From the Toronto Blue Jays’ point of view, it’s not hard to see the appeal of Kendrys Morales.
He’s a player you can pencil into the lineup 150 times a year and count on for above-average production as a switch-hitter. You’re going to get 20 plus home runs, close to 100 RBI and fewer strikeouts than you’d think.
While a price tag of $33 million is hardly pocket change, in MLB’s current financial landscape it’s far from back-breaking. The third year on the deal might wind up being problematic, but it’s also likely the way the Blue Jays made sure they got their guy — the same way they did with Russell Martin prior to 2015.
When Edwin Encarnacion ultimately signs a lucrative deal this off-season, the idea of paying Morales $11 million and saving money to improve the roster elsewhere will likely seem more attractive than it does now. “Payroll flexibility” has a bit of a negative connotation when it comes to the Blue Jays, but every dollar you spend shuts down a number of potential avenues for your off-season. By choosing Morales the Blue Jays have left more potential outcomes in play, and they may well be rewarded for that as the market takes shape.
There will also be a price to pay for this decision, one that goes beyond the all-but-assured departure of Encarnacion. For the next three years, the Blue Jays have committed to a full-time designated hitter, something of a rarity in the American League today.
Last season, only one-third of AL teams had one player appear as their DH 100 or more times. With David Ortiz’s retirement that number could easily shrink in 2017.
The day-in-day-out DH is an endangered species is because leaving that spot in the lineup unclaimed gives a manager a number of appealing options. He can use it to create a platoon with his best-hitting bench players, play guys with success against particular starters or use it to rest his veteran position players while keeping their bats in the lineup.
The DH spot can also be used to match a team’s fielders to their starter. Have a ground ball specialist like Marcus Stroman going? Why not throw your glove-first second baseman in and DH your bat-first starter? Marco Estrada on the mound? Give your suspect corner outfielder a day at DH and bring out your rangiest defensive-replacement type to play left-field and hit ninth.
While Encarnacion was the Blue Jays’ primary DH last season, he played that role only 86 times as John Gibbons rotated various players through the DH slot depending on their health.
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With the core the Blue Jays have in place, this kind of rotation seems like the wisest course. Donaldson is now in his thirties and plays an all-out style that results in plenty of bumps and bruises. Martin will be taking the beating of a high-workload catcher at 34. Tulowitzki and Travis both have extensive injury histories. Each could use the physical relief the DH spot provides from time-to-time.
The signing of Morales renders that an impossibility. The 33-year-old has played 21 games in the field in the last two seasons and there’s a strong argument to be made that he should only take the field during inter-league play.
So, if the Blue Jays find themselves in a situation where one of their stars can hit, but is unable to take the field like they had with Bautista last year, they will have two choices. Option one would be to bench to bench an $11 million dollar hitter in Morales temporarily. Option two would be to put a player on the disabled list who is still capable of contributing offensively. Neither is particularly appealing, and either could be avoided if they’d opted for an Encarnacion replacement they could trust at first base.
It’s too early in the off-season to determine how greatly the Blue Jays will benefit from the payroll flexibility created by signing the relatively affordable Morales. Perhaps the club will be able to find the kind of outfield and bullpen reinforcements they had no chance of acquiring if saddled with a bigger salary like the one Encarnacion will demand. Morales presents a reasonable compromise between re-signing their star and rolling the dice on the bottom of the market, and he’s likely to be a productive contributor to the club’s offence in 2017.
Even so, by making this choice the Blue Jays have opted for a team that is less flexible on a day-to-day basis. Using a full-time DH creates a significant opportunity cost in the form of lost strategic possibilities. There may also be a toll paid by the aching limbs and joints of the club’s aging core.
In today’s baseball economy a hitter like Morales seems affordable at $11 million a year, but with his limitations, he costs more than money for the Blue Jays.