TORONTO – Spring training opens Monday for the Toronto Blue Jays with the first official workout for pitchers and catchers, and the main questions facing the defending American League East champions in camp are rather obvious.
Front and centre are who ends up the club’s fifth starter, how the bullpen shakes out, Michael Saunders versus Dalton Pompey in left field and who emerges as the fourth outfielder. Barring injury, the rest of the roster is fairly set, so the focal point over the next six weeks is likely to settle on those areas.
Beneath the surface, however, there are some far more significant issues that bear watching, ones with repercussions well beyond the 2016 season.
1) The long-term futures of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion
The Blue Jays are in a delicate spot with two iconic core pieces entering their walk years, no obvious in-house options to replace them, a competitive group that needs their production to remain a contender, and limited payroll room with $84.5 million committed to five players for 2017.
Factor in that Bautista will be 36 and Encarnacion 34 next year, and president Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins must also weigh whether extensions would leave the Blue Jays roster as a whole skewed too heavily to older players, and therefore vulnerable to the inevitable decline caused by age.
Shapiro said recently that talks with Bautista and Encarnacion will take place during the spring, but it’s hard to see the team being able to ante up fair market value for one or both players without assurances of a significant hike in payroll for coming seasons. That would leave this issue hanging in the air all year long, which is far from ideal and will need to be handled well by all parties.
2) The Blue Jays have eight other pending free agents, too
While Bautista and Encarnacion have understandably been the focal points, Saunders, R.A. Dickey, Brett Cecil, Drew Storen, Jesse Chavez, Justin Smoak, Josh Thole and Gavin Floyd are also heading into their walk years, meaning the Blue Jays could lose 40 per cent of their big-league roster in the off-season. That’s a major problem, and leaves a lot of holes to plug.
To a much lesser degree, they faced a similar issue this winter with the free agencies of starters David Price, Mark Buehrle and Marco Estrada, plus relievers Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins, who retired.
While fans clamoured for Price, the Blue Jays spread the wealth around, re-signing Estrada (whose market was restricted by a qualifying offer), adding J.A. Happ and trading for Chavez and Storen.
Whether that’s a model for next winter is unknown. But the Blue Jays simply can’t retain everyone, and are unlikely to have enough in-house replacements ready by then.
3) The Blue Jays payroll for 2017 is believed to be uncertain at this point
The Blue Jays have $134.06 million committed to 19 players in 2016, and will be pushing toward $140 million once salaries for 0-3 service time players are factored in, with a little bit of wiggle room for potential trade deadline additions, before any potential extra financial allocations.
That total outlay is from last year’s club, which finished at around $136 million, and positions this season’s team to be the most expensive in team history. If you disregard the fallen Canadian dollar, that’s a very moderate year-over-year increase, and if the Blue Jays don’t get into at least the $150 million range, it’s hard to see them being able to retain one of Bautista and Encarnacion and successfully fill in the other gaps.
A strong season of revenue and another post-season run in 2016 may help Shapiro make the case for more money to ownership, but it will be months before there’s enough conclusive data to support such a request. By then, there will be little incentive for pending free agents to forego the market.
4) The players and the new front office must build a relationship together
This notion may seem trite, but a lack of trust between player and front office can be very detrimental.
Like any employee in any job, players want to feel good about their bosses’ intentions. Shapiro and Atkins will be working hard at getting to know their players during spring training, answering the questions they have and offering them a first-hand description of their vision for the organization.
Familiar faces like assistant GM Tony LaCava and manager John Gibbons should help in the transition, and access to new resources will win over some players, too. High performance director Angus Mugford and assistant director Clive Brewer head up a newly created department, while the promotion of trainer Jeff Stevenson to the big-league side provides more support for head trainer George Poulis and assistant Mike Frostad in taking care of players.
5) The old guard and the new guard in the front office must continue melding
Similar in vein to the above, but the front office is operating much differently now than it did under former president Paul Beeston and GM Alex Anthopoulos, and the reporting structures have changed significantly.
Holdovers like LaCava, fellow assistant GM Andrew Tinnish, special assistant Dana Brown, pro scouting director Perry Minasian and newly promoted analytics director Joe Sheehan did the heavy lifting this off-season, but now have baseball operations director Mike Murov to work with. Gil Kim is the new director of player development, Eric Wedge is now a player development advisor, and the international scouting department has been revamped, with Sandy Rosario taking over as director of Latin American operations, and Tinnish overseeing matters. Amateur scouting director Brian Parker and his strong team remain in place and will have three of the first 66 picks in the June draft, but may have some different philosophies to work with. Inevitably, all the change creates a feeling-out period all around, one that intensifies once the games start.