TORONTO – After a season that GM Ross Atkins characterized as “painful,” “difficult” and a “massive disappointment,” the Toronto Blue Jays have begun planning for an off-season that they hope will propel them back to the playoffs in 2018.
Fair enough — the Minnesota Twins reached the 2017 wild-card game, after all — but the Blue Jays will need to improve by 10-15 wins if they still hope to be playing this time next year.
In this case, the avenues for improvement are plentiful. The front office will look to upgrade on the offence that scored the fewest runs in the American League. Defensively, the 2017 Blue Jays weren’t much better. And even after re-signing Marco Estrada, this team needs pitching.
All of which leads to the question of what the Blue Jays prioritize this off-season.
“Add one impact arm and one impact position player for sure,” Atkins said Tuesday. “We have to do that. Whether or not that impact position player is a right fielder or plays another position will depend on [various] alternatives. We’ll be open to trades. We’ll be open to any possible way we can make our team better.”
This response raises a couple more questions. First: would the impact arm pitch out of the bullpen or the rotation? On this point Atkins kept his options open, saying starters and relievers will both be in play (though it’s worth noting that the Blue Jays already have the makings of a respectable bullpen in place).
Toronto’s rotation currently includes four established starters — Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ, Estrada and, if healthy, Aaron Sanchez — plus Joe Biagini. Beyond that group, the likes of Ryan Borucki and Thomas Pannone are close to the big-leagues, too.
“I think it’s an incredible starting point to go into an off-season with five guys you feel like could start,” Atkins said. “Several guys potentially in triple-A that could provide some depth, one or two of them with significant upside.”
The rotation looks to be in decent shape, a point Atkins returned to on multiple occasions when briefing the media Tuesday. But with that fifth spot in the rotation still open and lingering questions about Sanchez’s finger, the club would improve considerably with the addition of a quality big-league starter.
That brings us back to the meaning of ‘impact.’ When Atkins talks about adding impact players, he’s likely not referring to superstar types (not that the Blue Jays would rule those out). It’s a better bet that he’s referencing players capable of reliably contributing throughout the course of the season, the type of players who can be counted on to consistently generate something like 1.5 wins above replacement or more.
The easiest place to upgrade might be right field. Atkins recently told franchise icon Jose Bautista that the Blue Jays will decline his option, and the GM acknowledged Tuesday that it’s “very unlikely” Bautista plays for the 2018 team (regardless: “There will be a day that we celebrate him in a significant way,” Atkins said).
Internally, Teoscar Hernandez has “certainly earned the right” to be considered for an everyday job next spring after hitting eight home runs down the stretch. Anthony Alford, who was on the brink of a call-up this September, isn’t far off, either. Still, the Blue Jays would be better equipped to handle the grind of a six-month season with an established option around, too.
Free agency offers Lorenzo Cain, Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson and Carlos Gonzalez among others — each intriguing but risky in his own way. They’re all on the wrong side of 30, though, and the Blue Jays are slow as is.
“It’s a clear issue for us,” Atkins said. “It’s really hard to [address] in free agency.”
The trade market will also have appeal for a team lacking speed, and not only in right field. Atkins would like to add a versatile player along the lines of Ben Zobrist or Marwin Gonzalez. This player, ideally a switch-hitter or left-handed bat, could provide insurance in the event that Troy Tulowitzki and/or Devon Travis needs a break.
“If Devon Travis is healthy, he’s hard to upgrade,” Atkins said. “If he’s healthy, we want him playing. If he’s not, what’s our alternative and how does that person fit our team? I think that’s similar at shortstop with where Troy Tulowitzki is in his career. Are we going to get 160 games out of him? Not likely. So we plan and account for a very good major-league player getting significant reps at second base.”
Eventually Lourdes Gurriel Jr. could become that player for the Blue Jays, but he’s not ready just yet. Those super-utility types are rarely attainable in free agency, though the right-handed hitting Eduardo Nunez will surely be on the club’s radar when he hits the open market a few weeks from now. Or, the Blue Jays could look to other organizations for switch-hitting, versatile players who could become the next Zobrist or Gonzalez (Jurickson Profar, for argument’s sake).
As for Josh Donaldson, Atkins said the Blue Jays are open to an extension beyond 2018, the third baseman’s final season under club control. The GM acknowledged that other teams inquire about many of the Blue Jays’ best players, but said he’s not looking to subtract from the current club.
“The only way we’re going to do that is if we can make our major-league team better,” Atkins said.
More rumours are inevitable, but it’d be a surprise if Donaldson’s traded this winter. Even after a down year, the Blue Jays believe the playoffs are within reach next year. Best-case scenario, they legitimately compete until 2019, at which point the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette could usher in a new era of contending Blue Jays teams.
For Atkins, that means adding arms and bats to a team that fell short of expectations — the more impact and the more contributors, the better.
“What I feel the strongest about is that the best way to win and sustain championships is to build depth,” Atkins said.