Broadly speaking, the Toronto Blue Jays need to score more runs next year. More specifically, right field looks like the most logical place to upgrade after a season in which Blue Jays right-fielders combined for a .711 OPS that ranked 28th in baseball.
The departure of Jose Bautista creates an opening, and while Teoscar Hernandez and Anthony Alford could contribute as soon as 2018, counting on them creates risk. Instead, the Blue Jays are expected to pursue an established outfielder. Both free agents and trade candidates will be considerations for a front office known for exploring a wide range of options.
Here’s a speculative look at 13 players who could fill this role for the Blue Jays. I’ve included some centre-fielders because the Blue Jays will also look to improve their defence, and could do so by playing an elite defender at a corner spot. For the sake of simplicity these players are sorted by their 2017 wins above replacement …
Lorenzo Cain, free agent
Contract status: free agent, qualifying offer | Age: 31 | Bats: right | 2017 stats: 155 games, .300/.363/.440, 15 HR, 27 2B, 26 SB, 5.3 WAR
Cain will likely require a four- or five-year commitment this off-season and because he received a qualifying offer, the Blue Jays would have to surrender their 2018 second-round pick while losing $500,000 from their international spending pool. In other words, he’d be expensive in a few ways.
That said, Cain does a lot of things well. He’s one of the league’s fastest players, and he puts that speed to good use by stealing bases at a high success rate and playing centre field well. All told, the only four outfielders with more WAR since 2014 are Giancarlo Stanton, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper. The question for interested teams: how long can Cain maintain the speed that makes him an impact player?
Christian Yelich, Marlins
Contract status: under contract through 2021 with $15 million club option for 2022 | Age: 25 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 156 games, .282/.369/.439, 18 HR, 36 2B, 3.9 WAR
In five MLB seasons, Yelich has never hit lower than .282 or posted an OBP lower than .362. Not only does the 25-year-old offer speed, he has 20-homer power. Best of all, he’s locked up to a team-friendly deal that pays him between $7-14 million in each of the next four seasons.
On paper the left-handed hitting Yelich looks like a perfect fit atop the Blue Jays’ order. At the same time, his youth, hitting ability and affordable contract would make him an appealing target for other clubs, too. The Marlins are reportedly willing to part with Yelich, but even if they do they’ll need an elite piece in return and it’s tough to imagine the Blue Jays parting with their best young prospects.
Ender Inciarte, Braves
Contract status: under contract through 2021 with a $9 million club option for 2022 | Age: 27 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 157 games, .304/.350/.409, 11 HR, 27 2B, 22 SB, 3.0 WAR
Like Yelich, Inciarte’s a left-handed bat who offers an appealing blend of hitting ability, youth and affordability. And like Yelich he’d require a substantial return.
The last time Inciarte was traded, he was undervalued by the Diamondbacks but the secret’s out by now. After a 200-hit, all-star season Inciarte looks like a potential core piece for the Braves.
Jay Bruce, free agent
Contract status: free agent, no qualifying offer | Age: 30 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 146 games, .254/.324/.508, 36 HR, 29 2B, 2.9 WAR
This list would be incomplete without mention of Bruce, who has been linked to the Blue Jays in more rumours than just about anyone in recent seasons. Bruce, who nearly joined the Blue Jays in a three-way trade before the 2016 season, has hit 30-plus homers in both of the last two seasons. The left-handed hitter doesn’t offer much footspeed, but he’d undoubtedly improve the Blue Jays’ offence.
Jarrod Dyson, free agent
Contract status: free agent, no qualifying offer | Age: 33 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 111 games, .251/.324/.350, 5 HR, 13 2B, 28 SB, 2.6 WAR
The speedy veteran would be a defensive upgrade and he’s an efficient base stealer, even if he doesn’t hit a ton. Manager John Gibbons seems to like him, too. If the Blue Jays were to spend their money on pitching, they could certainly do worse than Dyson on a short-term deal.
Michael Brantley, Cleveland
Contract status: under contract through 2018 for $11 million | Age: 30 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 90 games, .299/.357/.444, 9 HR, 20 2B, 2.1 WAR
Brantley played well when healthy this past season, but he has had trouble staying on the field due to a troublesome shoulder and an ankle that required significant off-season surgery. The Cleveland front office exercised his 2018 option, even if it’s not yet clear how much he’ll be able to contribute next year.
