TORONTO -- Liam Hendriks, the top reliever available in free agency, visited the Blue Jays’ complex in Dunedin, Fla., on Monday, a source told MLB.com.
The club has not confirmed the visit, which was first reported by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi and should be a familiar drive for Hendriks, who spent parts of two seasons with the Blue Jays in 2014 and '15. The club’s training facilities have been significantly upgraded through recent renovations, however.
Hendriks, 31, has been one of baseball’s most dominant relievers over the past two seasons with the A’s, posting a combined 1.79 ERA over 110 1/3 innings with 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings and just two walks per nine innings. Hendriks showed early signs of this in '15, his final year with the Blue Jays, in which he posted a 2.92 ERA. He’s since developed into a pitcher worthy of the multi-year contract he’ll land this offseason.
Much like Trevor Bauer’s recent conversations with the Blue Jays, this visit is a standard piece of the offseason process. Phone calls are constant, and even though in-person visits may be limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, they remain possible. This is especially true for a player living in hubs like Arizona or Florida -- like Hendriks -- who can tour multiple facilities in the same area.
The market for Hendriks stretches well beyond the Blue Jays, but here’s how it all lines up at this point in the process:
Why a Hendriks reunion makes sense
The Blue Jays have money to spend and a vacant closer’s role with the departure of Ken Giles. It’s not difficult to draw the line from Point A to Point B.
Internal candidates like Jordan Romano and Rafael Dolis will be given a chance to compete, and as the Blue Jays showed in 2020, they aren’t tied to the role of a traditional closer, but it’s a luxury they can certainly afford. Solidifying the ninth inning would also allow manager Charlie Montoyo to deploy arms like Romano and Dolis in high-leverage situations, whether that be the fifth inning or eighth inning. That aggressive bullpen usage was at the heart of their overall pitching strategy in '20, and more often than not, it worked.
Simply put, Hendriks is the high-end version of what the Blue Jays have been trying to find on cheaper deals for years. They’ve had success at the bottom end of the market, but being a competitive team with payroll flexibility allows a club to pay a premium for the sure thing.
It also matters that Hendriks is expected to land a two- or three-year deal, with Trevor May’s two-year, $15.5 million USD contract with the Mets acting as a baseline that clubs will need to move well north of. A potential five-year deal for someone like outfielder George Springer has long-term consequences, and it would require the Blue Jays to consider future payrolls with Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Nate Pearson and others eventually getting more expensive. With Hendriks, though, that money would be off the books in time to absorb the young core’s growth.
The complicating factors
The Blue Jays aren’t the only club involved here, to state the obvious. A 31-year-old who pitches at an elite level with no present signs of losing velocity fits in every bullpen, and while the availability of save opportunities could tilt things one way or the other, there are plenty of cooks in the kitchen.
Shopping at the top end of the free-agent market is relatively new for this era of the Blue Jays. The front office nailed the Hyun Jin Ryu signing last offseason at four years and $80 million, but it’s challenging to compete for pitchers like Ryu and Hendriks, who are at or near the top of their position in the league. One team lands the big fish, and for the others, it doesn’t matter if they were second or 15th in consideration.
On short-term deals, the Blue Jays’ 2021 situation will also matter. In '20, they could not secure federal government approval to play their home games at Rogers Centre with visiting teams coming in and out of the country. As Spring Training nears, the likeliest scenario could see Toronto opening its season in Dunedin with the hope of returning to Rogers Centre at some point in the summer as the COVID-19 vaccination is more widely administered.
Just how much that will impact decisions will vary depending on where a player lives and their own personal preferences, but it will absolutely be a factor.
The added wrinkle
While a Springer or DJ LeMahieu signing would represent a growth in the Blue Jays’ set strategy, Hendriks would represent more of a philosophical shift.
Toronto has long done its bullpen work -- rather efficiently, too -- on Minor League deals, small Major League deals and developing young arms of its own. It’s always been expected that the club would spend big on position players or starters when the time was right, which it is now, but the bullpen has typically been a spot where the Blue Jays save money to use elsewhere. The acquisition of Hendriks, or any other top-end reliever, is the type of win-now move this organization is set up to make.
Hendriks is an elite free agent at his position, but he isn’t in the “elite” tier of free agents that jump to mind in the overall market. Whether the Blue Jays would count Hendriks as one of their “elite” offseason additions is a matter of semantics, but regardless, adding a reliever of his caliber would look much better -- and make far more sense -- as the club’s third-biggest splash in the big picture of this offseason.