Outfield tops Blue Jays’ most pressing 2018 positional needs

The 2017 Toronto Blue Jays season is all but over, and it will go down as an ugly one. Barring a big comeback, they’re likely to finish last in the AL East for just the second time in the past 13 seasons. For just the second time in franchise history, they’re going to end a season having never crossed above .500.

With a handful of players approaching free agency, the Jays fielding the oldest group of position players in baseball this year, and a pressing need to retool following a lost season, expect several key roster changes this winter. Let’s take a look at where the most pressing roster needs lie, and how the Jays might address them.

Outfield

By Wins Above Replacement, Jose Bautista is the greatest position player in franchise history. In terms of iconic moments, only Joe Carter can top The Bat Flip Heard ‘Round the World. Decades from now, Jays fans will still be talking about Bautista’s indelible legacy in Toronto.

Sadly, he might never wear a Blue Jays uniform again after this season. Bautista’s numbers have fallen off a cliff, with the once-elite slugger down to .205/.312/.375, with far more strikeouts than he’s ever had before. Add his porous defence, subpar baserunning, advancing age (he turns 37 in October), and contract status (the two sides hold a mutual option for $17 million next season), and there’s no chance the Blue Jays bring Bautista back under those terms.

Toronto could conceivably try to re-sign Bautista at a much lower salary, but the commitment to youth and athleticism emphasized by the team’s brass would seem to negate the chance of a reunion.

The Jays’ best internal option to replace Bautista is Teoscar Hernandez. Toronto nabbed the 24-year-old outfielder from the Houston Astros in a deadline deal for Francisco Liriano. Hernandez has shown flashes of promise during his minor-league career, whacking 18 homers between triple-A Fresno and triple-A Buffalo this season, four times swiping 24 or more bases in a season, and posting some promising on-base percentage numbers at numerous stops.

The Astros gave him up because they’re loaded with talent, not because Hernandez can’t play. When the trade happened, Jays GM Ross Atkins told MLB.com writer Gregor Chisholm: “Teoscar is a guy that we’ve liked for a while. He’s someone that we feel can make an impact in the short term and the long term. If we had a need tomorrow, he can fill in immediately as an everyday major-league player, and certainly moving forward will be an option for us.”

Hernandez connects for a single against the Baltimore Orioles. (Gail Burton/AP)

The other in-house option for a corner-outfield spot is Anthony Alford. The 23-year-old has been an on-base fiend at double-A New Hampshire this season, batting an excellent .310/.406/.429, with 18 steals in 21 attempts. Those results match up with his earlier minor-league numbers, with Alford showing a strong ability to work counts and take walks, and to use his legs to his advantage. He could become the leadoff threat the Jays have needed in front of Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak, and the rest of the big boppers.

As surprisingly impressive as Ezequiel Carrera has seemed at the plate this year, he’s built his numbers largely on batted-ball luck, and both he and Steve Pearce are lousy defensive options in left. Don’t be surprised if both Hernandez and Alford somehow work their way into the lineup at some point next season, whether by taking over the corner spots, or bumping Kevin Pillar if Pillar continues to make far too many outs at the plate.

The Blue Jays could conceivably make a run at one of the more attractive free-agent outfielders on the market, with Lorenzo Cain, J.D. Martinez, Jay Bruce, and Justin Upton (assuming he opts out of the final four years of his multi-year contract) in play. But the Jays’ desire to get younger and their relatively conservative approach to free agency under the Mark Shapiro-Ross Atkins regime might not square with throwing a megadeal at an over-30 outfielder. The guess here is that the Jays try to solve the problem with what they’ve got, possibly complemented by a smaller deal for a playable part-time/platoon outfielder.

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Starting pitching

Barring a surprising trade, the Jays should head into next season with a strong top three in their rotation, led by Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, and assuming he can put his debilitating blister issues behind him, Aaron Sanchez. That already gives them a head start over many teams, let alone a last-place team. Joe Biagini could be a playable option as the team’s fifth starter, especially if he can come anywhere close to the kind of dominance he showed in a recent start against the Baltimore Orioles (seven shutout innings, 10 strikeouts).

