Why going defence-first could be the best option for Blue Jays

GM Ross Atkins joins the Blue Jays Central panel to discuss personnel, payroll, the team’s deepest needs, and the 5-day window they have with Bautista and Encarnacion before the rest of the league.

In the weeks to come, the Toronto Blue Jays are going to have themselves a number of job openings. The club has free agents up and down the roster and retaining everyone is neither realistic nor wise.

Core players like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are likely to depart, as are strong complementary pieces like Brett Cecil and Michael Saunders. There is a lot of production potentially walking out the door, with a couple of draft picks as the only possible compensation.

There’s no doubting there’s a grimness to the scenario, but it also creates an opportunity. After years of being a fairly one-dimensional team reliant on right-handed power, the Blue Jays have a chance to be something different. Specifically, they could try to create a defensive juggernaut.

The core Toronto has in place of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Kevin Pillar includes some of the best defensive players at their respective positions. The position player free agents the Blue Jays have are not. The chart below shows their production by Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved in 2016.

Player UZR DRS
Edwin Encarnacion 1.7 0
Jose Bautista -5.6 -8
Michael Saunders -8.9 -11
Dioner Navarro N/A -5
Total -13.8 -24

Given the anemic production of the Blue Jays offence in September and the ALCS, the common belief is that the team needs to do whatever it can to find run producers. What that line of thinking misses is that a run saved is as good as a scored.

The Blue Jays were already the best run-prevention team in the American League last season, with a number of sub-par defenders likely on the way out they can get even better. There’s nothing wrong with improving on a strength instead of patching a weakness. When the Blue Jays acquired Troy Tulowitzki in 2015 very few people complained they were going to hit too many home runs.

A focus on defence would also be wise for the Blue Jays given the nature of their pitching staff. In 2016, the team ranked 14th in the major leagues in strikeouts and leaned heavily on guys like Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ who challenge opposing hitters to put the ball in play. If they had a fireballing staff like the Cleveland Indians, defence could take a back seat, but that isn’t the case.

Prioritizing glovework also makes sense because it costs a lot less than power on both the free agent and trade markets. It’s an understandable phenomenon because offensive production is easier to quantify with confidence, but the risk aversion when it comes to paying a premium for defence likely goes too far.

Last off-season the Los Angeles Angels were able to pry Andrelton Simmons, possibly the best defender in baseball, away from the Atlanta Braves for a package that included only one premium prospect in Sean Newcomb. Meanwhile, the Braves got top-flight defensive outfielder Ender Inciarte as the secondary piece in the Shelby Miller trade.

The outfield seems like the most logical place to find an upgrade, and if the Blue Jays want to flank Kevin Pillar with some rangy athletes there are plenty of ways to do it. Defensive specialists like Jarrod Dyson, Travis Jankowski and even Inciarte are likely available if the team is willing to part with a prospect or two. Free agency offers names ranging from Josh Reddick to Peter Bourjos when it comes to top-notch corner defenders.

Internally, they could commit to giving Melvin Upton Jr. a corner to patrol, but his struggles in his time with the team may well have made that unpalatable. A switch to a defence-first philosophy would seem to be a good time to give Dalton Pompey a shot, but if the team thought he was a plus defender today he would have been used as a defensive substitute down the stretch.

The Blue Jays have been known as a power-hitting team for so long it seems bizarre to even contemplate the idea of making them a pitching-and-defence outfit. However, right now that’s where their strengths lie. There is no need to go out and try to replace exactly what they lose in order to be the calibre of team they’ve been.

Ultimately, the Blue Jay is just a logo that gets printed onto hats and shirts. In recent years, more than anything else, it has represented balls flying over the left-field wall, but that’s not what it has to stand for.

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