Well, the winter of our discontent is almost over with the gates to Dunedin swinging open officially later this week. It can’t come soon enough given the cold water new President Mark Shapiro has thrown on buoyant expectations the fan base had during the playoffs last October. Not that trading for Drew Storen, or taking low-price chances on the likes of pitchers Gavin Floyd and David Aardsma and returning infielder Maicer “Oft-injured” Izturis are bad things, but they hardly make up for letting David Price walk away uncontested and the departures of Marks Buehrle and Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins and Dioner Navarro. Then there’s the little matter that two of the Big Three bats that propelled the team to the best offense of any team in the last decade are entering free agent seasons and the management are from all accounts dragging their feet in inking them to extensions.
This close to the start of spring training, there’s not a lot of room or opportunity to fix what’s broken, but I have a few suggestions. Starting with …
Lock up Jose Bautista. This is more than just throwing us fans a bone, though after the “bat flip” it’s hard to imagine Joey Bats in anything other than a Jays cap … or the fallout Rogers Communications would face should he flip his bat and walk away from the team next year. He may have lost a step or two but is still above average in the field and where else are they going to get another sure-fire 35 homer, 100 ribbie, .400 on base type guy? Who else can back the MVP and keep him getting good pitches to hit? The Jays have to keep JB, and they may have to pay the price for it after getting him at a bargain rate on this contract. Justin Upton and Jason Hayward’s contracts this winter set the pay-bar higher than ever, so now is the time (before next winter when as the Associated Press noted in an article about Yoenis Cespedes “the free agent class for outfielders next fall is far weaker … with a steep drop-off after Jose Bautista”. When Bleacher Report is ranking Colby Rasmus as the next best potential free agent OF next year, the lineup of Brinks trucks bidding for Bautista will be long. Start with a bid of three years, $70M to lock him up through 2019 and take it from there.
Then let’s look at the likely weakness of the ’16 Jays… starting pitching.
While we can all cross our fingers and hope that JA Happ remembers the lessons he learned in Pittsburgh and his final ten starts there are the new norm not a happ-y blip on the radar; that Marco Estrada will pick up where he left off and that Marcus Stroman (he of less than 30 career starts) is the Ace the team expect him to be right now; the realities of it are that the Blue Jays starting rotation is mediocre at best. RA Dickey’s innings have dropped annually since his Cy Young 2012 campaign, but he’s still logged the most innings (654.1) and wins (39) in the three years since. JA Happ is 27-26, 4.24 in that span; Marco Estrada 27-18 with a 3.74 ERA but only 460 innings. Then there’s young Stroman, 15-6, 3.31 for his career, excluding last October’s run. Adding in a jesse Chavez seems unlikely to add much to this collection; it seems hard to believe that Drew Hutchision was last year’s season opener and a gamble to believe that his 2.91 ERA, .238 Opponents average at home was more representative of the real Drew than the astonishingly bad 9.83 ERA and .380 average on the road. Then there’s newly-signed Gavin Floyd, a decent veteran, but only a year removed from elbow surgery and four years past his last hundred-inning campaign. It looks like Aaron Sanchez will be recast as a starter and that may turn out alright, but any way you slice it, the roatation is thin at best and probably one big injury away from pitching the team out of October, no matter how many runs are put up for them.
Alas, there aren’t many good starters still pacing about looking for work, so the free agent route is a long shot to yield dividends now. Yovanni Gallardo is the best one still available, and though rumored to be close to a deal with the Jays around Christmas, the Baltimore Sun now have him dotting the i’s and crossing t’s on a deal with the Orioles. So unless that falls through and Toronto come up with, say three years and $40M for Gallardo- another Estrada-type pitcher, the only way to improve quickly is via the trade market.
That too is problematic, as hope springs eternal in, well, spring, and not many teams want to trade a top-flight pitcher at any time. Which leads me to my radical suggestion…
Trade Edwin Encarnacion for pitching. I know, I know, I can feel the virtual bananas and tomatoes being thrown at the screen right now. I like EE as much as the rest of you, and know that replacing a solid 35 HR/100 RBI guy would be difficult. But trades require a bit of pain, and fact is, Toronto could stand to lose a few runs and still contend. Edwin’s days of playing in the field are numbered if not over, and that makes him expendable for Toronto – if the right deal comes along. Even the optimistic among us feel it unlikely the owners are going to pay both him and Bautista the market value to keep them around after ’16 (on top of the rising salary of Donaldson and the big money Troy Tulowitzki gets), so why not get something in return now?
EE would be a welcome addition to an AL team without Toronto’s power. There are few teams around that wouldn’t benefit by adding him as their DH. Meanwhile at our end, while improbable that we’d match his 39 HR,111 RBI and .557 slugging percentage of last year, the fact is that the average for everyday DHs last year was around 22 HR, 83 RBI and a median .422 slugging. Those are numbers Justin Smoak could deliver. Or Justin Morneau, if the team takes Bluebird banter’s advice and sign the Canuck first baseman on the cheap (which would be an option with the savings from Encarnacion.)
The problem is, finding a suitor for Edwin with expendable pitching. To me, that’s not going to happen directly. However, a bit of creativity should allow a three-way deal. A team like the White Sox or Astros would benefit greatly from Encarnacion and have some good youth. Send them Edwin for a bundle of prospects, then in turn deal some of the kids to an NL team looking to shed a pitcher. San Diego comes to mind. With all the stars they dropped within the last year, it’s hard to imagine them keeping James Shields around, particularly when he can opt out of his contract after this season. Shields would give Toronto the type of experienced, 200-inning, 15-win type pitcher they need to anchor the rotation. Or, thinking even bigger, the Nats might be willing to part ways with Stephen Strasburg, the cream of next year’s pitching free agent crop.
We’d miss Edwin Encarnacion, no doubt. But if it means having Shields or Strasburg in the rotation instead of Hutchison or Chavez, I think we’d get over it!