TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays plugged their hole in left field by acquiring Michael Saunders from the Seattle Mariners for left-hander J.A. Happ, a deal that signals Melky Cabrera’s departure and gives GM Alex Anthopoulos extra money to work with to bolster the bullpen.
Saunders, a 28-year-old from Victoria, is projected by MLBTradeRumors.com to earn $2.9 million in salary arbitration, and becomes just the fourth outfielder on the club’s 40-man roster. He’ll take over from Cabrera as the starting left-fielder, meaning the club’s attempts at re-signing the free agent are essentially over.
“Saunders is going to be our everyday left-fielder,” said Anthopoulos. “We ultimately had to make a decision to go that route. Melky’s a great player and he’s earned the right to do very well on the free agent market, no doubt about that. We would have loved to have had him back, but we have a lot of areas of need on the club and so many dollars to allocate to certain areas. Making this trade for Saunders and opening an opportunity for (Aaron) Sanchez or maybe (Daniel) Norris or maybe we do something else in free agency, maybe we do something else in trade – it’s still early, it’s still fluid. …
“It’s not that we didn’t want Melky back, but for the other things we still want to try and get done, this made sense for us, especially from a certainty standpoint.”
The Blue Jays also signed outfielder Ezequiel Carrera to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training, where he’ll be given a chance to compete for the starting job in centre field or fourth outfielder’s spot.
While the two moves address gaps in the outfield created by Tuesday’s non-tendering of Andy Dirks and John Mayberry Jr., moving out Happ’s $6.7 million opens a spot in the rotation for top prospect Aaron Sanchez while freeing up nearly $4 million.
Combined with the signing of Justin Smoak, also non-tendered Tuesday, for $1 million, the Blue Jays now have nearly $119 million in commitments and arbitration projections for 16 players, leaving them roughly $21 million to fill out the roster on the assumption of an $140 million payroll.
Another $5 million can be freed up by trading Dioner Navarro, but the Blue Jays will only move him if they get value in return since he helps the team as a backup catcher/DH. He’s believed to have garnered significant interest.
The Blue Jays may still look to upgrade at first base or the rotation, but the next focal point is likely to be a bullpen that Anthopoulos has pointed to as an area of disappointment from the 2014 season.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said.
At least they can embark on bolstering the relief corps secure in knowing the heavy lifting is done from a position side. Ideally the Blue Jays would have been able to re-sign Cabrera but obviously the gulf between the sides, wide at the outset of the off-season, never narrowed.
Saunders slashed .273/.341/.791 over 78 games last season for the Mariners and became the preferred option as the Blue Jays weighed a potential platoon of Dirks and Mayberry versus their other options.
“It got to the point we didn’t think the free agent market would solve our issues in left field,” said Anthopoulos. “We felt Saunders was by far the best move for us.”
Saunders’ most productive season came in 2012, when he hit 19 homers with 57 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in 139 games. While he won’t replace Cabrera’s offence, he gives the Blue Jays a defensive upgrade in left field and protection for centre, where Dalton Pompey is the leading candidate.
“We think there’s upside with the bat, he’s already a pretty good offensive player and we love the fact we can have that plus defensive guy on the corner as well,” Anthopoulos said of Saunders. “Being able to play centre and play right if need be, sure, those are all nice perks, but we view him as an everyday guy in left, we think he can hold his own against left-handers … he can draw a walk, he can steal a base, he’s hit 19 homers before at that ballpark in Seattle, and the two years of control, the youth, the athleticism, it’s just a really good fit for us.”
Smoak, who was projected to earn $3 million in arbitration before he was non-tendered, represents a good roll of the dice at $1 million. While not guaranteed a spot, the tentative plan is for him to compete for time at first base and provide a defensive boost while allowing Edwin Encarnacion to get more time at DH.
“We think there’s some upside, there are two-years where he had 19-20 home runs in Seattle,” Anthopoulos said of Smoak. “One thing about him is he’s six-foot-four, got a massive wingspan, he’s durable enough to play first base every day. He doesn’t have a whole lot of range, but has very good hands. …
“It’s going to help to have a guy that can really pick balls in the dirt.”
The Blue Jays rotation now sets up as R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison with Sanchez the front-runner for the fifth spot. Losing Happ’s 158 innings is a concern, but from a depth perspective, the Blue Jays have Marco Estrada, Norris, Todd Redmond, Liam Hendriks and Jeff Francis behind that group.
“It’s certainly increased his odds (of being in the rotation),” Anthopoulos said of Sanchez, “but he’s still going to have to earn his spot right now, depending on what else we might do.”