You can almost smell the cut grass… spring training is now a mere two weeks away, and Blue Jays fans have at least a modicum of hope for the 2020 season. Even though most pundits have them firmly lodged in a holding pattern -4th in the AL East- they have improved their rotation considerably from last season and have a quartet of players going into their sophomore campaigns with the potential to be stars. It appears to be, at very least, a team moving in the right direction. To whit, MLB itself puts them on the (lengthy) list of nine teams that have improved in the off-season.
That point made, there’s still considerable room for improvement. And it wouldn’t require a headline-grabbing trade for a Mookie Betts or Nolan Arenado to improve their chances of playing in October. Instead, it could just be a small payout to bolster the depth of the roster with some of the intriguing remaining free agents. So, I suggest the Blue Jays fill out that roster with:
seems a no-brainer by now. We’ve discussed it here before, so we won’t beat that dead horse too much, but it seems obvious that A) the existing Toronto OF is weak defensively, B) Pillar is acknowledged to have been the best defensive OF the team had through the last decade and is still above average, C) he’s popular in Toronto where he’s spent most of his career, and D) teams aren’t batting down the door to get to him, given his so-so hitting capabilities, one assumes. He’s still without a job and the similarly-talented Alex Gordon just signed a one year, $4M deal with his old team, Kansas City. Seems like there’s no reason Toronto and Pillar couldn’t have a similar, affordable reunion.
the team let a couple of veteran backups walk away from the infield (the popular but injury-prone Devon Travis and the perennial AAA/major league shuttling Richard Urena) but have signed a couple of decent veterans to minor league deals with hopes of filling in the bench – Joe Panik and Ruben Tejada. Decent enough gambles but there’s still a sense that the IF lacks depth. Vladimir is being touted or taunted widely as the worst defensive 3B in the game last year, and while Biggio and Bichette are good at their middle-infield posts (and travis Shaw should be able to handle First), there’s not much of a backup should one get injured. So enter Mr. Holt, arguably the most valuable remaining free agent.
Holt has been a regular with Boston for some years, and what he lacks in “wow factor” he makes up in versatility. The 31 year-old bench player has played a minimum of 64 games a year since 2014, and as many as 129, and has played every infield and outfield position. Last year he put in time in all four IF positions as well as the two corner OF ones. And he does so reasonably well- he’s average or a bit above at all the infield spots. Last year, he made only 3 errors while playing 2B and SS, a total of well over 500 innings. All the while, he hits adequately, or very well for a bench-warmer. He bested his career .271 average last year, hitting .297 with 31 RBI and a .771 OPS.
With a rep as a “utility player” and a lack of bigtime home run power in this “all or nothing” league, Holt’s not going to be getting a convoy of Brinks trucks driving up to his house. It seems like Toronto should be able to sign him for no more than about $3M – possibly less based on other signings this winter – and be a lot more confident should they see Cavan Biggio wince in pain running the bases or Bo Bichette twist an ankle turning a double play.
Bullpen, bullpen, bullpen
It’s ironic that in this age when starting pitchers do less and less- some teams see a guy going 6 innings as herculean now – and closers are being paid king’s ransoms, that no one seems to care about the middle relievers. Yet those guys are carrying more and more of the weight, frequently being asked to hold their team in the game for 4 innings, day in, day out. The Blue Jays are no better,nor worse than most other teams in regards to that.
While the Jays should have a vastly improved starting rote than they did last year, and hence one hopes won’t overtax the middle relief quite as much, the ‘pen still looks flimsy. Sure, they have a grade-A closer in Ken Giles, and a very solid, durable long relief guy in Sam Gaviglio whose 95 innings was most for any AL reliever last year, and a couple more decent enough probables like Wilmar Font, but getting from, say starter in the 7th to closer could be precarious.
Happily, there are still a lot of middle relievers unsigned and those signing on the dotted line are typically doing so for low prices. So time for Toronto to pony up $3 or $4 and sign two or three proven arms to supplement the bullpen. First one I’d look to would be tony Sipp, one of the few southpaws left. Yes he’s 36 and yes, he’s looked at as a lefty “specialist” (probably why he’s not signed yet – the new rule about the three batter minimum may discourage teams for signing that kind of pitcher) … last year, his ERA against left-handed batters was under 1.00, against righties was over 10. That perhaps because he got a decent number of ground balls from lefty hitters, and twice as many flyballs, going , going, gone off the bats of right-handed hitters.
Still, with him only a year removed from a 2018 campaign where he pitched in 54 games for Houston with an ERA of 1.86, and the current bullpen devoid of sure-thing lefthanded pitchers (the best bet right now would be Thomas Pannone, who’s been a starter in the minors but has been used out of the pen in the majors) it seems he’s worth a gamble. Robbie Ross and former-Jay Aaron Loup (injured much of 2019) would also be decent guys to look at. the market of right-handed relievers is more saturated, and it would do the team well to look at the likes of Pat Neshek, Sam Dyson or Javy Guerra (who started 2019 as a Blue Jay before going on to help Washington win the World Series) and sign at least one of them.
So there you have it – three easy moves that would likely cost the team far less than ten million that would elevate the Blue Jays from “better than last year but still way behind Tampa and Boston, let alone New York” to “deep enough to perhaps contend.”