TORONTO – The roster-building element driven home by the success of teams like the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians is that beyond top-shelf talent and depth; there’s simply no substitute for versatile, flexible players. Inevitably, over the course of 162 games, the contingency plans of clubs get tested, and having a backup worthy of at-bats for every position is impossible. That’s why having solid contributors who can move all over the diamond can be a major difference-maker.
To that end, the Toronto Blue Jays added a layer of protection they lacked during an injury-filled 2017 with Saturday’s acquisition of infielder Yangervis Solarte from the San Diego Padres, for outfield prospect Edward Olivares and right-hander Jared Carkuff. Along with the November pickup of shortstop Aledmys Diaz, they have now added two middle-of-the-diamond players with some offensive game to support one of the most vulnerable areas of their roster.
While neither is quite at the level of a Marwin Gonzalez, Chris Taylor or Jose Ramirez, both offer significant upgrades from Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney, two utilitymen whose defence was no longer elite enough to compensate for the lack of thump in their bats. Having spent last summer looking like sailors on a leaky rowboat scrambling to plug all the holes – remember Josh Donaldson at shortstop and starts for Russell Martin and Jose Bautista at third base? – manager John Gibbons and his coaching staff now have real options to choose from.
“What we’re looking for, and will continue to look for, are options and versatile options and guys that can do multiple things, and guys that can typically play in the middle of the diamond can do more than that,” general manager Ross Atkins said on a conference call. “Both (Solarte and Diaz) will complement each other well.”
The injuries to star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki’s right ankle and second baseman Devon Travis’ right knee last year made the need for players like Solarte and Diaz particularly acute. Atkins said “both are doing well” in their recoveries and have “hit every mark that we’ve asked them to hit, so we’re expecting them to be full-go and ready to go at the beginning of spring training.”
Ideally for the Blue Jays, both are healthy enough to open the season and perform to their career norms, giving them the type of playing-time problem every team wants.
Under such circumstances, Solarte will still see action “on a very regular basis, whether that be spelling second base, spelling at shortstop from time to time, at third. He can play first, he’s been in the outfield before,” said Atkins.
A switch-hitter who last year established a career-best with 18 home runs, the 30-year-old Solarte has a career OPS of .746, making him an obvious infield candidate for regular at-bats. If Travis or Tulowitzki were to miss an extended stretch, he could slip into their spots with Diaz remaining to backfill.
The Blue Jays also have Gift Ngoepe, Richard Urena and prospect Lourdes Gurriel Jr. behind them, so they’re protected in ways they weren’t last year.
Even more beneficial to them is Solarte is due a salary of $4.125 million in 2018 (with club options of $5.5 million in 2019 and $8 million in 2020), making him an easy fit into their payroll and leaving Atkins with plenty of wiggle room to still manoeuvre this off-season.
At roughly $140 million in guarantees and projected arbitration salaries, the Blue Jays still have an estimated $20 million available. Atkins said the “need remains” for an outfielder and later added that “we will continue to look to add” starting pitching, too.
They could go big or small in both areas, as Aaron Sanchez’s continued progress since he resumed throwing last month – “zero setbacks, 100 per cent strength,” said Atkins – bodes well for one of the club’s potential tipping points.
The relative low cost for Solarte keeps alive the possibility of a pricier free agent add – they’ve inquired to some degree about Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb – although they could still make more trades, as well, believing their farm system still has plenty to offer in multiple ways.
“We could go several directions,” said Atkins. “We feel like we have one of the better systems in baseball, it’s not the best, we still have work to do, we feel that we’re probably in the top third, but we have plenty of depth to protect us throughout the major-league season, to provide options for us throughout the major-league season and to trade from. Whether that’s a bigger deal or a smaller deal, we’ll see, but we are now in a position where we have that option.”
Solarte is now among their options, too, and while Olivares is promising (a 21-year-old who hit 17 homers with 18 stolen bases at low-A Lansing last year) and Carkuff is interesting (1.175 WHIP and 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings across four levels), his acquisition cost wasn’t especially painful.
That leaves the Blue Jays well positioned to do more, with money, opportunity, time and need.