Blue Jays roundtable: Which under-the-radar player should Jays target?

Texas Rangers second baseman Jurickson Profar can't reach a ball hit for a single. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Now that their 2017 season has officially ended, it’s time to look ahead to the Toronto Blue Jays‘ off-season decisions.

After a 76-86 finish, the Blue Jays aim to return to contention in 2018. That’ll mean adding pitching and improving on the club’s core of position players, which leads to a long list of questions. We turned to our baseball writers for some answers as the club’s off-season preparation picks up…


MLB POST-SEASON ROUNDTABLE


If the Blue Jays pursue any big-ticket free agents, which ones make the most sense?

Mike Wilner
Shohei Otani. Shohei Otani. Shohei Otani. Shohei Otani.

And among the stateside guys, given how J.D. Martinez has done the last two years against right-handed pitching, I’d favour him over Lorenzo Cain (legs guys don’t tend to age well) long-term. Eduardo Nunez as a super-utility type and Tony Watson as a high-leverage lefty would be swell adds, too.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
If Shohei Otani does become available this off-season he’d be the ideal target for the Blue Jays. He’s young enough that his prime seasons are ahead, so he’s worth hundreds of millions as a free agent. But he’s not truly a free agent, so he’ll cost middle reliever money, adding to his appeal.

To say that the Blue Jays should pursue him aggressively is to state the obvious. Equally obvious, though, is his appeal around baseball. As an East Coast team coming off a fourth-place finish, the Blue Jays would need a strong pitch to land Otani. It seems more likely that the club will arrive at spring training without having added a superstar player.

Shi Davidi
I can’t see that happening, so let’s skip this exercise. My guess is they try to make something happen on the trade market or with mid-tier free agents, someone like a Wade Miley for the pitching staff, Jay Bruce for the outfield or maybe Eduardo Nunez as a super-utility type.

Arden Zwelling
Shohei Otani, because he’s not only the best pitcher available on the open market, he’s also the best hitter. The 23-year-old is a generational talent who would dramatically shift the outlook of this franchise for not only 2018, but many seasons to come. And, incredibly, he’s very affordable — thanks to MLB’s exploitative and salary-suppressing international spending rules (a conversation for another day, unfortunately), obtaining Otani would cost Toronto a $20 million posting fee and a signing bonus of a little more than $1 million, which is what the Blue Jays have left in their international bonus pool.

Other teams could offer a bit more, but Otani has indicated he’s currently motivated by fit rather than money, and the Blue Jays could make a case that he would enjoy playing in a welcoming and cosmopolitan city like Toronto which eagerly embraced his countryman Munenori Kawaski when he played there. And with only $17 million currently on the books for 2020, and $8 million in 2021, Toronto’s payroll opens up quite nicely during the years when Otani will need to be locked up long-term and paid the large sums he deserves.

Jeff Blair
Either Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer, both of whom play corner infield positions and are authoritative left-handed bats tailor-made for the middle of the order. Sign one of them and make it work; either trade Josh Donaldson or deal Kendrys Morales plus cash or move Justin Smoak to designated hitter. Whatever. I don’t know if Eduardo Nunez counts as big ticket … but he’d answer several questions. Will the Jays actually pursue these guys? Likely not.

Who’s one under-the-radar player the Blue Jays should consider in free agency or trade?

Jeff Blair
A free agent starter such as Alex Cobb and left-handed reliever Tony Watson – in whom the Jays have had past interest – would be counter-intuitive additions in that the Jays ought to have priorities elsewhere. But they’d open up some other options.

Arden Zwelling
I’d call the Texas Rangers about Jurickson Profar and see if he can be acquired for a reasonable price. He’s had his struggles in the big leagues, but he was once baseball’s No. 1 ranked prospect for a reason and would certainly benefit from a change of scenery considering how significantly the Rangers have soured on him.

While he still has some questions to answer offensively, the 24-year-old profiles as exactly the type of player the Blue Jays covet: a switch-hitter with decent speed who can play a variety of positions. And he put up an .811 OPS at triple-A this year, walking 10 more times than he struck out, so clearly there’s more offensive potential in his bat than he’s shown at the major-league level thus far.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
Ideally the Blue Jays would find a super-utility type this off-season: someone who can play shortstop, second base or left field while contributing offensively as a switch-hitter or left-handed bat. So who played those positions in 2017 while hitting respectably (we’ll say with an OPS+ of at least 100)?

You’ve got Marwin Gonzalez, who would presumably be tough to pry away from Houston. Aside from that there’s Pedro Florimon, who has a career OPS of .577, Johan Camargo, whose offensive success doesn’t look completely sustainable, Twins regular Eduardo Escobar and veteran utility player Eric Sogard. That’s it. These players just aren’t that plentiful at the MLB level.

