Looking ahead to ’17

Well enough time has passed to be over the disappointment of this year’s ALCS and sit back, give props to the 2016 Blue Jays and look forward to what should be another exciting season a few months from now!

First off, should anyone from the Blue Jays team or office even chance to look at this, I want to say “thanks”. The 2016 season didn’t end like we hoped , but it was a hell of a run. The team was one of the best we’ve seen and the fans certainly responded in numbers rarely seen before in the Great White North. Kudos to you all, and yes, good luck to the Cleveland Indians. They simply outplayed Toronto even with all their cuts, scrapes and DL’d pitchers. This Jays fan is now pulling for that city by the lake in Ohio to have its second big sports championship of the year.

Onto 2017. While it seems, barring some totally unexpected blockbuster trade, that most of the core of the Jays team will be back , there are questions to be answered and holes to be filled. A few suggestions from this seat as to what the team should – and shouldn’t – do between now and April.

First, the obvious big question is Edwin and Jose. Encarnacion and Bautista are not only T.O.’s biggest pending free agents but (unfortunately for fans and for Rogers’) the biggest names in a rather thin crowd of free agents this winter. It’s going to cost a pretty penny to keep them both but Toronto should. Of course, there’s no guarantee that either or both of them even want to stay in Toronto, but I think they will if the money is there. Boston needs a new David Ortiz and he himself already speculated EE would be the perfect fit and it’s no stretch to imagine them offering Edwin a 5 year, $125M sort of deal . That’s about how high the Jays should go to keep him around.

Yes, he’s not much of a defensive strength for the team, but given his bat, that can be overlooked. In 2016, working DH quite often, he hit career highs in games (160), at bats (601) and runs (99). Surprisingly, his average (.263) was lowest since 2010 and his OPS lowest since ’11. So, even at 34 (by spring training) there’s still room to go back up and have a monster season or two. But we’d take his 39 HR, 110RBI that he’s averaged over the past 5 years. One thing the team should work on in ’17 if he returns is getting him to be a bit more selective again; his 138 whiffs last year was about 23% of at bats, almost double his rate back in 2012. (more on that later). Cutting down his strikeouts to 2012 rates should bounce his average back towards .290 and increase his already league-leading ribbie tally.

Which leads us to #19. We can rely on Jose Bautista for some wild stories and quotes every year. And to be the driving force behind a powerful offense. Certainly his ’16 was a little disappointing ; his .234 average for instance was lowest of his career in years he racked up more than 100 trips to the plate, for instance. But to these eyes, that’s more a factor or knee and foot injuries that had him on disabled list for nearly two months and being slotted into the leadoff spot (noted here before, not a spot he excelled at) than his 36 years. His 87 walks and .366 OBP show he still has a good eye at the plate and his admittedly fiery disposition seems to get the rest of the team going. Ironically, his “off” season may lower his market value enough to make him affordable for the team, even with Encarnacion. On his side, it’s tough to envision another city, or country, taking to him like Toronto has. Even if NY or Detroit were to offer him an extra million or so, he might lose a lot more in cereal box covers and winter-wear endorsements. Bautista should be back in ’17, although perhaps as the first baseman, leaving EE to be full-time DH and right field for a speedier,younger player.

One place the team might save a few dollars, as much as I hate to say it, is letting homegrown Michael Saunders walk away (unless he is without work come March and will take a major pay cut.) Saunders was an All Star this season, but it’s rather obvious he really tailed off in the second half to the point where he was routinely benched by John Gibbons in favor of the redoubtable Melvin Upton (whom, if lucky, the Jays will be able to trade.) Saunders played a career high 140 games and his 24 homers were welcomed, but his 157K’s in 490 at bats was rather troubling and he did manage only a .204 average with runners in scoring position. Not to mention his .187 average with only 5 HR after July. His position could be filled adequately for a lot less by Ezequiel Carrera, who had career highs in games (110) and at bats (270). His .248 average and 6 HR/23 RBI weren’t too inspiring but he did hit .333 with runners in scoring position and in the playoffs showed he can deliver under pressure. Given the luxury of being an everyday player, I think he might surprise a lot of people and post better numbers. It’s a gamble worth saving $5-8 million a year on, which is what I think the team would do by not going with Saunders.

Finally, on the topic of hitting, the Jays should rethink their re-upping of Brook Jacoby as hitting coach. Mark Shapiro has already announced his return as well as most of the other coaches, and this seems a bit questionable. Jacoby may be a good man and a hard worker but his results aren’t there. A team that was supposed to be a juggernaut this year took several steps backward at the plate. Only Houston, Oakland and Tampa in the AL hit below Toronto’s .248 and while they could still power the ball out (221 HR was third in league) their run total dropped off by 132, or almost a run per game. No doubt fueling that was the increase of strikeouts, to 1362 or about 90 more than the league average. That was 211 more whiffs than the ’15 team . More distressing, the team scored 3 or fewer in 70 games. Not surprisingly, they won only 15 of those contests; whereas they were a brilliant 74-18 when they scored 4 or more. A hitting coach who can teach batters to be more selective with their swings and play a bit of small ball when the long ball isn’t flying could help the team more than a new RF or better backup catcher ever will. A name that comes to my mind, prematurely I admit, is Paul Molitor. Yes, as of now he’s the manager in Minnesota but with a front office shakeup already underway there, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Molitor’s head offered up as an excuse for the poor player development and 103 losses in the Twin Cities. A return to Toronto could be a fresh start for him and a new way of approaching the batters.

Well, enough thoughts for one day. Next, we’ll look to the mound and see what to expect from the pitchers in ’17.

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