Free agents and trade targets who fit the bill for the Blue Jays

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

Asked recently to describe the type of hitter he feels would best complement his club’s current core, Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins provided a helpful clue as to the position player profile his front office team will look to acquire this off-season.

“The obvious one is that we were a little bit right-handed,” Atkins said. “You saw when (Corey) Dickerson was having good at-bats and when Cavan Biggio came into the lineup, it's not just that they're left-handed, but how we are attacked. And potentially the pitchers that are used is different.

“Secondarily, we feel it's important to have balance and not just the same type of hitters up and down your lineup. So, some players that are more batting average driven and some players that are more on-base driven with plate discipline. I think having both is exceptionally powerful. And having a combination of all of those things is ultimately what we're striving to do.”

So, the Blue Jays could use left-handed hitters with disciplined approaches that reach base at a decent clip. That’s the ideal complement to a lineup heavy with aggressive, low-walk, high-power right-handed bats such as Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Randal Grichuk, plus a couple that are similarly right-handed and powerful but more patient in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and George Springer.

Of course, that’s not to say the Blue Jays will paint themselves into any corners. If the most optimal addition this off-season is another right-handed power hitter, so be it. That worked out pretty well in 2021 with Marcus Semien. But in an ideal world, Toronto’s front office would like to balance things out, helping take what was a top-three 2021 offence to another level.

The least disruptive way to add will be at second and third base, where there are currently vacancies entering the 2022 season. An outfield upgrade is certainly possible, but a little trickier as it’d necessitate subtracting one of the four players currently receiving regular outfield reps from the roster -- likely Grichuk or Gurriel.

Toronto’s front office will no doubt consider outfield options -- coming off a down year with the New York Mets, Michael Conforto still brings a track record of reaching base (.356 career OBP) and hitting for power (three seasons of 27+ homers) -- as it hunts for value and opportunities to creatively address roster needs. But the infield is easier. So, let’s survey the free agent and trade markets, and try to find some disciplined, left-handed hitting infielders the Blue Jays could pursue.

FREE AGENTS

Corey Seager

Age on opening day: 27

2021 positions played: Shortstop

2021 stats: 409 PA, .306/.394/.521, 16 HR, 11.7 BB%, 16.1 K%, 147 wRC+, 3.7 fWAR

Coming off back-to-back seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers spent flirting with a 150 wRC+, and with sparking quality of contact peripherals supporting his well-rounded offensive production, Seager ought to be one of the most coveted free agents in this winter’s class. He’s a left-handed bat; he reaches base at a high clip; he hits for both average and power. This is the premium, top-shelf option within the aisle the Blue Jays intend to shop. And Seager’s services will be priced accordingly.

But, assuming they don’t re-sign him, Semien’s 6.6 fWAR will have to be replaced somewhere. And if the Blue Jays are serious about taking another step after a 91-win season, they’ll have to engage with the most impactful players on the market.

The Blue Jays sound very committed to Bichette at short, so Seager might have to be willing to switch positions for this to work. But he played some third base in the minors and for a brief spell when he first reached the big leagues. If the money and term’s right, it’s a decent bet he could be convinced to shift to Bichette’s right.

Eduardo Escobar

Age on opening day: 33

2021 positions played: Third base, second base

2021 stats: 599 PA, .253/.314/.472, 28 HR, 8 BB%, 20.7 K%, 107 wRC+, 3 fWAR

Escobar’s a switch-hitter with experience at each infield position who’s posted 3+ fWAR in three of the last four seasons (the exception being pandemic-shortened 2020). He walked at just under a league-average clip in 2021 (split between the Milwaukee Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks) while sustaining his mid-career power breakout with 28 homers. And he set a career-low with a 28.8 per cent chase rate, a marked improvement on the mid-30’s numbers he posted over the five seasons prior.

A league-average defender at second or third, Escobar would give the Blue Jays flexibility as they pursue other avenues to upgrade their roster. The club could spread the money Semien will command next season between Escobar at second and another mid-tier free agent at third. Or Escobar could be signed to play third, with a second baseman coming via trade. Either way, you’re addressing two positions defensively while mitigating injury risk.

