Stroman, Happ, Estrada…then what?

Last week we looked at some of the options the Blue Jays have to improve the lacklustre hitting we saw from them in 2017. I rather expected by this week there’d be developments to comment upon, but alas that’s not the case. While the Angels go all in on a championship run and teams like the Phillies and Braves retool looking ahead to greener pastures coming soon, Toronto twiddles its thumbs and preach “patience” on their website. Which would be well and good were there not roster holes to fill; were they not a team coming off their first losing season in 4 years. Clearly the time for action is now.

That said, it is worth noting the off-season has been pretty quiet all-around so far, Giancarlo Stanton, Shohei Ohtani and Matt Kemp notwithstanding. There are still plenty of free agents to go around and doubtless many franchises still trying to piece together trades, of which we can only hope Ross Atkins’ Jays are one.

As noted before, while the hitting really let the team down last season, the pitching needs to be better than its 2017 Run-of-the-mill state for them to really have a shot at anything in ’18. While I like that they apparently were (unsuccessful) suitors for CC Sabathia as a #5 starter, it still begs the question “Who will be the #4?”

Marcus Stroman may be a little arrogant but that might help him take the “ace” designation and run with it. He’s clearly still improving and looking like he’ll be a legitimate #1 starter soon, if not next season. Along with JA Happ and Marco Estrada, the team is well-set at the top of the rotation; capable of competing with any team in the division. where things go awry is with the #4 spot, which apparently the club is counting on Aaron Sanchez to fill. This seems precarious thinking to say the least.

Sanchez of course was limited to 8 starts, and 1 win in ’17, with his last decent game coming on July 14 at Detroit (6 innings, 7 hits, 1 unearned run.) If it was a sore shoulder or bad knee that kept him out of the lineup most of the season, at least there’d be a good indication of whether or not he’d be good to go in ’18. But as his bugaboo is recurrent blisters, there’s no real way to guage it until he’s been out on the mound several times for 4 or 5 innings at a stretch. My take on it is this: since they tried everything they could think of last year to fix the problem and the blisters kept coming back (and limited his few starts to an average of 76 pitches, down by 20 from the past year) let’s assume it’s an ongoing problem for him. Let’s assume that he’ll not be part of the 2018 equation and find a more reliable #4 starter. Then anything we get from Aaron is gravy. If he is healthy he could perhaps be back in the bullpen where he could provide a value as a setup man, really let fly with his fastball and, one might think if throwing only 15-20 pitches at a time, be less likely to have the blisters come back.

Strangely, to me the question of where to look for that starter might begin with Josh Donaldson. No, not suggesting we throw our resident “Viking” on the mound. What I am suggesting however, is that the team needs to make a quick decision with Josh as to what his future will be. JD is coming off a year in which he made $17M and will be looking for a raise in his final year of arbitration eligibility.

There’s no question “Bringer of Rain” is a tough competitor and when hot can carry the team on his shoulders. There’s also no question he’s said he’s happy in Toronto and would like to stay on. Which would be great- depending on what his view going forward is. At a rather “old” 32, he’s still the ideal third baseman for the ’18 team, perhaps the ’19 one too. But looking forward, it’s clear his days of being a star-quality third bagger are limited. In ’17 his fielding percentage (.949) was lowest in 5 years, his range factor had dropped to a career low (2.47) and his only so-so throwing arm limited him to turning 13 double plays, or about one every 8 games. In short, despite his undeniable effort out there, his fielding prowess is declining and soon he’ll be better suited to playing first or maybe being a regular DH, with only occasional games on the turf. This has to factor in to contract negotiations.

Donaldson can hit, and will likely be able to do so for some years to come- his .944 OPS last year was only 9 points below the previous year and was actually better than his MVP season. The distance on his average home run increased to 409′ and the percentage of at bats resulting in a roundtripper increased.

In short, he’s a reliable run producer the team should look to lock up. But only within reason. If he’d sign on for a 3 or 4 year contract at market value (probably about $21M a year I’d reckon) to avoid arbitration, he should be handed a gold pen to do so. If his demands go much beyond that, in years or annual stipends, it may be time to think about parting ways and get something in return. Todd Frazier is still available as a free agent, and while he’s not Josh, he’d be a great short-term solution to get the team into the Vladmir guerrero Jr, era, which might only be a year off. Frazier’s a year younger than Donaldson, and while he hit only .213 last year (a career low), his 83 walks meant a respectable .772 OPS and he delivered 27 homers. In the field, he might not be flashy but his numbers are all better than Josh’s. His 39 double plays turned (about 1 per every 3 games) really stands out in comparison.

Frazier could likely be signed for less than the $17M Donaldson made , let alone what JD might pull in through arbitration, thereby freeing up some money for pitching. What’s more though, #20 is likely one of the few players around (and the only current Blue Jay) for whom teams might trade off a solid starting pitcher. One could imagine a team poised to win now with questions at third- say Boston, or St. Louis (who’ve alledgedly been dogging the Jays in pursuit of Donaldson) might be willing to give up some good arm in return. Todd Frazier at third could look pretty good for Toronto if there was a Drew Pomeranz or Carlos Martinez on the mound (in return for the departed 2015 MVP.)

If however, Donaldson is surprisingly agreeable in signing a multi-year deal and sticks around or there’s no offer of a legit star pitcher on the table for him, Toronto should quickly look to the big-gun arms in the free agent market while they can. Although we’ve heard Toronto’s interested in Jake Arrieta, and that wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, I think Lance Lynn or World series goat Yu Darvish might be better choices. Arrieta was still good last year at 14-10, 3.53 but his obvious trend is downward, with his ERA rising from 1.77 to 3.10 to 3.53 over the past 3 while his innings pitched have dropped 229 to 197 to 168. At age 32 it seems risky to give a guy like that a big-time, multi-year deal.

Lance Lynn on the other hand, at age 30, is coming off his 5th straight 30+ start, double-digit win year and was 11-8, 3.43 last year for a team inferior to Arrieta’s Cubs. His .223 opponents average was the lowest since his partial, 2011 rookie season. If any pitcher out there on the market might warrant a 5-year, $100M type megadeal, Lynn might be the one.

A Lance Lynn, or a Carlos Martinez or Drew Pomeranz, Rick Porcello or even Michael Wacha on board for the #4 role would lessen the necessity of scoring a big #5 guy like the back-in-pinstripes Sabathia, but if one could be acquired on the cheap, there’d be no downside to it. More on that, next time.

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