Deal with Travis Shaw gives Blue Jays options, potential upside

Former Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw has agreed to a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. (Orlando Ramirez/AP)

TORONTO – You don’t have to squint all that hard to see what Travis Shaw could bring the Toronto Blue Jays. The numbers are there for anyone to see.

In 2017, he hit 31 home runs for the Milwaukee Brewers while posting an .862 OPS. The following year he hit 32 home runs with an .825 OPS. Over the course of those two seasons he generated 7.1 wins above replacement – more than Mike Moustakas or Nicholas Castellanos.

Of course there’s a reason Shaw was available to the Blue Jays on a one-year deal with a $4 million base salary, as first reported by Jon Morosi of MLB Network. While Moustakas and Castellanos put together big walk years ahead of free agency, Shaw regressed in 2019, hitting just seven home runs with a .551 OPS before the Brewers non-tendered him a few weeks ago.

In 2020, the Blue Jays will be hoping for a bounce-back from the left-handed hitting 29-year-old. A reduction in strikeouts would help after a season in which Shaw whiffed a third of the time, but of course that’s far easier said than done. Still, expecting some improvement seems reasonable, with the Steamer projection system forecasting 14 home runs and a respectable .230/.328/.431 batting line in 78 games.

Defensively speaking, most of Shaw’s experience comes at third, but he has also played a little second and he broke into the big leagues as a first baseman with Boston. The presence of third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. suggests the clearest path to playing time in Toronto exists at first, but there’s still plenty of off-season remaining. At this point there’s no need to lock in Shaw’s role – that’s part of the reason the Blue Jays set out to acquire versatile players this winter.

“It would be nice to consider alternatives that are more flexible and can play other positions as well,” GM Ross Atkins said in October. “We’ll have to factor that in as we acquire position players.”

The acquisition of Shaw doesn’t necessarily close the front office off to a first-base market that still features former Blue Jays Edwin Encarnacion and Eric Thames, but clearly the urgency at first has diminished now. Along with Shaw, the Blue Jays have Rowdy Tellez, another left-handed hitter who hit 21 home runs with a .742 OPS as a rookie last year.

“I’m pulling for Rowdy,” manager Charlie Montoyo said earlier this month. “I love the kid, and I see potential there. I know if he gets a chance, he’s going to be really good. He’s a young kid, so we also have to be patient. I don’t want to put so much pressure on Rowdy.

“Of course, if we find another older guy to take the spot and take the pressure off Rowdy, that would be great,” Montoyo continued. “If we don’t, I’m okay with Rowdy playing.”

With months remaining before opening day, there’s no need to determine who plays how much just yet. Tellez can be optioned to the minors if needed, and injuries could force the team’s hand one way or another.

Regardless, Shaw’s an intriguing bounce-back candidate given his 2017-18 numbers. At 29 years old, he may have more productive years ahead. If he does, the Blue Jays can keep him for 2021, too, since he begins this season with just four years and 53 days of service time. That’s a bonus for a team looking more than one year ahead.

And if he struggles again, the $4 million price tag was modest anyways. There are no guarantees here considering Shaw’s recent struggles, but this also has the potential to become one of those low-risk moves that pay off for the Blue Jays’ lineup.

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