TORONTO -- It’s the beginning of a new era for the Blue Jays, with an aggressive offseason and a young core coming together to create a fresh competitive window.
Developing that core and the next wave of prospects provided the foundation, but major external additions were always going to be what pushed Toronto over the top. That’s exactly what happened in the early 1990s, as the Blue Jays signed established stars like Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield, Jack Morris, Dave Stewart and others to help push an already great roster to the World Series.
There’s still a long way to go for these Blue Jays, but this offseason has proven that the club is willing to spend. The numbers are a little bigger than they were back then, too.
Here’s a look at the five largest free-agent contracts in Blue Jays history by total value:
The stars aligned with this signing for the Blue Jays, who saw Springer as the “perfect fit” for their next step as club president and CEO Mark Shapiro put it. With a young team and most large contracts off the books, the financial flexibility was there, and Toronto didn’t hesitate to use it.
In 2018-19, the Blue Jays’ front office often talked about their long-term plan and, for fans who wanted to see a winning team on the field, it was understandably difficult to look that far down the road. The patience paid off, though, after the club went 32-28 in the shortened 2020 season and convinced the front office that now was the time for a big splash. It paid off for Springer, too, who cashed in following seven fantastic seasons with the Astros.
2. Russell Martin, C -- 5 years, $82 million
Martin’s deal acts as a blueprint for how many larger free-agent signings work. The latter years of his deal weren’t nearly as valuable as the front end, but that didn’t matter. When the Blue Jays signed Martin prior to the 2015 season, they needed one extra piece. Few players in baseball fit that bill better than Martin, and Toronto returned to the postseason for the first time in two-plus decades in 2015 and '16.
Over his four seasons there, Martin hit .225 with a .735 OPS. The Canadian was a clear fan favorite, with his No. 55 jersey still popular at Rogers Centre. Martin was dealt to the Dodgers prior to the 2019 season, the final year of his deal, and even though the Blue Jays didn’t reach the World Series they hoped for, the move made plenty of sense at the time and holds up with hindsight.
3. Hyun Jin Ryu, LHP -- 4 years, $80 million
Ryu’s deal in December 2019 offers an example of how plans can change. The Blue Jays were still a year or two away from legitimately competing, but landing Ryu gave them an ace-level talent who could accelerate that timeline and still be a major piece when the young core was ready.
The tiebreaker here for the Blue Jays was guaranteeing the fourth year at $20 million, bringing the full value up to four years at $80 million. Ryu was excellent in his shortened debut season, too, posting a 2.69 ERA over 12 starts and finishing third in voting for the American League Cy Young Award. Ryu will turn 34 just prior to Opening Day, but it looks like he has plenty left in the tank for the final three years of this deal.
4. A.J. Burnett, RHP -- 5 years, $55 million
Signing Burnett brought a jolt of life at the time, with the talented right-hander joining the Blue Jays after starting his career with the Marlins. When Burnett was on, his stuff had the potential to dominate, and he gave Toronto three strong seasons with a combined 3.94 ERA.
Following his age-31 season in the third year of the deal, Burnett exercised an opt-out clause in his contract and re-entered free agency. He landed with the Yankees, where he couldn’t quite replicate that success over the next three seasons (4.79 ERA). The Burnett deal didn’t propel the Blue Jays into the postseason, but they got fine value for their investment.
5. B.J. Ryan, LHP -- 5 years, $47 million
If you can’t beat ‘em, sign ‘em. The Blue Jays had seen B.J. Ryan trotting in from the Orioles’ bullpen for seven seasons, the past few of which were dominant as he grew into the closer’s role. Toronto saw an opportunity to grab one of the game’s elite back-end arms and took it, handing Ryan a lucrative five-year deal.
The move looked brilliant in the first year. Ryan turned in one of the best seasons a Blue Jays reliever ever has, posting a 1.37 ERA over 65 appearances while racking up 38 saves. Then, unfortunately, Ryan underwent Tommy John surgery in 2007, wiping out nearly an entire season. Ryan bounced back admirably with a 2.95 ERA and 32 saves in '08 before a difficult '09 season, after which he was released.
This was unfortunate luck for both sides and shows another reason why relief pitchers are one of the game’s most unpredictable commodities. It’s difficult to criticize a deal based on injury, though, and Ryan certainly looked like the pitcher the Blue Jays had envisioned in two of the five years.