $85M deal with the Astros last March that might serve as a floor for a new Berrios contract. McCullers was entering his age-27 season at the time of the signing, and Berrios just turned 27 last May. The McCullers extension also only covered his 2022-26 free agent years, as the righty and the Astros had already agreed to a $6.5M salary for 2021, McCullers’ last arbitration-eligible year (though the deal did provide McCullers with a $3.5M signing bonus).
As per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, Berrios is projected to earn $10.9M in his final arbitration-eligible season of 2022, a hefty bump from his $6.1M salary from 2020. So while something in the range of that salary could be baked into a potential extension, Berrios has the extra security of knowing he has a nice payday already coming his way this winter.
I cited McCullers as a floor rather than a true comp for a Berrios extension because Berrios has simply been the more valuable pitcher. McCullers had posted some very solid career numbers at the time of his extension, though only over 508 2/3 innings, as a Tommy John surgery and some other injuries limited his usage. If anything, the Astros were rolling the dice in committing $85M to a pitcher with McCullers’ injury history, though his strong performance in 2021 should help quiet some doubts.
By contrast, Berrios has been the picture of durability throughout his big league career, never once making a trip to the injured list with either the Twins or Blue Jays. Berrios has tossed at least 192 innings in each of the last three 162-game seasons, and his 647 2/3 IP since the start of the 2018 season ranks fifth among all pitchers in baseball. Beyond just the durability, Berrios also has a 3.71 ERA/3.96 SIERA over the last four seasons, with an above-average 24.9% strikeout rate. Berrios’ hard-hit ball numbers are a little inconsistent, but 2021 saw him post the best grounder rate (42.8%) and walk rate (5.8%) of his career.
With this track record, Berrios’ representatives at Wasserman can surely argue that if McCullers is getting $85M over five years, their client’s extension should be worth well over $100M, and likely closer to $120M in order to keep him away from free agency. Should Berrios post his typical numbers in 2022, he’ll certainly land a nine-figure deal next offseason, and his camp will undoubtedly keep a close eye on how the free agent deals signed by Ray, Stroman, and Kevin Gausman this offseason will raise the bar for the pitching market.
It should be noted that Berrios has already been vocal about his desire to test free agency. “[I will have been] waiting six years, almost seven, to get where every player wants to be — a free agent, able to maximize our value….We are in a good position, and we’ll see what the best deal is going to be,” Berrios told The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Phil Miller back in July. Berrios turned down extension offers from the Twins in the past and also went to an arbitration hearing with the team to determine his 2020 salary.
In short, it might be that nothing short of an overpay on the Blue Jays’ part would convince Berrios to forego his shot at the open market. Since George Springer is the only Jay guaranteed money beyond the 2023 season, Toronto has plenty of open payroll space to work with, but with some caveats. The Blue Jays will have to do some spending to replace or re-sign their impending free agents, and the team’s list of future commitments will grow exponentially if Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, etc. are inked to extensions of their own.
Extending Berrios could be a tall order for the Toronto front office, though the team undoubtedly factored this into their plans when they traded for him in the first place. If a long-term deal can’t be reached, the Jays’ backup plan is surely to recoup draft pick compensation for Berrios via the qualifying offer (assuming the QO rules aren’t changed in collective bargaining negotiations) to help fill the dent left in the farm system by the departures of Martin and Woods Richardson. While the sting of that trade will be erased if Berrios does help the Jays to some October success in 2022, the club will certainly explore ways to keep Berrios in the fold for more than just one more run at a championship.