A little over a month back, I pondered what Toronto would need to field a reasonably competitive team this spring. I concluded the top need would be a good starting pitcher to supplement the core trio of Stroman, Happ and Estrada and for the team to not assume Aaron Sanchez would be good to go after a disasterously bad, blister-ridden 2017. As well, the left side of the bullpen could be improved and there was a need for a bat to replace, or actually upgrade upon, that of the apparently departed Jose Bautista.
The Blue Jays have made a few moves to improve the terribly lacklustre ’17 offense but have been quiet on the pitching front, veteran rightie reliever Al Albuquerque notwithstanding.
The Jays continued their apparent mission to corner the market on backup middle-infielders by acquiring Yangervis Solarte from San Diego. While he’s hardly a household name here (more a function of how little we see or hear about the Padres), neither was Roberto Alomar when Toronto picked him up from the same NL West team. However, I don’t see Solarte becoming the next Alomar. Nevertheless, he didn’t cost the team a whole lot and should be a good addition. After arriving in the bigs with the Yankees in 2014, he was soon traded over to San Diego and over his 4 years thus far, he’s posted a career .267 avg with .327 on base and averages about 14 homers, 61 RBI per year in 130 games. His .255 and .314 last year, were career lows but there’s reason to think the switch-hitter can hold his own at the plate. He’s played all infield positions and left field to boot, but while the need for him may be greatest at short, he’s played the bulk of his games at third. He’d be no real replacement for the “Bringer of rain” should the team choose to trade off their $23M man third baseman, but he could do OK as a new shortstop should the team be able to find a taker for Troy Tulowitzki. His limited time at SS suggests Solarte might not be equal to Tulo defensively, but perhaps if it was his primary position he might be. What he could do though is boost the productivity at the plate from that position. Last year TT hit only .249 with a .678 OPS and 7 round-trippers in 66 games; Solarte’s numbers in the less hitter friendly NL West suggest he’d easily do better than that with regular playing time. But of course, finding a taker for Troy, with his huge contract (over $50M still due) and his ability to veto a trade is the monkey wrench in the concept. Since the team has made changes to the outfield this month, the concept of Devon Travis the new left fielder seems less sensible so in reality what we probably look at for 2018 is Aldemys Diaz and Solarte being the New Goins and Barney, or perhaps Solarte being the new SS with Tulowitzki the league’s most expensive bench-warmer. Both could be improvements over 2017 but neither is really an ideal scenario.
Which leads us to the OF. First the team signed Curtis Granderson to a one year deal for a reasonable $5M. Presumably he is designed to replace Jose Bautista, and given that, the team couldn’t have done anything better. Granderson is as close to a statistical clone of Joey Bats as you can find. He’s a year younger than Jose but became a regular player a year sooner (2005 vs. 2006) but through their careers, they match up closely. Granderson has played 1796 games, Bautista 1676. Both had career best averages of .302. While Bautista’s 54 HR ’10 stands out, both have had 40+ homer seasons- but not lately. Bautista has a bit more power – 331 HR to 319; 927 RBI to Grandy’s 865 but last year CG had the slight advantage, going .212/26/64 with a .775 OPS (thanks to 71 BB; both batters also take lots of walks) to Jose’s .203/23/65, .674 OPS. However, what is obvious is both are on a steady run downwards…Granderson’s average has fallen from .259 to .237 to .212 since 2015 and his homers have also gone south; Bautista .250,.234,.203 in the same period. Bautista brought a determination and swagger to the table and was a clubhouse leader. I don’t know if Granderson will do that, but he’s an undeniably good character who is eager to help out in the community, so Toronto, the city, will take to him. The point here is that, yes, Granderson is a good replacement for Bautista but…. but…isn’t the reason the team waved goodbye to #19 that he’s not considered good enough to play regularly anymore? If so, why bring in a guy who matches his talent level to a tee?
Last but not least, the Jays made one of the bigger trades of the slow off-season picking up Randal Grichuk from St. Louis. Here they did have to pay a bit, with highly-touted prospect Connor Greene and reliever Dominic Leone going to the Show Me State in return. Therefore, the fans have reason to expect Grichuk to “show me” why he was worth getting.
He may be up to the task. Grichuk is seen as having above-average skill in the field and at the plate, and at age 26 is still a work in progress. He’s got good speed, was considered adequate at center for the Cards but improved when moved to left and over the past two years posted consistent, decent but not great hitting numbers: .240/24/68 in ’16 with a .769 OPS; .238/22/59 , .758 OPS last year. Both times he struck out about 30% of the time. There’s little question he has power and is likely to be at or above 30 HR in the AL East with our hitter-friendly parks. If he can be more selective at the plate, his average will rise and he could become quite a force in the middle of the lineup. He says he wants to do just that and is undergoing “eye strengthening” exercises this winter to try and be a better judge of pitches at the plate. Encouraging news.
I am hopeful Grichuk will work hard and become an asset. There’s a nagging doubt in me, which isn’t really his fault, that he might just be the latest in a string of dud outfielders the team seems to have a knack for finding – ultra-talented but bad-tempered and lazy Alex Rios, talented but apparently lazy young Upton (you can call him BJ, you can call him Melvin but you’ll probably just call him out on strikes) and of course, another promising young outfielder they got from the Cards. Grichuk even looks a little like Colby Rasmus and is coming off a year in St. Louis almost identical to Rasmus’ part-season in ’11 before being traded. And like Rasmus, he was quick to lob a few jabs at the Cards’ organization once he arrived here, which doesn’t bode too well. Nonetheless, he also says he wants to play everyday and appears willing to work to improve (which Rasmus plain-spokenly wasn’t) so we give him the benefit of the doubt for now and hope he develops into the player he has the talent to be.
All of that means that, if healthy, the Jays could be somewhat better at the plate and in the field this year. But there’s still the starting rotation and the southpaws in the ‘pen to consider… I’ll look at that next time.