How well would free agents Nimmo, Bellinger, Brantley fit Blue Jays?

TORONTO – At this point, it’s been apparent for a while: a left-handed hitting outfielder who can regularly play centre would benefit the Blue Jays immensely. And even as GM Ross Atkins expresses confidence in his options, the Blue Jays are openly seeking help on that front.

Such a player would add balance to a righty-heavy Blue Jays lineup while also offering defensive insurance after a season in which George Springer started 86 games in centre. While Springer plays the position well, there’s a need for depth as he enters his age-33 season.

Some of the Blue Jays’ best options exist through the trade market, as they could deal from catching depth to obtain a controllable outfielder with upside. But free agency is intriguing, too, with emerging stars, bounce-back candidates and established veterans available. Starting at the top of the market, here’s a look at how some left-handed hitting free agent outfielders do or don’t fit in Toronto:

Brandon Nimmo, 29

The top free agent outfielder not named Aaron Judge is certainly a fit from a baseball standpoint. With elite plate discipline and a lifetime on-base percentage of .385, Nimmo’s an ideal leadoff hitter. Plus, his defence has improved so much that he’s now a legitimate centre fielder.

So, really, it’s about the price. If, as MLB Trade Rumors projects, the cost is five years and $110 million, there’s a chance this deal works out well for the team that signs him. The projections at Steamer forecast 4.7 WAR for 2023, and even if Nimmo generates more like 3.3 WAR – his average over the last five seasons – we’re still talking about a very good player, one who would warrant a $22 million AAV.

Yet there’s also risk in bidding aggressively for a player who has played 100 games only twice, especially when that player plays one of the most physically demanding positions on the diamond and makes a habit of taking pitches off his body (he’s been hit by an average of 15 pitches per 162 games). If the cost goes beyond $110 million for the Scott Boras client, the risk becomes even greater.

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None of that means the Blue Jays aren’t a fit for Nimmo. He’d be great. The Toronto front office will see that, too. Count on them to establish an internal valuation of what he’s worth, engage with Boras about a potential fit and see if there’s traction.

But remember: George Springer had played 100-plus games five times when the Blue Jays signed him for $150 million. Kevin Gausman had made 30-plus starts four times when he signed for $110 million. And yes, the Blue Jays also signed Hyun-jin Ryu, another Boras client with a history of injuries, but the commitment there was $80 million, not $100 million-plus.

So as well as Nimmo fits, there’s a limit to how much the Blue Jays will go for any player. Behind the scenes, they must decide where that line sits.

Cody Bellinger, 27

From 2017-19, Bellinger bit .278/.369/.559 with an average of 37 home runs per season. From 2020-22, he hit .203/.272/.376 with an average of 14 home runs per season. Then, the Dodgers non-tendered him.

For teams seeking upside, Bellinger will of course be intriguing. He’s a player on whom the Blue Jays will do their share of background work. But that offensive dropoff is legitimately concerning, and it doesn’t look better when you go behind the scenes. The 27-year-old’s strikeout rates and walk rates have trended in the wrong direction in recent years and his max exit velocity has declined significantly, too, from 112.9 mph in 2018 to 107.3 mph this past season.

Now, maybe the right shoulder injury that Bellinger sustained a couple of Octobers ago explains some of that, but interested teams will presumably be asking Boras plenty of questions about the health of that shoulder moving forward. And here’s the other thing: how would Bellinger, a Scottsdale, Ariz., native who has always spent spring training in Arizona, feel about playing for a Canadian team that trains in Florida? Maybe he loves that idea, who knows. But maybe not. As a free agent he has final say.

Joey Gallo, 29

Where Bellinger’s future is somewhat uncertain, you know what you’re getting in Gallo, the prototypical three true outcome bat. With strikeout rates approaching 40 per cent, there are clear limitations to what he can offer, but he crushes the ball harder and more often than just about anyone, which makes him tempting, especially if he’s willing to consider a role where he starts primarily against right-handers.

Kevin Kiermaier, 32

There could also be a simpler answer.

Although Kevin Kiermaier offers none of the offensive upside of Nimmo, Bellinger or Gallo, he remains an elite defender with 93rd percentile sprint speed and 92nd percentile arm strength. Offensively, he’d likely fit toward the bottom of the Blue Jays’ order, but with an OPS+ of 97 since 2020, he can hold his own at the plate. Within the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, Kiermaier’s intensity and experience could be positives as well.

Some within the industry view this as a potential fit, but it should be noted that after years of playing in Tampa, Kiermaier may want to finally get off artificial turf. It’s impossible not to speculate about Chicago, where Kiermaier’s brother is the head groundskeeper for the Cubs, but the Blue Jays are far better positioned to compete in 2023, something that likely matters to the 10-year veteran.

Michael Brantley, 35

Two off-seasons ago, the Blue Jays nearly signed Brantley, a good friend of George Springer’s who came up in Cleveland when Mark Shapiro and Atkins were still there.

He’s 35 now, and a corner outfielder on a good day, but Brantley’s hit tool remains elite and he walked more than he struck out in 2022. Adding him as a left fielder/DH wouldn’t solve the Blue Jays’ centre-field issue, but it would certainly deepen their lineup, and after appearing in just 64 games last season, he’s likely looking at a one-year deal. This possibility is worth keeping an eye on, especially later in the off-season.

Andrew Benintendi, 28

Benintendi is not the youngest or the oldest, the fastest or the slowest, the best hitter or the worst. He won’t be the most expensive option listed, but he definitely won’t be the cheapest as he’s likely positioned to land a multi-year deal. Of course, the Blue Jays must explore this possibility, and maybe it becomes more interesting as the winter progresses, but right now it’s probably not ideal for the Blue Jays to make a massive commitment to an outfielder unless he can play some centre field.

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