Jays off-season needs: possible infield targets

Alexei Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Asdrubal Cabrera each hit at least 14 home runs in 2014 (AP)

The last time the Toronto Blue Jays’ primary second baseman posted an OPS above league average was 2009. The years since Aaron Hill‘s 36 home run season have been lean for the Blue Jays despite the efforts of Kelly Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio and others.

Led by Ryan Goins and Munenori Kawasaki, Blue Jays second basemen ranked 21st in MLB with a .634 OPS in 2014 (their wRC+ of 75 ranked 22nd). There’s plenty of room for improvement on the infield, and it wouldn’t even have to come at second base. Brett Lawrie‘s versatility would allow the Blue Jays to add a third baseman if they find the right option at the hot corner.

Today we take a speculative look at potential infield options for the Blue Jays, starting inside the organization.

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Where Things Stand

The Blue Jays seem set at first base (Edwin Encarnacion/Justin Smoak) and shortstop (Jose Reyes). Brett Lawrie looms as Toronto’s third baseman, with Danny Valencia and non-tender candidate Juan Francisco also available. The Blue Jays don’t have nearly as much at second base, where Goins, Jonathan Diaz and utility player Maicer Izturis sit atop the depth chart now that Kawasaki has hit free agency.

Aiming High

Pablo Sandoval‘s free-swinging, righty mashing approach would look great in the Blue Jays’ lineup, there’s no question about it. Yet he’ll have tons of choice after another big year, and Alex Anthopoulos has yet to spend more than $16 million on a free agent, which makes it tougher to see Blue Jays ending up as the high bidder on Sandoval.

Howie Kendrick is definitely worth monitoring, as the Blue Jays have placed multiple calls on his availability this year. He’d be a major upgrade for the Blue Jays (OPS+ of 116 since 2011) and he’s set to earn just $9.5 million in 2015 before hitting free agency. The Angels are willing to listen on Kendrick, who can block trades to four unknown teams. Their calls suggest genuine interest, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the Blue Jays call on a lot of players this time of year.

Assuming that the New York Mets aren’t inclined to trade Daniel Murphy, the next most appealing target could be Alexei Ramirez. The 33-year-old played second base in 2008 and his extensive experience at shortstop would allow him to cover for Reyes when he needs a break. Just as importantly, Ramirez is a solid hitter who hit 15 home runs with a .713 OPS and 3.3 wins above replacement in 2014. He’ll earn $10 million in 2015 and his contract includes a 2016 option, so there’s no reason for the White Sox to part with him unless they’re getting real value in return.

On paper free agent Hanley Ramirez and Cuban second baseman Jose Fernandez could also be fits in Toronto, yet neither seems likely to end up at Rogers Centre. Both are expected to cash in, and Ramirez already moved off of shortstop for Reyes’ sake once, in 2012. Chances are he won’t go out of his way to do so again.

Established Free Agents

The free agent market offers more third basemen than second basemen, though none appears to be a perfect fit. Chase Headley‘s past health issues might not play well on Toronto’s turf, though someone will surely pay the switch-hitter handsomely. Jed Lowrie has played third base in the past but he may fit best on a team that needs a shortstop.

The second base market features Asdrubal Cabrera, whose youth (28 years old), power (14 home runs) and versatility (extensive experience at short) will make him an appealing commodity. He’s not the perennial all-star he once promised to become, but he generated 1.8 wins above replacement last year and would be an upgrade. The same could be said of Luis Valbuena, another versatile 28-year-old who could be available in a trade with the Chicago Cubs. Controllable through 2016, Valbuena posted a .776 OPS while generating 2.7 wins above replacement in 2014.

Buying Low

How about Pedro Alvarez for an extreme longshot trade candidate? The 27-year-old fell out of favour in Pittsburgh as his throwing issues worsened and Josh Harrison rose to prominence. Set to earn a raise from $4.25 million via the arbitration process, Alvarez could be available. He had a disappointing year on both sides of the ball, but he led the NL with 36 home runs in 2013 and his left-handed bat could complement Toronto’s right-handed power. Alvarez can hit right-handers (125 wRC+ since 2012) nearly as well as Sandoval (128 wRC+ since 2012), though the latter’s admittedly the far better player. Pairing Alvarez and the lefty-mashing Valencia would yield a lot of offence, yet it wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice and it seems quite unlikely for a team that must improve its defence.

Elvis Andrus of the Texas Rangers ($118 million through 2022) wouldn’t be of interest unless the Rangers absorbed tens of millions, but he’s somewhat intriguing even after posting a pedestrian .647 OPS in 2014.

Depending on how the winter unfolds, Rickie Weeks (lifetime .834 OPS vs. left-handers) and non-tender candidate Gordon Beckham could be worth pursuing as potential buy-low pieces.

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