By: Dan Grant
For the second straight season, the Toronto Blue Jays ended their year with a thrilling playoff run, capped by a disheartening ALCS loss. Unlike the entertaining six game series against the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in 2015, this year saw them run into the joyless buzzsaw that was Andrew Miller and the Cleveland bullpen.
The Blue Jays inability to muster offense against that bullpen was maddening, but not wholly unexpected — Cleveland was near the top of the heap in many relief pitching categories on the season, and only got better after adding Miller mid-season. They also had a manager in Terry Francona that was willing to deploy his best asset creatively and aggressively, maximizing the chances of a team that was far from full health.
The real frustration came from the Jays struggles to hit against guys like Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt. Whatever the reasons were — injuries, unfamiliarity, pressure — the results weren’t there. For a lot of fans, that’s the new complaint about this team — gaudy stats from big names during the regular season, but a lack of follow through when it really matters. I get where this comes from, while not necessarily agreeing with it. Still, I can see how Toronto fans might be ready for a different look, because this one has fallen short two years in a row.
Where I fall off however, is in understanding why this same faction of fans think the Jays would be wise to move on from the immense talent of roster stalwarts Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and replace them — the former because of diminished skill and ‘attitude problems’, the latter because of cost, and both in an attempt to change the identity of the Jays offense. I ask those fans this: replace them with what, exactly? The answers you hear back most often — contact hitters, Joey Votto, and the dreaded small ball (which I’m convinced means something different to just about everyone) — aren’t real answers, or viable options.
Let’s take a deeper look at this Blue Jays off-season. What they’ve done so far, what they need and what their real options are.
Toronto added soon to be 34 year old designated hitter Kendrys Morales on a three year deal worth $33 million. Morales represents a different look for Toronto — a switch hitter with power, who is going to get 99.9% of his playing time at designated hitter and could technically man first base in an absolute pinch, in that he’s a human being with arms, legs and one would assume, a baseball glove.
Morales has been durable for Kansas City the past two seasons, playing in 316 of 324 games, and hitting the ball pretty well, which is good since it’s his only job. Toronto will be hoping to get more of the 2015 version of Morales, when he slashed .290/.362/.485 with 22 homers and a 130 WRC+, as opposed to last year where horrendous April, May and July months were the backbone of a lacklustre campaign that saw his home run total rise to 30, but every other number droop. Morales is a horrendously slow base runner, which significantly degrades his value as well — even with that strong 2015 slash line, he was still worth only 1.9 WAR via Fangraphs, as he didn’t play the field and took away so much with his plodding footspeed. That dropped to 0.7 WAR last season, for a total of 2.6 wins over his time in KC. Edwin Encarnacion was worth 7.4 WAR to the Jays over the same time period, so for those thinking Morales is a straight replacement, he really isn’t anywhere close.
One tidbit that I’m not sure is a repeatable skill, but you’ll certainly hear about this season — Morales has been a very good hitter with runners in scoring position during his career, and especially last season when he posted a WRC+ of 150 in those situations. The Blue Jays seemed to struggle in these situations all season long, so you’re going to here a lot of Pat Tabler mentioning how Morales is a ‘professional hitter’.
Hold onto your butts.
Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
Gurriel is an interesting addition for the future, in that he grades quite well defensively and has professional experience, having played in the Cuban professional league since he was 16 years old, under his father (a former Olympian) and with his older brother Yulieski, a highly touted Houston Astros signing. He played mainly left field last season, but will start the year at Double A New Hampshire playing shortstop. His speed and arm apparently play at both short and in centrefield, so it’ll be interesting to see where he lands long term, and how fast his track to the Majors is. He appears to be more of a utility man with a decent bat than a blue chip prospect, but as his contract was only 22 million over 7 years, the Jays have to feel good about the price for his prime — they’ve got him locked up until he’s 30 years old.
