TORONTO – Nearly a month into the off-season and all the Toronto Blue Jays have to show for their work so far are the free-agent signings of Kendrys Morales and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., plus the waiver claims of right-handers Leonel Campos and Dominic Leone.
That perceived inactivity has created some unease within a restive fanbase, so with the Winter Meetings due to begin next week, here are some answers to the most frequent questions I’ve been getting in recent days.
Q: Dude, seriously, what on Earth are the Blue Jays doing?
A: General manager Ross Atkins got out of the gates quickly by locking down Morales, a now piece, and Gurriel, a now-ish piece, but things have slowed since. Part of that is the slow pace of the market this winter as there haven’t been a slew of moves around the majors, with the uncertainty over the next collective bargaining agreement playing a role, too. Based on conversations with multiple industry sources, the Blue Jays seem to be in a wait-and-see mode, debating between investing heavily in a high-end piece such as a Dexter Fowler, or spreading the wealth around multiple spots.
Q: Well, what does that mean for Edwin Encarnacion?
A: I suppose, in theory, you could have a roster with both Encarnacion and Morales on it, but really, that doesn’t make much sense. The Blue Jays feel Morales can play 50-60 games at first base so if Encarnacion were to re-sign, he’d have to play roughly 100 games in the field. The last time he was in the field that often? In 2008, as a third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. This past season, he played 75 games and 636.1 innings at first. A sudden jump to 900 innings in his age 34 season may be a bit much to ask. And given that Morales was signed for three seasons, he’d have to do it in 2018 and 2019, too.
Then, consider how things went down. The Blue Jays made Encarnacion an offer of $80 million over four years just as the GM Meetings started and when he didn’t accept by their deadline they moved on to their preferred alternative. By signing Morales early, they gave themselves some room to manoeuvre by ensuring they picked up at least one middle of the order bat.
Q: What about Jose Bautista?
A: Bringing back Bautista would give the lineup another impact bat, but right now there doesn’t seem to be much happening there. The Blue Jays didn’t make the same initial push to bring him back that they did with Encarnacion, and the impression is that they’re giving him room to assess the market. That leaves the potential that they circle back to him, but at this point he doesn’t seem to be a priority for them, or even a preferred option. And given what he’s meant to this franchise, is that the right way to bring him back?
Q: Fowler seems like the perfect fit. Why don’t they just sign him already?
A: A leadoff hitter with some speed and a career on-base percentage of .366, Fowler would be ideal for the Blue Jays. The problem is he’s ideal for several other teams, too, which means the Blue Jays aren’t in the driver’s seat here. Financially, they should be competitive for him, so ultimately the choice will likely come down to where he wants to play. As a qualified free agent, he’d cost the Blue Jays a draft pick, but with the potential for two compensatory picks for Encarnacion and Bautista and the realities of their competitive window, that wouldn’t stop them.
Q: How can the Blue Jays maintain their competitive window without Brett Cecil?
A: This is a most pertinent question, as the bullpen needed more support in lefty-lefty leverage spots even before Cecil left for a $30.5-million, four-year deal from the St. Louis Cardinals. The Blue Jays made him a three-year offer believed to be in the $18 million range but according to an industry source, multiple teams were in at four years for him. That underlines how hot the bullpen market is and fellow lefties the Blue Jays have interest in like Jerry Blevins, Mike Dunn and Marc Rzepczynski will be looking to similarly cash in. In-house options like Aaron Loup, Matt Dermody and Chad Girodo aren’t likely to be the answer so the Blue Jays could look to the trade market or try to do some dumpster-diving with some reclamation-project arms or non-tendered pitchers.
Q: Wait, wait, wait – dumpster diving? Don’t they have money to spend?
A: The Blue Jays do, but the payroll isn’t unlimited. Last year, they finished up at around $152 million and the best guess here is that they have around $160 million at this point for 2017. Morales’s $33-million, three-year deal was slightly backloaded ($10 million, $11 million, $12 million) but even still, the team’s financial guarantees stand at $116.3 million for 10 players. Add in the arbitration projections for Marcus Stroman, Darwin Barney and Aaron Loup, and that pushes them to $122.2 million. At $160 million, that leaves roughly $38 million for 0-3 service time players plus, ideally, two corner outfielders, two leverage relief arms, a backup catcher and a right-handed complement for Justin Smoak at first base.
Hence the need to shop wisely, and spending big on the bullpen is often a recipe for heartache. The Blue Jays did a nice job this year in the bullpen with Joe Biagini, Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit and they’ll need to be similarly clever and opportunistic next season.
Q: So, who are they going to get to help this team get back to the post-season again in 2017?
A: I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you, and right now, as I said at the beginning, the Blue Jays seem to be doing some wait and see. One intriguing possibility is Jay Bruce, if the New York Mets end up re-signing Yoenis Cespedes and they want to clear some salary. Both the outfielder and the Blue Jays remain interested in one another, and the type of trade we’re most likely to see the Blue Jays make will be for players who are expensive from a financial perspective but cheap in terms of prospect capital. Bruce fits that bill if the dominoes fall right. The lack of depth in the upper levels of the farm system means that the Blue Jays can’t even get a seat at the table for some of the top trade chips in play.
In other words, don’t hold your breath for Adam Eaton or Charlie Blackmon. The closer a prospect is to the big-leagues, the more valuable he is because teams have a better idea of what they’re getting. First baseman Rowdy Tellez will open next season at triple-A and outfielder Dalton Pompey will likely be back at Buffalo, too, but the gap beyond them is significant. As for free agents, the Blue Jays had some interest in Josh Reddick and Sean Rodriguez, but not enough to buy them out of other opportunities. Still, the free-agent list remains relatively full, and perhaps once the ball gets rolling on other fronts, the Blue Jays will follow with their next move.