As we wait with bated breath for what we hope will be Toronto’s second-ever MVP Award (Go Josh Donaldson!) it’s a good time to look back on what was ultimately a pretty good season… and look ahead to April 3 when the Jays and Rays kick off the 2016 AL season. The Jays came close this year – how do they kick it up that final notch to make it to the World Series?
The good news, of course, is that most of the position players, the main core of the ’15 squad, are coming back (or at least under Toronto control). Bautista, Encarnacion, the ‘Bringer of rain’, Martin, Pillar, Tulowitzki… going nowhere. So too returning is a good portion of the pitching staff, including Dickey, Estrada, Stroman, Cecil and Osuna. The equally obvious bad news is that the free agency of David Price and Mark Buehrle will require Rogers to invest in a huge way to retain them, or leave a big hole that will be difficult to fill.
A few proposals here.
A Missed Proposal– perhaps it was the confusion surrounding Alex Anthopoulos’ leaving; perhaps it was the assumption the old lefty was retiring but the Blue Jays should have put in a qualifying offer on Mark Buehrle. There would have been no downside. If Buehrle retired, as he has suggested likely, it would have been a moot point. If he decided to pitch on, but for his hometown Cardinals, the Jays would have a sweet draft pick rather than nothing to show for it. And were he to decide to take them up on the offer and have one more go at a ring wearing the blue-and-white, we’d have retained a reliable 200-inning (or at least 199!) starter with 15-straight double-digit win years and a strong clubhouse presence. With inflation of pitching prices, $15M wouldn’t have been a high price to pay for that stability of the rotation. But that window is closed, so…
A Modest Proposal- the Jays bullpen not only was improved over the previous season, but got better as the year went along. All in all, the ‘pen was decent . Its 3.50 ERA and .231 opponents average were better than the league average (3.76, .245 respectively) and the 130 walks they issued was lowest in baseball. However, it still was only the fifth best in the AL by ERA and cost too many games in the springtime. A number of relievers are flooding the free agent market this winter and spending some of the money that could have been thrown at Buehrle to strengthen the back-end of the pitching staff makes sense. In particular, another strong southpaw to go with Cecil (and possibly the redoubtable Loup) would be a major plus. Tom Gorzelanny seems like a good choice; his surprisingly high 5.95 ERA in ’15 was an outlier but one which might drive his price down. Even with his inflated ERA over 48 games, he kept lefties to just a .222 average, so coupled with Cecil and the unusual Ryan Tepera (right-handed but more effective against LH hitters last season), it could make the Jays more than capable of dealing with lefty-heavy teams in the late innings next year.
Add in another good right-handed reliever for good measure and the bullpen could be a significant strength in ’16. Tyler Clippard anybody? Over the past three years he’s averaged 72 games a season, better than a K per inning and a 2.39 ERA. Last year he kept lefties to a ridiculous .137 batting average. Clippard may be the best reliever on the free agent market not typically considered a “closer”. As a plus, the signing of him or a similar right arm could make it much easier for Toronto to consider putting Aaron Sanchez back into the rotation. Best of all, the combo of Gorz and Clippard could probably be brought in for about $8M next year- far less than even an average starter to replace Buehrle.
A Price-y Proposal- this writer still thinks David Price is a tad over-rated. BUT, that said I also acknowledge he’s a pretty damn good pitcher and he was simply lights-out helping the Jays secure the playoff spot. All reports suggest he was a better-than-ordinary guy in the clubhouse as well, so there’s no reason not to want him back opening up the season for us next April. It is however, unlikely given the type of contract being bandied about as his due (e.g starting at 7 years, $210 M) . The Jays have good reason to be wary of offering up that type of deal, let alone getting caught in an outright bidding war for his services. The Phillies are a cautionary tale about locking in too many aging stars for too long and with Bautista and Encarnacion potentially gone after next season (and almost bound to be in the age of declining results soon) the window of opportunity for Toronto is short. But before throwing in the towel on Price, there might be two options to consider.
First, a short-term gamble. Everyone assumes Price wants a long, long, big contract but how wrong could it be to offer him an above-market value short contract? Be blunt with him, tell him he’s our guy for ’16 but might not fit in by 2020 or so and offer him a one-year deal at $33 Million. High? Yes! But having a Cy Young-candidate at the front end of a decent rotation with the offense the ’16 Jays will have might make it worthwhile. And at his end, if he’s confident enough, another top-flight season coupled with a perhaps better Post-season could jack his worth up for 2017… and he’d not be competing with Zack Greinke for top billing next winter.
If that ploy failed, Toronto could still offer a competitive long-term deal. But make it front-ended (which a player might like, having access to more cash sooner) so if he did end up pitching for a second-rate Toronto team at age 36 or 37, he wouldn’t be breaking the bank so much. AND – here’s the key- make the contract one that would give the team the opportunity to trade him after two or three years, and to balance it out, give him an opt-out clause similar to the one Greinke just exercised with LA.
If this kept the bird-of-blue on Price’s head next season, we’re pretty much set… if not, another tactic would be needed. More thoughts on alternative routes for upping the pitching ante in the next post here…