The Jays retained the popular Grilli for another season by picking up the $3 million option on his contract. Ross Atkins called the move a ‘no brainer’, and given the state of Toronto’s bullpen, you can see why. Still, it would behoove Toronto to remember that Grilli had a season-ending Achilles injury just a season ago and is 40 years old. Relying on him to be a key cog in the bullpen is a proposition filled with risk.
Up In The Air
The Jays reportedly have a three year contract offer out to reliever Brett Cecil, but the term and structure of the deal hasn’t yet been leaked. Is it two years and a team option? Is it a five million AAV? Six? More?
With the thin market on left handed relievers, the 30 year old Cecil could be poised to cash in. He’s stated that he’d love to remain in Toronto, but this is likely the biggest contract he’ll get in his professional career. If he can get a fourth year from someone, or even a third guaranteed year, it’s no sure thing he’ll be back in Toronto. With the Jays only having Aaron Loup, Matt Dermody and Chad Girodo as lefties on the 40 man roster, you can bet Cecil is a priority right now.
[ED. NOTE– Cecil signed a 4 year deal worth 30.5 million dollars with the St Louis Cardinals on Saturday, November 19th, three days after this was published]
Beyond Cecil, the Jays extended qualifying offers to Bautista and Encarnacion, which as expected, were rejected. This ensures they’ll receive a compensatory pick if either or both sign elsewhere. The QO system seems to be something that seems beyond a lot of the fans, as I’ve read a whole lot of comments about ‘greed’ and ‘good riddance’ since news of their declining the offers broke — to be clear, they were never expected to accept them. Even if they were just regular players hoping to get a two year deal worth say, $18 million total, that’s more than the 17.2 they were just offered. As it stands, they’re both All-Star talents who will certainly receive multiple offers with significantly more money and term. Greed has nothing to do with it, and Toronto is by no means out of the race to retain either guy.
Needs and Targets
R.A. Dickey has departed, which makes sense, as the Jays have a five man starting rotation locked in for 2016 already. That means that Josh Thole is likely gone with him. Dioner Navarro is currently a free agent, and while Toronto could retain him, it seems more likely that they’d be after a more defensively capable backstop with decent pop, someone who could spell Russell Martin fairly frequently as he enters his age 33 season. The Jays could look in-house to minor league players like long time farmhand A.J. Jimenez and the newly acquired Reese McGuire. Both are solid defenders with questionable bats — how questionable they are at the Major League level is the big concern.
Here are my top 3 targets, should Toronto look to free agency:
3. Dioner Navarro
Familiar with the pitching staff, liked in the clubhouse. Navarro isn’t great, but this crop of free agent catchers is very thin.
2. A.J. Ellis
A great clubhouse guy, solid defensively and decent at the plate. Ellis was a long-time Dodger who was shipped to Philly in a roster crunch, and is now a free agent. The 35 year old showed he still has something in the tank when he moved to the Phillies, and he might relish a chance to play semi-regularly behind former teammate Russell Martin.
1. Alex Avila
Avila is a talented guy who’s struggled with injuries the past couple seasons. An All-Star and Silver Slugger in 2011, he’s seen his career go badly off the rails since then, but still offers a decent offense/defense combination. At 29, he might be looking for a starting job somewhere, but if he doesn’t find one, he’d be a solid add in a backup role, if the price is right — with 20 million AAV committed to Martin over the next 3 seasons, the Jays won’t be looking to spend big.
First Base/Left Field
If the season started today, the Blue Jays would have Justin Smoak at first base and Melvin Upton Jr. in left field, which I can’t imagine is the full time plan. Toronto has purportedly been exploring trade options to add a left-handed platoon partner for Upton, which makes sense given his struggles down the stretch last season. Jay Bruce is a popular name in Blue Jay land again, and while his power would play nicely in the
Rogers Centre SkyDome, you have to wonder how much Toronto would be willing to give up to get him, and whether the Mets would even be interested in moving him if Yoenis Cespedes is leaving New York. I think it’s more likely the Jays try to add a player with positional versatility here, somebody who can play left, right and possibly a bit of first base.