Next year’s fourth starter could also be a familiar face. By strikeout and walk rate, the Marco Estrada of 2017 looks almost identical to the Estrada of 2016. But a 78-point surge in batting average on balls in play, combined with a higher home-run rate, has boosted Estrada’s ERA by nearly two runs this season.

A skeptic would say that a right-hander whose fastball averages 90 m.p.h. is always going to live on the edge, and that you don’t want to roll the dice on an Estrada bounceback at age 34. On the other hand, he’s a pitcher who’s always relied on high spin rate and pinpoint location, with that formula serving him well in 2015 and ’16. Estrada’s asking price would be minimal following a subpar season, so the Jays could conceivably bring him back at a discounted rate, and spend their free-agent and/or trade-acquisition dollars elsewhere.

Estrada could be back with the Blue Jays in 2018. (Tony Dejak/AP)

In a shaky free-agent market for starting pitchers that includes front-end guys likely to cost a fortune (Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta) and a whole bunch of risky options, status quo — plus maybe a spec play on a buy-low veteran (Trevor Cahill? Doug Fister? Michael Pineda coming off Tommy John surgery for 2019 and beyond?) — could be the right call here.

Second Base/Shortstop

Injuries wrecked the 2017 season for the Blue Jays middle infield, with Troy Tulowitzki appearing in just 66 games, Devon Travis just 50. At a certain point, injuries and performance concerns start to overlap, which is certainly the case with Tulo and Travis. Tulowitzki hasn’t played in more than 131 games in a season since 2011; he’s likewise seen his numbers steadily slip since then, and is now just a month away from his 33rd birthday.

The 26-year-old Travis has only played in 213 major-league games, but injuries have hampered his ability to get consistent playing time, and to develop as a hitter; he walked just seven times in 191 plate appearances this year, delivering a weak .291 on-base percentage.

There are reasons for the Jays to simply stand pat and hope for the best. Tulo is signed through 2020 and owed $20 million in both 2018 and ’19, making him untradeable unless the Jays pick up a big chunk of his contract. But he also owns a strong track record of both offensive and defensive excellence that prompted Alex Anthopoulos to trade for him in the first place two summers ago.

He’s almost certainly never return to the all-world form he showed in Colorado. But the version of Tulo that produced a .254/.318/.443 line with plus defence was a 3-win player just last season, suggesting that a bounceback could be doable.

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Meanwhile, Travis was the youngest lineup regular on the team this season, hit well in the minors, and will be highly affordable as just a first-time arbitration guy next season.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr., the 23-year-old Cuban import considered by many to be a possible heir apparent at second or short, hasn’t hit a lick during his own injury-plagued season, batting just .229/.268/.339.

The best move then, might be an inexpensive rental. Jed Lowrie, Ian Kinsler, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Logan Forsythe all have club options on them for 2018 before they can test free agency, making them affordable trade targets. You’d be buying high on Lowrie after his best offensive season in four years, and buying low on the other three after ugly down years, but none would require elite prospects to acquire via trade.

Bautista and Estrada coming off the books at year’s end does free up $29 million, assuming they don’t re-sign. Moreover, Atkins has said that he sees 2018 as an opportunity to rebound and make another playoff run in Donaldson’s final season before free agency. That could prompt management to tap into the extra revenue accrued by a team that will end 2017 having led the American League in attendance for two straight seasons, and spend more aggressively.

But with multiple bargain-hunting opportunities in play, a couple of promising young outfielders knocking on the door, high hopes for rebounds by Tulo and Russell Martin, and the promise of better health for Sanchez and Donaldson, there’s a path that sees the Blue Jays avoid blowing things up, and still jump back in the race next year.

It’s just that a lot will need to go right for that plan to work.