I hate to spoil the narrative, but I’m not sure that Marco Estrada taking a pay-cut to sign a one-year contract with the Toronto Blue Jays indicates any shift in any philosophy on anybody’s part or, for that matter, a sense that the team is re-committing itself to 2018.
I think both sides, here, are just trying to get by.
Know what else I think? I think Estrada really likes Toronto and enjoys what he has here with pitching coach Pete Walker. I think he appreciates the way Walker and manager John Gibbons had his back this season while he fought his way through whatever off-field issues plagued him, and I’d bet the haste with which the Blue Jays moved this past winter when dealing with Edwin Encarnacion’s free agency – signing Kendrys Morales while still talking to Encarnacion – resonated deeply with Estrada. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have shown they won’t wait for you.
One of my friends on Murmurers Row in the Rogers Centre press box suggested Wednesday night that Estrada’s agent, Paul Cohen, should fire his client. I mean, I wouldn’t go that far, but the truth is that in most cases in MLB the grass really is greener on the other side. I’m sure Encarnacion would have preferred to stay in Toronto and would have done so had his agent not botched negotiations, but it sure seems as if Eddie’s doing OK for himself with the Cleveland Indians. And so here’s a guy who passed on free agency to get paid $13 million without any option year; meaning he could find himself down at the bottom of the deepest free-agent class in baseball history following next season as a 35-year-old with an 88-m.p.h. fastball. Woof.
Look, I’m happy for all concerned. This is a no-lose deal for the Blue Jays, who would have needed somebody to replace Estrada’s 180-odd innings if he’d left and they already have enough worries with Aaron Sanchez’s blister/ligament issue and Joe Biagini’s… well, his Biagini-ness. Even if you tear down a team, somebody needs to get innings and that somebody can’t always be named Mat Latos.
You know what? If things go pear-shaped for the Blue Jays again next season and Estrada is OK, it will be easy to trade him in-season. Easy. Just like trading J.A. Happ will be easy.
So this deal says nothing about anything, really. Shapiro, the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer, spoke the truth on Wednesday morning when he told Stephen Brunt and myself that this team will still be “in a precarious position” next season just as it was this season. The Blue Jays’ dream is to contend in one form or another these next two seasons while Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and/or Bo Bichette close in on the majors, to join a team with a mix of home-grown pitching and the likes of maybe Anthony Alford and Teoscar Hernandez holding down full-time jobs.
Estrada is part of a bridge. Nothing wrong with that – nothing at all – because when was the last time a Blue Jays player gave this team a hometown discount? But let’s not pretend that 2018 is any less precarious this morning than it was Tuesday morning, OK?
Among the many things proven during 2017 was the sound reasoning behind the Blue Jays’ pursuit of free agent Dexter Fowler before the 30-year-old switch-hitting centre-fielder signed a five-year, $82.5-million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals – turning down what was reported to be a four-year, $64-million offer from the Blue Jays. It was Fowler, not Encarnacion or Jose Bautista, who was No. 1 on the Blue Jays wish-list and industry sources maintain a play was also made for Charlie Blackmon and – hey – remember those Dee Gordon rumours?
Fowler would have been tailor-made for a leadoff spot that gave the Blue Jays a .216 batting average and .283 on-base percentage that is MLB’s worst and second-worst, respectively. Even if Kevin Pillar stayed in centre, Fowler would have started in either right or left, likely at the expense of Bautista.
The Blue Jays essentially have the same lineup issues at the end of this season as they did at the end of 2016 – more if you factor in the increasing lack of production out of shortstop and catcher. Devon Travis has, through his absence, revealed himself to be the most important hitter in the lineup not named Josh Donaldson and he can’t truly be counted on any more than he was at this stage last season. The only thing known that wasn’t known in 2016? Justin Smoak can hit enough to be an everyday first baseman.
So it’s understandable that folks would look at Kansas City Royals free-agent centre-fielder Lorenzo Cain and wonder if he will be the subject of Blue Jays interest this winter. Mark my words: You’ll hear these rumours a lot. Cain is 22 days younger than Fowler, knows his way around the bases, can move around in the outfield and crushes it at Rogers Centre. But, he’s a righty hitter, his defensive-runs saved has dropped by almost four per season in recent years, and he’s more at home hitting second or third as opposed to leading off.
Cain is one of four core Royals eligible for free agency, along with Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Thursday’s starting pitcher Jason Vargas. Moustakas and Hosmer are both represented by Scott Boras and watch how he leverages that situation a year ahead of next winter’s big class. It’s like instant contention (looking at you, San Francisco Giants.)
At any rate, tonight’s the last chance for fans in this city to see a team that helped re-define the way folks looked at baseball en route to back-to-back World Series appearances; that helped create the notion of the nuclear bullpen. I know we all remember that series and this guy but that Royals team remains an oddly pleasing champion. Loved watching them play. Sorry.
QUIBBLES AND BITS:
• The New York Yankees will be at the Rogers Centre this weekend, which means extra attention being paid to Jacoby Ellsbury by Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin. Ellsbury set an MLB record on Sept. 11 when he reached base on catcher’s interference for the 31st time in his career, breaking Pete Rose’s record. Thing is, Rose had 15,890 career plate appearances; Ellsbury broke the record in 5,308, when he nicked Wilson Ramos’ mitt in a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. “It’s because he swings so late… it’s like he’s swinging at the ball and the catcher’s mitt at the same time, he lets the pitch travel in so deep,” said Martin. “So, yeah, you’re aware of it. You set up a little deeper when he comes up.” Ellsbury has reached on catcher’s interference four times this season after reaching nine times in 2016.
• Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius might be the most unexpected cleanup hitter in the majors this season. Gregorius has cleaned up 34 times this season, after manning the spot just 14 times in his previous 501 career games. It’s the most starts batting fourth for a Yankees shortstop since John Knight made 36 starts in 1910. From 1913-2015, a Yankees shortstop batted cleanup 28 times. Gregorius, who started the season on the 15-day disabled list with a strained shoulder suffered when he was playing in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game with the Netherlands, has created a nice issue for an organization with enviable minor-league infield depth. His 25th home run Wednesday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins broke Jeter’s club record for shortstops, set in 1999
• One talent evaluator who has been shadowing the Blue Jays at the major-league level these past two weeks and has seen Guerrero Jr., and Bichette “throughout the summer at both single-A levels” as part of his coverage has no doubt that Guerrero can be an MLB third baseman. “He has plenty of arm for the position and I’ve seen him make a couple of bare-handed plays on slow rollers… the only issue is that he sometimes mishandles balls to his right, which is all footwork,” said the scout. As for his hitting? “He’s got the power and is more polished than his father was when he was young.”
Hardly one of the most pressing issues facing the folks in Pinellas County given the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma, but there were sighs of relief around the Blue Jays offices when officials from the county and the city of Dunedin reached out to them to re-affirm that funding for a new spring training facility is still on-course. Shapiro says the details should be finalized by the end of the season and it’s a safe bet he’ll celebrate its conclusion.
Shapiro was just starting his administrative career with the Indians in 1991 when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a new 6,500-seat stadium and spring training complex in Homestead, Fla., six months ahead of the Indians moving in. The club retreated to Winter Haven, Fla., where it remained until relocating to Goodyear, Fla., in 2009. It was painful episode: The Indians were painted as carpetbaggers when they elected not to return after the Homestead facility was repaired.
Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-noon ET and Baseball Central from noon-1 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan