Bargain shopping could help Jays replace departing free agents

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Chris Young. (Tony Dejak/AP)

The Toronto Blue Jays were undoubtedly a special group in 2015, but keeping a good team together can range from difficult to impossible.

Before free agency even began, the Blue Jays lost LaTroy Hawkins to retirement and it seems possible that Mark Buehrle will consider joining him. The Blue Jays also have key free agents in David Price, Marco Estrada, Dioner Navarro and Mark Lowe.

Realistically speaking, the team will not be able to retain all of these players and will have to consider lower-cost alternatives in free agency. There’s no way to replace Price’s elite production, but there are cheaper options capable of replacing the other free agents.

After his memorable season and extraordinary post-season, the idea of letting Estrada walk is tough to swallow, but so too is the idea of investing in him at the apex of his value. It’s rarely a winning strategy to spend on players when their value’s peaking.

If they want to save some money for other needs, the Blue Jays would be wise to look at a very similar pitcher in Chris Young. As soft-tossing right-handers who rely on inducing fly balls the two are similar stylistically, and their production was extremely similar last season.

Pitcher Innings Pitched K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP
Marco Estrada 181 6.51 2.73 1.19 .216 3.13 4.40
Chris Young 123.1 6.06 3.14 1.17 .209 3.06 4.52

There are certainly reasons to prefer Estrada over Young. He’s 32 while Young is 36, he did more of his work as a starter last year and his changeup is a better strikeout pitch than anything in Young’s arsenal. That’s why he’s going to cost significantly more.

However, Young might be a better investment for the Blue Jays. Estrada showed last year that inducing weak contact and shallow fly balls works even at a hitter’s park like Rogers Centre and Young is the most extreme practitioner of that method in baseball. While his age is a drawback, it also means he won’t require a long-term commitment and will only be signed while the Blue Jays’ competitive window is firmly open.

The Blue Jays are also likely to find themselves in the hunt for a new backup catcher. While Navarro was a solid piece last season, he may seek more playing time and money elsewhere.

One option the Blue Jays could look at is Colorado Rockies backup Michael McKenry, who matched Navarro’s offensive output last year and would cost very little.

Player PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Framing Runs/7000
Dioner Navarro 192 5 20 .246 .307 .374 84 -4.7
Michael McKenry 152 4 17 .205 .329 .402 86 3.3

McKenry is similar to Navarro in that he’s struggled defensively, but has hit well for a backup. He’s very poor at throwing out baserunners with an 18 percent career success rate, but figures to be a better receiver than Navarro who’s lived at the bottom of the league leaderboards in framing recently.

The last non-Price hole that needs to be plugged by a potentially departing free agent is the one left by Lowe in the bullpen. The right-hander was productive as a Blue Jay, but he’s coming off a season with a shiny sub-two ERA and his price will be on the rise. Instead the team could consider an under-the-radar option in Joe Blanton, who gave his career a second wind by transitioning to a full-time reliever in 2015.

After spending years as a middling starter, Blanton was out of baseball in 2014. Upon his return, the 34-year-old’s numbers out of the bullpen almost match Lowe’s exactly.

Pitcher Innings Pitched K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP
Mark Lowe 55 9.98 1.96 0.65 .307 1.96 2.57
Joe Blanton 57.1 9.73 1.88 0.63 .291 2.04 2.56

Blanton will cost less because he’s older and has a limited track record as a reliever, but he’s got a chance to be every bit as good as Lowe going forward. Moving to the bullpen transformed him as a pitcher by bringing his velocity up a tick and allowing him to use his excellent slider more often without overtaxing his arm.

The idea of letting productive Blue Jays go and replacing them with discount free agents may be unsavoury to a fan base that has often accused ownership of pinching pennies in the past. But even large-market teams can benefit from bargains. Should the Blue Jays target players like Young, McKenry and Blanton, they can save without losing much in the way of production.

Shopping in the bargain bin is never glamorous, but there are some excellent finds to be had and a fair amount of money to be saved — money that can be re-invested into something special.

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