Strange thing about us Blue Jays fans. Almost every last one of us, plus most of the team’s front office, point to the … I’ll say it… lousy pitching last year as the reason the team was a dismal fourth place and lost 95 games. It’s so accepted, it’s pretty much a fact. Yes,I subscribe to that theory too, but the odd reality is that Toronto’s 2018 hitting was arguably the thing which hurt them more.
Consider that while the team’s overall 4.79 ERA was a mediocre 21st best in the majors (and middling 8th in the AL), the team’s .236 batting average was dead last. Teams who hit less than the Blue Jays – nada. They did manage a few walks, and did OK hitting homers (247, 5th best in AL but 60 shy of the surprising Twins) but their .733 OPS was still anemic. Yes, miles better than the Tigers’ .682, but still a distant 11th best in the AL. Bottom line, their 726 runs scored bested only those Tigers, and the Royals and White Sox in the league…and we know where those teams finished up.
The long and short of that is that, even if and when the team bolsters its pitching staff, it’s iffy as to whether they have a team which can do much more than tread water with the current lineup of position players. Mind you, they assume (probably realistically) that it will automatically improve because youngsters like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio will probably improve in their sophomore campaign and even if Bo Bichette doesn’t get better, he’ll probably still play on a high level and for about 120 games more than he did in his abbreviated rookie year.
Fair enough, but one wonders if they can rise above .500 even with those kids on an upwards trajectory with the outfield they currently have and Rowdy Tellez as the DH. Not to mention that right now they don’t have a first baseman to speak of, with stalward Justin Smoak a free agent. So, I wouldn’t tamper with the young trio in the infield of Biggio/ Bichette/ Guerrero, nor move light-hitting Danny Jansen from his spot as regular catcher (a Gold Glove nominee as a rookie, tough to do for anyone but even more so for a kid having to learn how to work with over 30 different pitchers!) but I’d be wanting to rework the outfield to not only generate more offense but hopefully fill those defensive gaps out there. And needless to say, a first baseman is a priority need as well. It seems like somewhere in that group of holes to be filled, the Jays need a reliable veteran bat who can drive in 100 or more. Ideally, these holes could be filled in with free agents, but the snag is that the crop of such players is rather weak this year.
Justin Smoak has been a decent, if not spectacular, hitter for Toronto through the past five years and a great fielder and clubhouse personality, so I’d be trying to re-sign him for First. However, as a guy who seems to have leveled off as about a .225-.230 hitter good for 20-25 homers a year, I wouldn’t be breaking the bank to have him back. A one or two year deal at no more than about $5 or 6M per year would be my upper limits for Justin, which I think he might go for given those very numbers mentioned and how they might limit the number of GMs calling him. But if he held out for more, either in years or dollars, I’d begin looking to either sign a similar free agent… or see if the Jays could make a big splash via trade.
The only “real” first baseman free agent that catches my eye to replace Smoak would be Mark Trumbo, nee of the Orioles. Hard to believe only three years ago he smashed 47 HR for the orange birds. Doubtful he’ll return to that level, but in 90 games played in 2018, he hit .261 with 17 HR and 44 RBI. Last year, alas, he only appeared in a dozen games, at season’s end after a serious knee injury. His age (34 next spring) isn’t a deterrant for a hitting 1b, but his finances might be. Last year he made $13.5 M. A 34 year old 20-25 homer guy coming off a knee injury isn’t worth that kind of gamble. If he’d go for a one-year “bounce back” contract at less than half that price, I’d bring him onboard. I wonder however, if with his past financial history and injuries he might not choose to retire rather than take a massive pay cut and need to try to rebuild his reputation.
If that was the case, my option “C” would be to think outside the box – the First Base box. Todd Frazier is considered a third baseman, and a pretty good one at that, but he’s played over 90 games in the Bigs at first before. And being behind Rendon, Donaldson and Moustakas in the depth chart for the position among this crop of free agents, demand for him at the hot corner may be limited, so he might look to take a job at the slightly less-demanding corner. And, he’d be a good backup to Guerrero for third too. Todd’s played a minimum of 115 games every season since 2012, and averages a WAR of about 2.5 games over the past few. His numbers last year – .251, 21/67 with a .772 OPS for New York – are probably about what one should expect from him at 34 next year, and would be a bit of an upgrade for the Blue Jays.
Now, a more intriguing way to go about adding some firepower to the lineup and filling the first base hole would be to trade for either Freddie Freeman or Josh Bell. Freeman is a perennial MVP-candidate who actually has a love of Toronto and Canada (while American-born his parents are Canadians who married near Toronto and he spent a little of his childhood in Ontario) . Bell had a close-to MVP type year for Pittsburgh this year, only his third full year, with career bests .277, 37 HR and 116 RBI. Problem is Atlanta has no good reason to trade their blue-chip veteran and while inexplicably the Pirates have been rumored to be shopping Bell, with him in his first year of arbitration eligibility, that seems hard to believe. Either way, for Toronto to land one of them would probably require too big a package of star prospects. I’d easily send them a Gurriel or Grichuk, Reese McGuire and a pitching prospect not named Pearson for one of those stars, but methinks nothing short of a multi-player package consisting of a Biggio or Bichette would move either north of the border.
Which leads us to the DH role. While there is nothing inheritantly wrong with perhaps adding in another decent OF and cycling a number of regulars through the DH role from day to day, there’s something appealing about having a stalward Edgar Martinez/David Ortiz type in the lineup driving in the runs. And it just so happens one is readily available. So I say, bring back Smoak for first and then bring back Edwin Encarnacion as a full-time DH. Edwin was happy in Toronto and a fan favorite and while never the flashiest player around, has worked himself into the role of being one of the most consistent power hitters in the game. Despite missing close to a third of the year this season due to injuries, EE clipped 34 homers and 86 RBI with a .344 on base percentage. Yes,he’ll be 37 in spring, but if not having to deal with the physical demands of playing the field, there’s no reason to expect he won’t keep having an eye for balls and working the walks when not driving the long ball. He’s had an OPS at least 10% better than league average 9-straight years and over the last five, he’s averaged 37 homers and about 108 RBI. Precisely the type of guaranteed power the Jays need and the type of established personality popular enough with fans to sell tickets. He won’t be racking in the close to $20M a year he had on his last contract, so it’s well worth it for the Jays to dig deep and bring him back home for a couple of years to finish his career and lead the youth by example.
Last but not least, that less than stellar outfield. What to do with them, next…