How Blue Jays could address bench depth in free agency

MLB.com writer Anthony Castrovince joins Tim & Sid to discuss whether there's a chance that top FA pitcher Trevor Bauer picks the Blue Jays as a destination, and why GM Atkins could be a great fit to re-unite with Francisco Lindor via trade.

Taking an overarching view of the Toronto Blue Jays' off-season, it’s fair to say the team’s needs and strengths are pretty clear.

This club can bring back its entire outfield, plus every infielder except Travis Shaw, and feel good about its lineup’s offensive capabilities. They even have multiple catching options, and a credible full-time DH candidate in Rowdy Tellez.

Over in the bullpen, the situation is similarly sturdy. There are enough arms there that reinforcements from outside the organization are a luxury rather than a necessity. Where things get dicey is the rotation. Hyun-Jin Ryu is supported by injury risk Nate Pearson, performance risk Tanner Roark, and a jumble of high-variance candidates.

That makes the path forward this off-season seem fairly straightforward. All the Blue Jays front office needs to do is use the ample payroll flexibility at its disposal (the current roster only projects to cost approximately $80 million) and put it towards one bat, preferably a third baseman, and a starter or two — including an impact arm. As blueprints go, that’s fairly easy to understand, even if executing it is another matter entirely.

Where things get a little bit more complicated is with the Blue Jays' bench. This post-season the Tampa Bay Rays did an excellent job of demonstrating the value of a deep position player group. Even if you don’t rotate players based on matchups as much as the Rays, a strong bench provides depth with injuries hit.

The Blue Jays are awfully short on that depth at the moment. If the 2021 season started today it’s possible their bench would consist of Reese McGuire, Santiago Espinal, Jonathan Davis, and Derek Fisher. That group hit .208/.275/.308 last season. Their collective career line is .211/.284/.373.

You could put in Danny Jansen as your backup catcher if Alejandro Kirk wins the job, sub in Breyvic Valera for Espinal, or even give rookie outfielder Josh Palacios a whirl, but however you draw it up this group needs help. None of the names listed above are guys you’d want filling in as a starter for even a couple of weeks if you could avoid it.

A free agent market that’s already looking soft could benefit the Blue Jays here. As many teams are slashing their budgets, they could find some quality depth at reasonable prices. Here’s how their bench situation breaks down based on the standard roles on most four-man units:

Backup catcher

Incumbent: McGuire (or Jansen if Kirk is the starter)

Possible free agent fits: Austin Romine, Josh Phegley, Alex Avila

This position requires the least investment by the Blue Jays. If Jansen remains the starter, it would behoove them to acquire a veteran backup so that Kirk can get full-time at-bats in triple-A. That’s really all there is to it. Whoever signs would effectively be the team’s third catcher, because Kirk would almost certainly become the starter if Jansen got injured. That means the team can’t shoot too high in the catchers it pursues because the job they have to offer has no upside.

If Kirk is considered the starter heading into the off-season this becomes moot, but that seems like a bit of a stretch considering he’s logged all of 28 plate appearances above high-A.

Middle infielder

Incumbent: Espinal

Possible free agent fits: Freddy Galvis, Ehire Adrianza, Adeiny Hechavarria

Although Espinal impressed in the field last season, he hit an empty .267/.308/.333, and the 25-year-old isn’t high on either upside or track record.

Galvis is an interesting name here, because he’s exactly the type of guy that could find himself iced out of a starting role, and a significant contact, in this market. If he’s ready to embrace life as a reserve, there is no doubt that Charlie Montoyo — who is without a doubt his biggest fan — would be happy to have him back.

Outside of that reunion, the best fits are players that inspire confidence defensively. Neither Adrianza or Hechavarria do much with the bat, but the last time each had extended looks at shortstop they were solid. In 2018, Adrianza posted an Outs Above Average of +5 in 534 innings at short, while Hechavarria managed a +2 in 717.1. Since then, they’ve both bounced around the diamond a bit, but that versatility could come in handy, especially in Adrianza’s case considering he’s played seven positions in the last two seasons.

There’s an argument to be made that the pair isn’t a major upgrade over Espinal, but they come with a lot more certainty, and wouldn’t cost much.

Fourth outfielder

Incumbent: Davis

Possible free agent fits: Jake Marisnick, Billy Hamilton, Rusney Castillo, Jay Bruce

Davis is extremely likeable, and an extraordinary defender, but considering he’s a .200/.286/.296 hitter in his brief MLB career it’s possible his bat just isn’t enough. He also turns 29 in May and he doesn’t have triple-A numbers that suggest there’s a ton of latent offensive potential here.

There are a number of fun names here (to be honest some of the fits above skew more “fun” than practical), because there are plenty of conceptions of what a fourth outfielder can be. If the Blue Jays consider Teoscar Hernandez a viable backup in centre field it gives them the leeway to pursue more of a corner outfield bat. That brings guys like Bruce into play, who probably isn’t worthy of a starting spot anymore, but can do some damage spot starting in the right matchups.

If the Blue Jays prefer someone with more centre field capabilities, Marisnick is the platonic ideal of a defensively-capable, offensively-competent fourth outfielder. For what it’s worth, he also swung the bat well in his brief time with the Mets last year, giving some indication the Astros' sign-stealing wasn’t the only source of his offensive production. Hamilton makes it on this list because he’s almost exactly like Davis, but more extreme, and his wheels can be a late-game difference maker. Castillo would be a dart throw on a player whose talent once captivated the baseball world. It’s unclear what he has left after his brutal and lengthy triple-A exile, but it would be interesting to find out.

Miscellaneous bat

Incumbent: Derek Fisher

Possible free agent fits: Kike Hernandez, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Kipnis

Fisher has done very little to enamour himself to Blue Jays fans in his brief tenure with the team, and it’s tough to see him carving out a role for himself in 2021. In the flex role on the Blue Jays bench, they’d be better served rostering a veteran with a reliable history of producing offensively, with a touch of defensive versatility going a long way.

Hernandez has been an excellent role player for the Dodgers in recent years and can play every position except for catcher. His career line of .263/.345/.474 against lefties makes him particularly useful in a part-time role as well. Although his experience as a super sub means he knows the drill, it’s possible he’s got his heart set on a stable starting job. Gonzalez is less defensively adept than Hernandez, but brings a similar skill set to the table. He should be available for a role like this thanks to his rough 2020, but he’s also a scary investment because his best year by far came with the 2017 Astros.

Kipnis is an intriguing name to watch because he’s been a starting second baseman for the entirety of his career, but he’ll be 34 next April and had three below-average offensive seasons prior to 2020. If no one sees him as a starter, he’s a player with significant platoon splits (career 114 wRC+ vs RHP compared to 82 vs. LHP) who could benefit from more strategic deployment. He also played centre field as recently as 2018 and still has above-average sprint speed, so he could help at a couple of positions.

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