Here are your top targets:
3. Brandon Moss
Toronto is looking to add more lefties to their lineup, and Shapiro/Atkins are familiar with Moss — he spent the first half of 2015 in Cleveland. He has the ability to play first base and both corner outfield spots, though his high strikeout, high power combination is something that’s less than ideal Moss managed 28 homeruns in just 464 plate appearances last season, but also struck out 140 times. He’s also another extremely slow runner, which isn’t ideal given the addition of Morales.
2. Eric Thames
The former Jays outfielder departed the big leagues before the 2014 season to play in South Korea, where he immediately became a superstar. Obviously the competition there isn’t nearly as good as in the big leagues, but players that have come over from the KBO the past couple seasons- Jung-Ho Kang, Dae-ho Lee — have had excellent success in MLB. Thames put up gaudier numbers than either of them, even winning the 2015 league MVP award. Feast your eyes. The 30 year old Thames slashed an unbelievable .349/.457/.721 with 124 home runs over 3 seasons, while also stealing 64 bases. His left-handed bat and athleticism could be a nice addition for Toronto, as he could split time with Upton and Smoak. However, as is always the concern, the translation of production from one league to another is far from a sure thing.
1. Jose Bautista
The Jays should not have Jose Bautista as their everyday right fielder in 2017. His arm is a shell of what it used to be, and his defensive range slipped badly the past two seasons — he’s been worth a -11 in Defensive Runs Saved over the past two seasons, and was a -8 last year alone. Part of that can be attributed to injuries, but even Bautista seems to know his time in right is numbered, as his camp leaked that he’d be willing to change positions to stay in Toronto. Personally, I think having a player as defensively versatile as Bautista on the roster would be a boon — even though he doesn’t give the Jays the lefty punch they’re looking for, he’s still Jose freakin’ Bautista, and if he’s your first baseman against lefties and left field against righties, that’s a damn good addition.
Assuming the Jays are able to retain Brett Cecil, because they absolutely have to [ED. NOTE– Jesus take the wheel. See above editor’s note for clarification], their bullpen for next year stacks up something like this:
Sure things: Roberto Osuna, Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil, Joe Biagini
Borderline: Ryan Tepera, (one of) Matt Dermody, Aaron Loup, Chad Girodo
Will have to win a job in camp: Danny Barnes, Mike Bolsinger, Bo Schultz, Chris Smith
I actually like Barnes and Smith quite a bit — high strikeout guys are always an asset, though neither has an exceptionally high pedigree. Even if one or both of them wind up spending time with the big club in 2017, Grilli’s age and the lack of depth means Toronto would be wise to add at least one arm to their pen, and probably two. As always, there are a bevy of options for Toronto to consider, but here are three names I think they’d be wise to kick the tires on:
3. Luke Hochevar
The former number one overall draft pick reinvented himself into a lights out reliever with the Royals, submitting a dominant 2013 before missing all of 2014 with Tommy John surgery. He hasn’t been quite as good since his return, but his 2016 was much better than his 2015, until he started to show signs of thoracic outlet syndrome (a compression of the nerves in the neck and throwing shoulder). He had a disastrous dozen appearances, and then eventually underwent season ending surgery to correct the issue. The Royals declined his mutual option for 2017, and the 32 year old may be looking for an opportunity to prove he’s healthy on a one or two year contract, which would be appealing to Toronto.
2. Joe Blanton
The former starter will turn 36 before the beginning of next season, and served as the Dodgers primary set-up man last season, appearing in 75 games. He’s been effective, striking out over 9 men per nine innings in both seasons since he became a full time reliever. The worry with Blanton is that his groundball rate took a huge dip in 2016, from an average-ish 48.6% in 2015 to a ‘yikes’ bad 32.5% in 2016. Still his fastball velocity remained the same and his HR/FB rate hovered around normal areas, so the concern maybe shouldn’t be too great?
1. Brad Ziegler
I’m sick of Toronto always having to hit against freaky side-armers and not having one on the roster. The 37 year old Ziegler had a strong 2016, particularly after his mid-season move to Boston. He’s not your typical strikeout guy and gives up his share of hits, but his career 66.3% groundball percentage is dynamite and he’d be a solid addition to Toronto’s seventh and eighth inning corps.
As mentioned before, if all goes well, Jose Bautista’s days as a right fielder should be numbered. That leaves a gaping hole for Toronto that they haven’t had to fill for some time.
Here are some candidates:
3. Matt Joyce
Another left handed power bat, Joyce was used primarily off the bench for Pittsburgh Pirates last season. The 2011 All-Star responded by slashing .243/.403/.463 and parking 13 homers in just 293 plate appearances. Joyce is probably more of a platoon candidate for Upton in left field, but does have the ability to play right.
2. Josh Reddick
This name has been bandied about by Jays writers and fans since before the season even ended. The soon-to-be-30 year old Reddick seemingly played his way out of some free agent money with a weak showing after his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but that doesn’t really concern me — switching leagues can be difficult, particularly in mid-season. What’s more worrisome is Reddick’s health, as he’s missed significant time in three of the past five seasons. Still, he’s a good athlete who hits left, and has been a plus defender in the past.
1. Dexter Fowler
This is my dream addition for the Jays — a switch hitting, OBP stud who could hit at the top of the Blue Jays line-up and set the table for the Jays big bats. Fowler was a solid defender in centrefield once the Cubs adjusted his playing depth — in other words, he’s not quite as fleet of foot as he used to be. Still, he’ll be just 31 before the season starts and boasts both solid power and speed. If Toronto is trying to save money by letting Bautista and Encarnacion go, you’d think this is the kind of addition they’d be looking to make.
The Wild Card
Some of you may have noticed Edwin Encarnacion’s notable absence from the first base section. This is because at this point, with the Jays addition of Kendrys Morales, I feel like that spending another 20+ million per season on Encarnacion, and thus committing 30-35 million to first base/DH over the next three seasons, shouldn’t be a priority for the Blue Jays.
With that said, if Encarnacion agrees to a four year deal tomorrow, yes please, sign me up. Many have worried about positional fit, given that Morales can’t really play the field and since Edwin hasn’t been a full time position player in years — I saw a great tweet (I can’t remember where) that read: If the Jays spent 2015 with Encarnacion, Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak on their roster, they can figure out EE, Smoak and Morales. This is an excellent point. Unfortunately I think that Edwin’s days as a Blue Jay are probably numbered, though I’ll continue to hope against hope that I’m wrong.
So What Now?
One can take some solace in this: Dave Cameron of Fangraphs writes a column every year in which he attempts to determine the free agents that are most like to be busts, or free agent land mines, as he calls it. Last year, he picked Yovani Gallardo, Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann and Chris Davis in his top 5 — all had down years, and were worth just 6.0 WAR, despite being paid roughly the GDP of Uzbekistan. His fifth pick? Dexter Fowler, who was excellent, but was only given a one year deal by the Cubs, as many saw him as a risky proposition too.
This year, his top five picks include (5) Matt Wieters, (2) Mark Melancon and (1) Mark Trumbo — but slotted right in there at number three is Edwin Encarnacion. He does say that Edwin will likely continue to be very good for 2017, but if he loses even a fraction of his bat speed as he ages, his value begins to plummet — this is the risk of trying to sign a one dimensional player, which much as we love Edwin, is what he is.
Oh, and number four on that list? Kendrys Morales. Check it out in the link above. You can’t make this stuff up.
The Jays still have a long way to go this off-season, and many directions they can choose. Here’s hoping the roster they put together can help alleviate the frustrations of the past two ALCS exits, and push this team over the top. We’ll check back in once they’ve, you know, actually done stuff.