Kyle Seager

Age on opening day: 34

2021 positions played: Third base

2021 stats: 670 PA, .212/.285/.438, 35 HR, 8.8 BB%, 24 K%, 99 wRC+, 2.5 fWAR

Six years older with a far less potent bat than his brother, Kyle’s acquisition cost will be a fraction of Corey’s, allowing the Blue Jays to allocate more payroll to upgrades at other positions. The elder Seager obviously wouldn’t be the centrepiece of Toronto’s off=season. But he could be a piece of a larger puzzle, ideally in a platoon role at third.

He doesn’t hit .300 or get on base at an elite clip like his younger brother, but Seager’s 197 homers over the last eight seasons stand out, particularly since his home environment over that span -- Seattle’s wet, cold T-Mobile Park -- isn’t favourable to power hitters. Seager still grades as an above-average fielder, too, even into his mid-30’s.

The problem is Seager chased pitches outside the zone at a career-high clip in 2021 -- something the Blue Jays would need to evaluate as either an aberration or a new normal. But the left-handed hitter’s only a year removed from posting a 12.9 per cent walk rate in a small-sample 2020, and two years past a .321 OBP in 2019 that matches his career average. And he’s posted double-digit walk rates against right-handed pitching each of the last three seasons, demonstrating the value he could provide in a platoon. If Seager’s still capable of that selective approach, he could be a fit on a short-term deal.

Brad Miller

Age on opening day: 32

2021 positions played: First base, right field, second base, third base, left field

2021 stats: 377 PA, .227/.321/.453, 20 HR, 11.9 BB%, 29.7 K%, 105 wRC+, 1 fWAR

Owner of a 127 wRC+ against right-handed pitching since 2019, Miller could fill one side of a platoon at second or third and even play some corner outfield if circumstances called for it. The 32-year-old struck out in almost 30 per cent of his trips this season with the Philadelphia Phillies, but balanced it out with a nearly 12 per cent walk rate and 20 homers in only 377 plate appearances. Miller’s three-true-outcomes profile isn’t an ideal fit for Toronto’s lineup, but you could do a lot worse in a platoon utility type. He’d essentially be an offensive upgrade on Dickerson with the added benefit of more positional versatility.

TRADE TARGETS

Jose Ramirez

Age on opening day: 29

2021 positions played: Third base

2021 stats: 636 PA, .266/.355/.538, 36 HR, 11.3 BB%, 13.7 K%, 137 wRC+, 6.3 fWAR

No surprise here -- Ramirez is an obvious Jays target and a name you’re going to hear connected to the team ad nauseum this winter. A switch-hitter with a high walk rate, low strikeout rate, and exceptional quality-of-contact peripherals, Ramirez carries one of the game’s most well-rounded bats at his position.

He also carries an extremely payroll efficient contract that could keep him under team control through the next two seasons via club options of $11- and $13-million. That means the personnel price to acquire him will be steep. But Cleveland’s front office likely doesn’t have the budget to extend Ramirez, which removes some leverage on their end. If the Guardians want to maximize their return in a potential deal, it’ll have to happen sometime between now and the 2022 trade deadline. And you can expect the Blue Jays to be among the bidders, as they were for Ramirez’s former teammate, Francisco Lindor.

Ketel Marte

Age on opening day: 28

2021 positions played: Centre field, second base

2021 stats: 374 PA, .318/.377/.532, 14 HR, 8.3 BB%, 16 K%, 139 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR

This is entirely dependent on whether Arizona, coming off consecutive last-place finishes in the NL West, is motivated to move its best hitter and fully commit to a rebuild. But if it is, there’s a case to be made that Marte would be a more impactful acquisition for the Blue Jays this winter than Ramirez.

Marte can’t match Ramirez’s power, but he does hit for a far better average and reaches base at a higher clip. And with 81st percentile or higher ranks in expected slugging, average exit velocity, and hard-hit rate this season, there’s a case to be made that there’s some untapped pop in Marte’s bat. Perhaps a shift to homer-happy Rogers Centre from the tough offensive environments he’s known in Seattle and Arizona would help the switch-hitter unlock it.

