By: Dan Grant
The Winter Meetings ended last week, and many Blue Jays fans came away nonplussed, to say the least. The outrage has been palpable.
Utility-man Steve Pearce? A Rule 5 pick named Glenn Sparkman? Where was the blockbuster signing or trade to which we’ve become so accustomed?
The fist shaking and foot stomping commenced.
“Isn’t this the team that led the American League in attendance?” they raved.
“The one that has made the ALCS in two straight seasons?” they breathed.
“This team is on the precipice of greatness!” they snarled.
Rogers, Shapiro, Atkins, WHOEVER screwing this up!?” they howled.
In short, it’s gone something like this:
The thing is, they’re not screwing this up. Rogers, Shapiro, Atkins — any of them. Alex Anthopoulos spoiled us with his constant MLB 2K style dealings, and we’ve come to expect wild late night announcements and massive roster moves every 6-12 months. It’s not sexy, but what the Shapiro-Atkins front office is doing is the kind of yeoman’s work that often transforms a good team into a — well, hopefully still a pretty good team, at least.
That’s the thing — this Blue Jays team is already pretty good. The strength of the team last year was the starting rotation, and that’s back fully intact. You might even say it’s improved, given that there’s a full year of Aaron Sanchez and Francisco Liriano on the horizon. On the offensive side, Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki are middle of the order bats on any team, and the power Russell Martin provides from the catcher position is a luxury. You also hope that Devon Travis will be able to contribute in more than 100 games next season, and he’s been more than 2-win player in both his limited seasons so far — if he can finally put together a full campaign, he could be a huge boost to the offense.
Yes, there are holes in the roster right now, but they’re quite fixable. And even though the 2017 version might look quite a bit different than last years team, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There have been some growing pains, but your 2017 Toronto Blue Jays aren’t headed for the dumpster.
Losing Brett Cecil hurts (we’ll talk about that next week), and is definitely something that needs to be addressed, but beyond that, it’s not as if this team is falling apart. I wrote last week about how the Jays were quite right to let the already declining Edwin Encarnacion walk away when he asked for a penny more than their 4-year, $80 million offer. That offer would have been the highest ever for a dedicated designated hitter — and before you go saying that Edwin has showed he’s ‘capable of playing first every day’ as I’ve heard from so many, please step off. He played 74 games there last year, a career high, and he did so at an average defensive rate. He spent the other 86 games he played at DH. Is this a number you logically see increasing as he hits his mid-thirties? For a guy with his history of nagging injuries, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Jose Bautista’s bat will be missed if he leaves, but the Jays can make up for the decrease in offense by adding a capable defender in right field, something Bautista hasn’t been the past couple seasons, culminating last year where he was cumulatively the worst defender on the team per Defensive Runs Saved (-8), despite missing huge chunks of time.
I realize that most Jays fans probably understand this reasoning, and many have even supported the idea of moving on from Encarnacion and Bautista. The problem is that the Jays haven’t done so in the fashion they expect — nay, demand!
If we’re losing stars, we better get some new stars to replace them! Yeah!
Let’s take a look at what needs to be done.
Replacing Your Heart
Let’s try again.
Do you remember that scene in Moneyball?
The Jays don’t need to replace these players. In fact, they simply can’t. Toronto was insanely fortunate to have those two superstars on such bargain contracts for the past several years. So no, they can’t trade them out for new models. But they can try to replace them in the aggregate. It’s what good teams do when they lose stars.
Before you lose your mind about the Jays being cheap, I’m not suggesting that they’re the Moneyball-era Oakland Athletics. I am suggesting they currently have payroll constraints, mainly brought on by the fact that they’ve been so un-cheap (it’s a word!) in the recent past. The sextet of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, J.A. Happ, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano (all players acquired in the last two years) is making roughly 98 million dollars next season. That’s about the same (or more) than 11 of the 30 teams in baseball on Opening Day last season. On that same Opening Day, the Blue Jays had a payroll of $126,369,628, good for 10th in baseball. They payroll they’re rumoured to have for 2017 is $160 million. That’s about a 25 percent increase, and is by far the highest payroll in team history. What more can we reasonably expect?
With committed salary and arbitration projections, Baseball Reference projects the Blue Jays to have 141.8 million already committed for 2017. They don’t adjust for the 11.4 million of Melvin Upton’s salary that San Diego is paying, however, so the number is more like 130.4 million. That gives Toronto roughly $30 million left to fill in the missing pieces of the roster.
Let’s try the Billy Beane approach, but with a little tweak. Instead of OBP, we’ll look for run creation.
May I continue, enraged fan?