The healthy version of Brantley would be a tremendous fit for the Blue Jays, and team president Mark Shapiro acquired Brantley once before, in the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee. Being realistic, though, a player with this many injury questions probably isn’t the best fit on a Toronto team that already has its share of health-related questions.
Ian Happ, Cubs
Contract status: controllable through 2023 via arbitration, MLB minimum salary in 2018 | Age: 23 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 115 games, .253/.328/.514, 24 HR, 17 2B, 1.8 WAR
As noted in our look at super-utility players, Happ has substantial trade value with six years of control remaining and early success against MLB pitching. It’s conceivable that the Cubs could listen on Happ to obtain pitching given their position player surplus. If they do, the asking price would undoubtedly be high.
Adam Frazier, Pirates
Contract status: controllable through 2022 via arbitration, MLB minimum salary in 2018 | Age: 25 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 121 games, .276/.344/.399, 6 HR, 20 2B, 1.8 WAR
At a time that just about everyone hits for power, Frazier bases his game on contact. He has just eight career home runs, but he has a lifetime .283 batting average and .347 on-base percentage thanks to some above-average bat-to-ball skills. Offensively he’s basically Nick Markakis, but he’s young enough to have some upside and versatile enough to play second base.
The Pirates are set at second (Josh Harrison) and in the outfield (Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte), so it’s at least imaginable that they could listen on Frazier.
Dexter Fowler, Cardinals
Contract status: under contract through 2021 at $16.5 million per season | Age: 31 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 118 games, .264/.363/.488, 18 HR, 22 2B, 1.6 WAR
The Blue Jays were interested in Fowler last off-season, but the Cardinals ultimately went to five years and won the bidding. So if there wasn’t a match then, why now? A couple of reasons. For starters, Fowler was tied to draft pick compensation when the Blue Jays pursued him last winter. The Cardinals have since paid that price. Then there’s the fact that St. Louis could deal from a surplus of outfielders to address other needs.
Chances are, the Cardinals trade from a group that includes Randal Grichuk, Tommy Pham, Dexter Fowler, Stephen Piscotty, Jose Martinez, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Oscar Mercado. It stands to reason that the Blue Jays will check in on some of these players. The Cardinals are known to be prioritizing an impact bat, and have already been linked to Josh Donaldson, but even assuming there’s no Donaldson blockbuster to be made, these teams look like a potential match.
Curtis Granderson, free agent
Contract status: free agent, no qualifying offer | Age: 36 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 147 games, .212/.323/.452, 26 HR, 24 2B, 1.4 WAR
Now 36, Granderson offers power from the left side. He’s as well-respected as anyone in the game, but has lost a step in the outfield and arguably profiles as a platoon bat given his struggles against lefties. It’d be a surprise if the Blue Jays chose to replace one 36-year-old corner outfielder with another.
Jon Jay, free agent
Contract status: free agent, no qualifying offer | Age: 32 | Bats: left | 2017 stats: 141 games, .296/.374/.375, 2 HR, 18 2B, 1.1 WAR
Jay has the same high-average, low-power, left-handed hitting profile as Frazier. He’s older and slower, but he only costs money. The one-year, $8 million deal he signed last winter provides a template for his next deal.
Billy Hamilton, Reds
Contract status: controllable through 2019 via arbitration, projected 2018 salary of $5.0 million via MLB Trade Rumors | Age: 27 | Bats: both | 2017 stats: 139 games, .247/.299/.335, 4 HR, 11 3B, 1.0 WAR
When it comes to speed and defence, Hamilton’s tough to beat. He has stolen at least 56 bases in four consecutive seasons, and he had six more triples than the entire Blue Jays roster in 2017. At the same time, you have to reach base to steal and Hamilton’s simply not much of a hitter.
The rebuilding Reds could decide to listen on Hamilton, who’s eligible for free agency in two more years.
Shohei Otani, Nippon Ham Fighters Contract status: subject to posting agreement | Age: 23 | Bats: left | 2017 NPB stats: 65 games, .332/.403/.540, 8 HR, 16 2B
Not only is Otani a two-way star, the posting system will limit his earnings considerably. That makes him a dream fit for just about any team. Once MLB finalizes the process by which he can switch leagues, all 30 clubs should pursue him, the Blue Jays included.
Worth noting: Otani won’t be a full-time outfielder if he’s also pitching at the MLB level, as expected.
Honourable mentions: Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick, Nick Markakis, Cameron Maybin, Carlos Moncrief, Domingo Santana.