Look at it this way. Since 2019, Ramirez has a 131 wRC+. Marte’s is 137. He’s also younger, more versatile defensively (800+ innings at second, short, and centre since 2017), and signed to an even more player-unfriendly pact (owed $8-million in 2022, plus club options for $10-million in ’23 and $12-million in ‘24). The acquisition cost for either player would be considerable. But if the Blue Jays are deploying a wealth of prospect capital this off-season, it might be better spent on Marte than Ramirez.

Didi Gregorius

Age on opening day: 32

2021 positions played: Shortstop

2021 stats: 408 PA, .209/.270/.370, 13 HR, 6.1 BB%, 16.4 K%, 68 wRC+, 0 fWAR

Gregorius’ 2021 was marred by elbow issues, leading to the worst season of his career offensively. But assuming he gets healthy and that he hasn’t completely fallen off a cliff, the left-handed hitter is a decent bet to bounce back above the 100 wRC+ threshold he surpassed in three of the four prior seasons. At least that’s what his track record suggests.

But the Phillies may be running out of a patience, as evidenced by Dave Dombowski’s recent comments about being “open-minded to what’s going to take place at shortstop next year.” That could create a buy-low opportunity for the Blue Jays, who had interest in Gregorius as a free agent in 2020 and could deploy him at second or third where he spent time earlier in his career.

Could a deal be built around a Grichuk for Gregorius framework? Both are in their early 30’s and coming off sub-par campaigns. The Blue Jays need an infielder; the Phillies need an outfielder. Grichuk is signed through 2023 at $10.3-million per season; Gregorius has one year remaining at $14.5-million. The Blue Jays would take on more near-term money, freeing up 2023 payroll as a young core gets progressively more expensive; the Phillies would lower their 2022 payroll, creating flexibility as they try to navigate the competitive balance tax.

It’s a thought. Gregorius doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard but makes a ton of contact and is difficult to strike out, which would fit well at the bottom of the Blue Jays lineup. It’s unlikely Gregorius will be Toronto’s preferred alternative this winter. But he could be one they pursue if other avenues close.

Jeimer Candelario

Age on opening day: 28

2021 positions played: Third base

2021 stats: 626 PA, .271/.351/.443, 16 HR, 10.4 BB%, 21.6 K%, 119 wRC+, 3.2 fWAR

The Detroit Tigers are an interesting team to watch this offseason as they try to emerge from a half-decade rebuild. Their owner has suggested “high-impact” acquisitions could be possible, while their GM recently indicated he’d have “no fear factor in signing a big contract.” If that rhetoric leads to the Tigers landing one of the several shortstops available in this free-agent class, it’ll create further surplus on a crowded infield already experiencing upward pressure from 2020 No. 1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson, who finished the season at triple-A.

And perhaps that leads to Candelario becoming available. He’d certainly fit the bill of what the Blue Jays are looking for. The 28-year-old has two years of club control remaining and is coming off a solid year in which he walked at a 10.4 per cent clip, set a career-low in whiff rate, finished with an 81st percentile xOBP, and continued to shave points off a strikeout rate that has declined each of the last three seasons. Among the 136 MLB hitters to qualify for the batting title in 2021, Candelario ranked No. 32 in pitches per plate appearance with 4.07.

The Tigers desperately need some veteran certainty in their rotation ahead of 2022, something the Blue Jays could offer in a package built around Ross Stripling, who’s pitched to a 4.51 ERA over 241.1 innings since 2019. The right-hander wouldn’t be enough to get a deal done on his own, even factoring in a slight cost savings between the projected arbitration salaries. But maybe attaching a prospect or two the Tigers particularly like would tip the scales. Perhaps the Tigers see something in Kevin Smith, Otto Lopez, or Zach Logue. Maybe Leo Jimenez impresses their scouts at the Arizona Fall League.

As with Gregorius, this likely isn’t Toronto’s first option. But it’s one that could materialize as the off-season wears on, players come off the market, and front offices start looking to get creative.

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