TORONTO – The New Year is within sight and the Toronto Blue Jays roster very much remains a work in progress.
Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., are their primary additions so far, with Rule 5 pick Glenn Sparkman plus a handful of minor-league signings providing some lottery-ticket depth.
Worrying holes in the outfield, bullpen and at backup catcher remain, causing understandable consternation among parts of the Blue Jays fan base. Amplifying the unease is that the defending American League East champion Boston Red Sox appear to have widened the gap in the meantime with the additions of Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg.
With all that in mind, here’s the second edition of FAQs about the Blue Jays off-season:
Q: At the beginning of December, uncertainty over the CBA was one of the things holding up a slow market. What’s the holdup now?
A: This is a great question, as there doesn’t seem to be much urgency in the marketplace right now. Once the new CBA was in place, several industry people I spoke to expected a flood of transactions to go down at the winter meetings, which didn’t really happen. That backlog remains, and the working theory now is that with most of the big names in free agency off the board teams are trying to wait out the market to try and get the best deal with their preferred fits.
That’s where the Blue Jays are at, and given that they’re looking for corner outfielders, they’re shopping in an area of surplus, something that provides them with the chance to be patient and try to suss out the best option.
Q: Dude, you just said most of the big names in free agency are gone. Ahem, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista?
A: Look, a reunion between the Blue Jays and Encarnacion should have happened. It didn’t, the Blue Jays understandably moved quickly to land Morales, Pearce was later signed to help complement Justin Smoak at first base/DH, and GM Ross Atkins was pretty clear at the winter meetings when he said, “If there’s a way (to bring Encarnacion back), I don’t see it, I don’t think Paul (Kinzer, Encarnacion’s agent) sees it either. But we haven’t stopped trying.”
Not much has changed since, and the Blue Jays and Encarnacion’s camp remain in regular contact. Don’t read into those conversations, since there’s no real fit for him on the roster, especially over multiple years. Should Encarnacion decide to take a short-term contract, however, the Blue Jays could, in theory, make some sort of awkward job share at first base/DH with Morales work, using Pearce primarily in left field, and trading Smoak (which may not be possible). There are so many moving parts to such a scenario that it isn’t even remotely realistic, and the expectation is Encarnacion will find a significantly better deal.
As for Bautista, to this point the Blue Jays haven’t acted like a team keen on bringing him back, even though he certainly makes sense. Even in a down year, Bautista delivered an .817 OPS with a Baseball Reference WAR of 1.0, weighed down by a poor defensive rating that in part could be attributed to the nagging toe and knee injuries he played through.
Still, his bat remains appealing and among the judgment calls the Blue Jays must make is whether they’d be better off with a player who may give them less offence but more defence at a lower price, thus allowing them to allocate more money to a reliever to bolster the bullpen. Term and price will also be factors with Bautista, and for now, there’s no momentum between the sides.
Q: So what are they going to do in the outfield?
A: Presently, the most likely scenario is that the Blue Jays add one outfielder to go with centre-fielder Kevin Pillar, Pearce, Melvin Upton Jr., and Ezequiel Carrera. Potentially, they could add two platoon outfielders, or perhaps a trade emerges that opens up some other options. It is here where the Blue Jays have the most options, be it free agents like Bautista, Michael Saunders, Ben Revere or Brandon Moss, or potential trade targets. Those would include Jay Bruce or Curtis Granderson on the more realistic end, and Charlie Blackmon or Andrew McCutchen on the pie-in-the-sky end.
Q: What about the bullpen? Don’t they need a lefty to replace Brett Cecil?
A: The Blue Jays very much need a lefty to replace Cecil, especially since Aaron Loup is the top internal candidate and he’s had a rough go the past couple of seasons. There are options in free agency but the southpaw market is as overheated as Toronto real estate. Boone Logan, Jerry Blevins, J.P. Howell and Javier Lopez are among the free agents the Blue Jays are keeping tabs on, and they could look to make a trade.
But the sense here is they feel their resources (money and/or prospects) are best used on the position-player side than the bullpen side. The way they picked up Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit in-season in 2016 is worth keeping in mind, as the Blue Jays might try to do the same thing again if prices remain prohibitively high. And they can bring in more reclamation-project types on minor-league contracts next month.
Q: Who’s going to backup Russell Martin?
A: At this moment the job belongs to A.J. Jimenez, the longtime prospect added to the 40-man roster in November, but the Blue Jays are trying to upgrade there, as well. They’ve looked at free agents Alex Avila, Chris Iannetta, Geovany Soto and Bobby Wilson but that’s another market that’s not really moving. A challenge for the Blue Jays is that any catcher is going to know that playing time will be sparse with Russell Martin in the house, and the potential for at-bats at other spots is also limited. Here, as with other positions, free agents probably need to first exhaust other options.
Q: That’s a whole lot of waiting – is this how you run a contender? Are these guys serious about winning?
A: The Blue Jays certainly are trying to win in 2017, but they’re also trying to do it with the franchise’s bigger picture in mind. The position-player core is aging and save for second baseman Devon Travis and Pillar, they don’t have much young upside on the roster. Two prospects with an outside shot of contributing in 2017 are first baseman Rowdy Tellez and outfielder Harold Ramirez, while Dalton Pompey can force the Blue Jays’ hand by playing well at triple-A Buffalo.
But beyond that group, there are no prospects imminently knocking on the door, meaning they don’t have the cheap young pieces needed to help turn over the roster, or take over primary roles as some of the veterans move into secondary roles. That’s why having Encarnacion, Martin and Troy Tulowitzki all on the roster at $20 million each per season for the next three years would have been worrisome, particularly if decline struck all at once.
At the same time, the Blue Jays have too much talent to strip down, so they’re trying to transition the roster and keep winning without the pain of a full-scale rebuild. That’s tricky, and so far their approach has been to go for players on shorter terms to help maintain flexibility. They have it, opportunities remain, we’ll have to wait and see what they do with it.