They’re still in last place, well below .500 and a long shot to make the playoffs. But the Toronto Blue Jays have made clear they have no interest in rebuilding. J.A. Happ’s probably not going anywhere, and Josh Donaldson is certainly not going anywhere, as the Jays eye 2018 as a potential bounce-back season.
With 2018 becoming the team’s main focus, we can throw any talk of a major teardown in the trash. If next season (the last one before free agency for, among others, Donaldson and Happ) is the goal, the Jays could be more likely to buy than sell between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
So which established major leaguers, with controllable service time through at least 2018, could be good fits for Toronto? We’ve got five on our minds.
Dee Gordon, 2B, Miami Marlins
Devon Travis is on the 60-day disabled list after having surgery last month to repair damaged cartilage in his knee. That puts the Jays in a bind now, while also raising questions about the future. Travis missed the first 47 games of the 2016 season with a shoulder injury, and played in only 101 all told. He played in only 50 this year before going down with a knee injury, one that might keep him out through the end of August and possibly for the rest of the season.
Even though he’s just 26 years old and controllable through the end of the 2020 season, we’re nearing the point where we have to ask if Travis is the answer at second base. He certainly isn’t this year, and it’s not clear that he will be in the future. Finding a second baseman who can take over immediately, and offer a more reliable option in 2018, thus becomes a priority.
Enter Dee Gordon. The Jays have reportedly approached the Marlins for their 29-year-old second sacker. Gordon’s calling card is speed — he ranks third in the majors this season with 32 steals, and second in that same category since Opening Day 2014 with 184 swipes. That would be a boon to an old and slow Jays club that ranks just 27th in the majors in stolen bases and 28th in Baserunning Runs. Gordon’s a solid defender, ranking eighth among second basemen this season in Defensive Runs Saved per Baseball Info Solutions. He’s also a more durable player than Travis, with last year’s PED suspension the only thing preventing Gordon from being on pace to play in 145 or more games every year since he became a full-time player in the majors.
Now here’s the problem: Gordon’s a lousy hitter. No everyday player has shown less pop this season. That should cause the Jays to pause before taking on a contract that runs through 2020 (with a $14-million club option in 2021). The Marlins sorely lack quality arms, so you’d figure that’s what they’d want in trade. The Jays will rightfully ask themselves if giving up more pitching prospects makes sense in exchange for a speedy banjo hitter, especially with Jeff Hoffman, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd and others already gone following the big playoff push of 2015.
Jed Lowrie, 2B, Oakland Athletics
Lowrie is another quality second baseman playing for a team that’s out of the race and highly motivated to move him. That’s where the similarities end.
The 33-year-old switch-hitter offers significantly more pop than Gordon does, batting .267/.334/.446 this season, numbers that grade out to 13 per cent better than league average after adjusting for the offence-suppressing dimensions of Oakland’s Coliseum. He’d also require a much smaller financial commitment than Gordon would, since Lowrie’s only owed the balance of his $6.5 million salary this year, followed by an inexpensive $6-million club option for 2018, before he can hit the open market.
On the downside, for a Jays club that would be looking for durability, Lowrie being limited to just 156 games in the 2015 and 2016 seasons due to injury make him a risky pickup, even though he’s been a healthy fixture in Oakland’s lineup this year.
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates
Cutch would be a bigger long shot for multiple reasons.
First, his huge rebound this year after 2016’s steep drop-off has turbocharged his trade value: He’s batting an obscene .389/.489/.688 in his past 44 games. The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks head a long list of teams that would love to acquire McCutchen’s rejuvenated bat to fill their depleted outfields, potentially driving his price tag even higher. Moreover, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has sounded a lot like Jays GM Ross Atkins lately, saying this year’s disappointing results won’t deter him from trying to build a winner in 2018. Trading McCutchen would fly in the face of that goal.
Still, a charismatic former MVP, controllable through 2018 (he’s making $14 million this year, with a $14.5-million club option next year), riding the biggest hot streak in all of baseball, for a Jays team currently carrying an outfield worthy of the 1899 Cleveland Spiders? At the very least, they have to inquire.
Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland Athletics
Oakland’s asking price could be even higher than Pittsburgh’s demands for McCutchen. Gray is a 27-year-old right-hander enjoying a strong bounce-back season who’s healthy and controllable through 2019. That makes him a needle in a haystack in this pitching-poor market, causing contenders in Houston, Milwaukee and other markets to salivate at the prospect of scooping him up. The Jays don’t have the prospects to pull off this kind of megadeal, unless they wanted to make young hitting stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette available. Which they don’t want to do.
Then again, if Atkins and Mark Shapiro truly believe the time to win with this aging team is while Donaldson’s still a Blue Jay, they could hypothetically damn the torpedoes and make a big offer. With Francisco Liriano and Marco Estrada both eligible for free agency at the end of this season (and neither doing much to motivate the Jays to re-sign them), starting pitching becomes another pressing need heading into 2018.
Zach Britton, RP, Baltimore Orioles
With deep-pocketed contenders like the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers reportedly very interested, it’s tough to imagine the Jays winning the Britton sweepstakes. If the lefty relief ace can show he’s healthy following his recent activation from the disabled list with a forearm injury, he could trigger a feeding frenzy of bidding, given he’s coming off one of the most dominant seasons of all time by a relief pitcher. In short, good luck with that.
But hey, he’s another post-2018 free agent who could turn an already solid Jays ‘pen into an instrument of terror, one that could make up for a lot of other roster flaws.