Maybe this means finding the next Ben Zobrist or Marwin Gonzalez. It’s an incredibly big ask for the front office, but one worth exploring. My suggestion? Ketel Marte of the Diamondbacks. He’s an optionable switch-hitter with a lifetime .265/.319/.361 slash line and speed. He hasn’t played left field in the big leagues, but he has played centre. You can even dream about more offence from a player about to turn 24 who posted a .905 OPS at triple-A this season. Once Chris Owings returns from injury, the Diamondbacks could conceivably part with Marte for the right price.

Mike Wilner
Brandon Morrow had a 0.91 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings out of the Dodgers’ bullpen this season. He’s a free agent. In trade, if the Marlins purge as expected, either Marcell Ozuna or Christian Yelich would be a phenomenal add. I don’t know how under-the-radar they are, though.

Shi Davidi
Prying Marwin Gonzalez from the Houston Astros might be too expensive but Jed Lowrie makes some sense and could fall more in line with the type of prospect capital they’re willing to surrender.

Which current players on the Blue Jays’ roster stand out as realistic trade candidates?

Shi Davidi
Beyond the obvious of Josh Donaldson, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna, the players with the most value on the trade market are their optionable relievers and Kevin Pillar, whom they can’t trade without backfilling. They really don’t have much surplus to deal from.

Jeff Blair
I don’t think anybody but Marcus Stroman is untouchable but I don’t think the Blue Jays have anybody who’d return much of value. Until the Blue Jays know Aaron Sanchez’s availability they have no pitching depth; and it’s too early to punt on Roberto Osuna. Josh Donaldson was first out of the gate in being connected to another team, with Bob Nightengale of USA Today linking him with the St. Louis Cardinals last week. Get used to it.

Mike Wilner
Richard Urena. GM Ross Atkins has been singing his praises rather loudly (stoking the market?), but has also mentioned him as a young player another team might really like who could help bring the Jays back an established big-leaguer. Kevin Pillar, Ezequiel Carrera and perhaps Steve Pearce could be moved as well.

Arden Zwelling
I think the Blue Jays will need to use trades to improve their club this off-season, but I don’t think the players in those deals will necessarily come off their big-league roster. With a serious 40-man roster crush approaching, we could see some mid-level prospects, especially those drafted under the previous regime, moved for current major leaguers.

Beyond that, I would definitely listen on Roberto Osuna if another team is willing to pay a price approaching the returns we saw last July for Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. And if Toronto can find a taker for Kendrys Morales without having to eat too much salary they have to jump at the opportunity.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
The Blue Jays’ bullpen emerged as a potential strength in 2017, and could create options on the trade market. The emergence of Tim Mayza and Matt Dermody could allow the Blue Jays to part with Aaron Loup, for example, and they also have some right-handed depth after strong seasons from Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Dominic Leone. Or, if you want to go outside the box, maybe Conner Greene generates some interest.

What’s going to happen with Josh Donaldson this winter? And what should happen?

Mike Wilner
I believe he’ll sign a very lucrative one-year contract with the Jays. In a perfect world, he and the team would agree on a five-year deal to keep him here through his age-36 season, but I imagine it’ll be very tough to keep him off the market after next season.

Arden Zwelling
What’s going to happen? Josh Donaldson will likely sign a one-year deal in the $23-25 million range to avoid arbitration and we’ll continue talking about his future with the Blue Jays incessantly for the next 12 months or so until he ultimately becomes a free agent following the 2018 season. (He could also go to arbitration as a perennial MVP candidate, which would be fascinating and unprecedented, but I’m not sure the Blue Jays front office wants to be the one to create that history.)

What should happen? Every time Donaldson hits a home run, a dump truck filled with priceless artifacts and jewels should pull up to his home and unload its pay dirt upon his property. He should watch this transpire while doing back flips into his swimming pool filled with $100 bills. Liquefied gold should stream from his faucets. Considering the immense profit MLB will earn off of broadcasting and merchandising his rare talent for hitting the crap out of major-league pitching, it’s only fair.

Ben Nicholson-Smith
Donaldson’s one of baseball’s best players, so of course the Blue Jays should explore a contract extension with him. That’s the easy part. If Donaldson’s amenable to a short-term extension, you’re all set.

But after a five-year run of MVP-calibre production, Donaldson might well expect to get paid like an elite player for a long time. That means an extension could get expensive in a hurry. The hard part is determining how much you’re comfortable spending for Donaldson’s age-33 season and beyond. In my view, the most likely scenario has the Blue Jays keeping Donaldson, agreeing to a one-year deal for his final arbitration year and letting him test the open market a year from now.

Jeff Blair
I’ve been pretty consistent: if it was up to me Donaldson would be going into the third year of a five-year deal and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. My guess is he starts the year with the Blue Jays and is dealt the second management believes it’s out of it. What should happen? Donaldson should be a Jay for the rest of his career; nothing else Mark Shapiro or Ross Atkins or ownership could do would resonate as much with fans.

Shi Davidi
There will likely be some conceptual talks that don’t go anywhere, Donaldson’s name gets floated in never-going-to-happen deals and he’s in Dunedin next spring, his status at the deadline to be determined by how the team performs.