Edwin Encarnacion: 3.9 WAR, 115 Weighted Runs Created (wRC)
Jose Bautista: 1.4 WAR, 76 wRC
Michael Saunders: 1.4 WAR, 79 wRC
We won’t bother with Dioner Navarro or Josh Thole — whoever the Jays find as a backup catcher should be close enough. These are the three major departures. So in terms of the line-up, we need to try to replace about 6.7 WAR and 280 wRC. I realize this is an oversimplification, but as an exercise it’s no small task — these three finished 2nd-4th on the team in total weighted runs created last season, behind only Josh Donaldson. It’s also something of a modest goal, given how much time Bautista missed, and Saunders terrible second half. Let’s see if it’s even possible.
Here are the Jays newest acquisitions based on their 2016 production:
Kendrys Morales: 0.7 WAR, 83 wRC
Off to a bad start! Morales struggled mightily in the first half last year, before finding himself to end the year. He was very productive for Kansas City in their World Series year of 2015, producing 98 wRC and 1.9 WAR. Steamer projects him to regress again, but they also project him to miss 40 games, even though he hasn’t missed more than eight the past three seasons. Let’s split the difference and project a minor bounce back for Morales, given his move to the Rogers Centre and his insertion into a lineup featuring Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki.
Kendrys Morales: 1.3 WAR, 90 wRC.
Fair? Fair. Let’s move on. (Shut up, I said we’re moving on).
Steve Pearce: 2.0 WAR, 49 wRC.
His wRC was suppressed because (surprise!) he was injured. Steve Pearce is frequently injured. 102 is the most games he’s ever played in the big leagues, back in 2014 when he was worth 4.9 WAR (!!!) despite missing 60 games for Baltimore. It’s impossible to forecast Pearce’s health, so we’ll have to take his 2016 numbers at face value and hope for better.
Melvin Upton Jr.: 1.2 WAR, 54 wRC (43 for San Diego)
Not a popular player among Jays fans given his terrible struggles after a mid-season trade, Upton could provide some decent value if he finds his 2016 San Diego form at any point for Toronto. Even in a part time role, Upton can provide value with his legs and defense, and does possess the power to run into a homer here and there. Even if we project modest regression, a full season of Upton is production Toronto didn’t have for much of last year.
So between those three, we’ve (probably) found roughly 4.0 WAR and 180 wRC. That leaves us 2.5 WAR and 100 wRC short of our goal. That’s the addition of either a hell of an offensive player, or a couple more platoons. Brandon Moss is an interesting lefty power option (1.4 WAR, 59 wRC), and there are some big names like Andrew McCutchen and Carlos Gonzalez on the trade market, but you know who makes the most sense?
Jose Bautista (2015): 4.4 WAR, 115 wRC.
2017 Steamer projection: 2.8 WAR, 94 wRC.
This isn’t a pie-eyed wish for the Bautista from five years ago. This is the concrete recent version of the man, one who was effective at the plate when healthy a year ago. A simple move from right to left field should help his defensive metrics, and a Melvin Upton/ Ezequiel Carrera platoon, while far from ideal offensively, could handle right field on the defensive side of things. Let’s not forget that while Encarnacion was fairly average in the field in 2016 (0 Defensive Runs Saved) Bautista (-8) and Saunders (-6) were huge negatives in the outfield, the two worst defenders on the team, in fact. Improving the overall outfield defense is another path to success for Toronto.
That scenario leaves Steve Pearce and Justin Smoak platooning at first base, which is, uh, less than ideal — nobody wants Smoak to be the Jays primary option versus right handed pitching on a regular basis, except maybe Ross Atkins, who recently said he sees ‘upside’ in the former top prospect. The switch-hitting Smoak has been close to league average from the left side, but you’d have to hope a healthy (yikes!) Pearce steals some of his at bats against right handers — Pearce is a noted lefty masher, but has decent to middling numbers against right handed pitching too.
The bottom line is that the Jays are certainly still missing at least one player, but it’s not as dire as it seems, given the finances they still have to spend. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins are waiting out the market — not fun for the fanbase, but certainly a viable way to find value on a budget. If you’re frustrated, remember that these men had a hand in building both ALCS finalists this past year– let’s give them a bit of time. The sky is not falling.
Next week in Part 2, we’ll take a look at how Toronto can go about ‘replacing’ Brett Cecil, who did the work of two men in the Toronto bullpen.
Dan Grant is an editor at the Same Page and a contributor to SB Nation’s Raptors HQ. He can be found on Twitter @SlamminDannyG. He used to be both a part-time softball umpire and an ice hockey referee, so yes, he’s kind of an expert.