The Toronto Blue Jays are entering the off-season with some relatively clear needs and goals.
Late last month, general manager Ross Atkins said “any organization would be looking to create more balance, more platoon effect and potentially more speed.” The positions of need are equally apparent: outfield, first base, designated hitter, backup catcher and bullpen.
But if we look beyond the specifics, the challenge becomes simpler: find ways to score more runs and allow fewer runs. Viewed from that perspective, the Blue Jays’ avenues for improvement are endless. Here are a few outside-the-box ways they could improve before opening day…
Slow-play the 1B/DH market
An abundance of second-tier options at first base and designated hitter could allow the Blue Jays to be patient, instead of rushing a deal. For a few reasons, they’re well-positioned to wait and see who’s out there after the Winter Meetings or even in the new year.
Because the Blue Jays are a playoff team with playing time to offer and a hitter-friendly home park, they’d appeal to many free agent hitters. There’s risk here, the kind more often absorbed by small-market teams, but the potential payoff exists, too. If a veteran switch-hitter like Carlos Beltran or Kendrys Morales needs a home later in the off-season, the Blue Jays could make a play. Depending on the price, power bats like Brandon Moss, Pedro Alvarez and Wilin Rosario could even be of interest.
In recent years Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind have occupied the first base and DH spots, preventing the Blue Jays from exploring the market as fully as they otherwise might. Now they have two openings, but they’re not cause for alarm. If anything, it’s an opportunity to land a quality hitter at a bargain rate, freeing up money for other needs.
The Blue Jays would do well to replicate the impressive versatility the Chicago Cubs showed off during their run to the World Series. That’s easier said than done, of course, and Cubs players are as talented as they are versatile, but considering the injury histories of Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki, the more contingency plans in Toronto, the better.
On the high end, Ian Desmond would be a fit given his experience in centre field and at shortstop. That said, he’ll be expensive and some observers expect a reunion with the Texas Rangers. Beyond Desmond, Steve Pearce mashes lefties and multiple baseball evaluators say he’s a solid defender between first base, second base and left field. Utility player Sean Rodriguez, who posted a .349 on-base percentage with 18 home runs in his walk year, also warrants more consideration.
Inquire about J.D. Martinez
Age: 29 | Contract status: $11.75 million salary in 2017 followed by free agency | 2016 stats: .307/.373/.535, 22 HR, 120 G, 1.8 WAR
Conventional wisdom suggests the Blue Jays want to get younger and more left-handed, so adding a righty bat on the brink of free agency doesn’t exactly make sense at first glance. But big picture, Martinez is a star player, the kind of bat teams can build potent lineups around. One of few available players who could reasonably be expected to replicate the production of Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion, Martinez finished strong after missing time with an elbow injury.
Presumably the re-tooling Tigers would want one of Toronto’s top prospects in return, but the Blue Jays would get a draft pick assuming Martinez leaves after 2017.
Listen on starting pitching
The Blue Jays had the best rotation in the American League last year, and they’re in the enviable position of having five starters under team control for 2017. Meanwhile, the starting pitching market looks remarkably thin, with Rich Hill, Jeremy Hellickson and Ivan Nova atop the class.
Execs expect the trade market to compensate for the lack of starting pitching available in free agency, with some in the industry wondering if the Blue Jays could get involved. Marcus Stroman has substantial trade value, but the front office could listen on anyone this side of Aaron Sanchez just in case there’s a team willing to overpay with impact talent. Joe Biagini would then slot in as a projected starter for 2017 to round out the starting five.
It’d be risky, and seems unlikely right now, but Blue Jays decision makers like keeping their options open, so it can’t be ruled out altogether.