Well its been about two weeks since the last post and so, no surprise to regular readers, Leadglove Rob’s been at it again since then. Yes, never ones to let a chance to shoot themselves in the foot go by without bloodying a toe or two at least, MLB is back at it with more ways to make the sport and league just a bit less interesting and appealing to the fans.
First we have the availability of games online. For years now, the league has been promoting MLB.TV as a way to watch any game you want. No worries about what channel your cable provider might have or if you’re out of the house… pay MLB and you can watch any game, every game online on your PC or phone, or any number of other new device. The service has been a little expensive, but for many, it’s a great way to be able to see all your team’s games anywhere you go.
A good system, so whaddya know – they’ve changed it up in a number of markets for the 2020 season. Some (if not all) the teams are going to have blackouts for their local areas, meaning you’ll be able to watch every game … except your hometown faves. For them you’ll be able to go out to the park to “root, root, root for the home team”… or possibly buy another expensive local service. For Jays fans in their main market of Canada, all 3500 miles from sea to shining sea, it would mean buying a new service from the team’s owner’s Rogers’ Communications. Which some fans might do, but would certainly cut down on their desire to renew their MLB.TV account, as not many Toronto fans will be wanting to plonk down something like $150 (in Canuck bucks) to watch those late-night San Diego/ Arizona battles. Yahoo didn’t think much ofYahoo didn’t think much of the plan, but then again, who does?
Next up, another new Rob Manfred rule announced last year that makes little sense to quite a few fans and is perturbing Cincinnati fans … and possibly Toronto ones too! Enter the “Two way player”. Of course, baseball rode a wave of excitement and international interest a couple of years ago when Shohei Ohtani came over from Japan and signed with the Angels. Another good Japanese pitcher, but with a twist … he is a hitter too. Fans were abuzz, even outside of Anaheim, and while so far, Ohtani’s trips to the mound have been limited due to injuries, he’s been a fan favorite and seen by some as a role model for a brand new kind of player. Brand new old school type of player, some would say. Remember that Babe Ruth, the game’s greatest hitter not only had the home run record for about five decades but also managed to pitch 300 innings twice in a season and finish his career with 94 wins and an ERA barely above 2.
Well MLB apparently thinks we don’t want too much fan excitement or too many star players becoming household names, so they’ve installed rules essentially designed to prevent this from becoming more common. As of this year, teams will have to designate a player as a “two-way” if they want to use him as a pitcher as well as position player. Otherwise, non-pitchers can only appear in extra innings or in blow-out games where the lead is over 7 runs. And, to add a snag to having an influx of players designated as such, they decree that player must have not only pitched 20 innings in the current season or the year before, but also have started 20 games as a position player and had 3 or more plate appearances in each of those games. Since Ohtani didn’t actually live upto those numbers they put in a one-time grandfather clause that will let the Angels call him a two-way this season.
Not so lucky, the Cincinnati Reds, who have a similar, if perhaps less-stellar, type player in Michael Laurenzen. they’ve used him both as an outfielder and a regular arm in the bullpen, but even though he logged over 80 innings last season, and playing 100 games in the field, he didn’t qualify because he was often used as a defensive replacement and didn’t always notch 3 times to the plate. The Reds can still use him this year but would have to call him a “pitcher” (which, it’s not clear, may impede his ability to play regularly in the outfield) or an outfielder who can only be called upon infrequently in extra inning games or blow-outs to pitch.
Another player who will suffer from this new rule is… wait for it… Jose Bautista! Wait, you say. The Jose Bautista of “bat flip” fame? The 50-homer hitting Joey Bats of the Blue Jays of yesteryear? The Bautista who’s apparently retired?
Yes, that Jose Bautista. He never officially retired and has been working out all winter, apparently trying to not only play in this year’s Olympics (glad that baseball is apparently reinstated as an Olympic sport!) but wants to get back to the majors as a two-way player. In his prime, he did have a laser of an arm in the outfield, and doubters who’ve watched him come away less dubious. He apparently has a 94 mph fastball, and a good slider with “legitimate tilt”. Former teammate Marcus Stroman has worked out with him and declares Bautista good enough to make many MLB bullpens right now. And while maybe not fast enough with the bat to lead the league in dingers anymore, have no doubt he could still swat a few out of the park and run down a ball or two in the outfield.
The prospect has excited many, especially Toronto fans. Bautista was always well-loved among the Jays faithful and seemed to reciprocate their warmth. With the Jays bullpen so-so and full of possibilites but short of sure-things beyond closer Ken Giles and with the likes of Derek Fisher seeming like contenders for a backup OF spot, many think Jose could actually fit into the 2020 roster. And well, who wouldn’t be a little curious to see the announcer declaring “batting for Texas, second baseman Roughned Odor. And now pitching for the Blue Jays, Jose Bautista…”?
Perhaps unrealistic, perhaps a pipe dream.But what is real is the fact that once again, Rob Manfred and his minions are needlessly draining the game of a little bit more excitement and fun.
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.”
It’s not been a bad off-season for the Blue Jays so far. I always try to give credit where it’s due, and Ross Atkins deserves some credit for going out and improving the team’s rather anemic starting rotation, adding a legit Cy Young candidate in Hyun-jin Ryu as well as a couple of solid, inning-eating righties (Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson) and an under-the-radar Japanese pitcher, Shun Yamaguchi. No question that the team will hit the turf in March with a stronger rotation than they ended 2019 with.
However, there’s still work to be done. The front office took care of the question at first base by in a roundabout way trading with the Brewers. Toronto signed ex-Brewer Travis Shaw while in turn, Milwaukee nabbed Toronto’s first baseman for the past five years, Justin Smoak. But the elephant in the room remains the Blue Jays outfield. Everyone agrees it isn’t the OF of a competitive team, but thus far nothing’s been done to remedy the situation.
First let’s recap last year. Lourdes Gurriel, up until then a middle-infielder, was shifted into left field and played acceptably (though far from very well) in his new position, and hit quite well .277 with 20 homers and a .869 OPS in the just over half a season (84 games) he was on the active roster. No big problems there.
Center and right field weren’t so great though. Randal Grichuk, signed to a long-term deal before the season, was probably the best defender but still was hit-or-miss in the field and so-so at the plate. While he did lead the team with 31 HR and 80 RBI, his average was low (.232), his OPS very ordinary at .732 and he struck out nearly five times for every walk he took. Grichuk himself admitted that wasn’t good enough.
This left a whole range of Not Ready For Primetime Players filling in the outfield. Most notable of those was Teoscar Hernandez, who inexplicably was dropped into CF much of the time, despite being an obvious “full time DH” if ever there was one. He hit .230 with 26 homers and a .778 OPS. Add in much-vaunted (by management) Derek Fisher, who hit all of .161 in his 40 games, Anthony Alford – a former can’t miss prospect whose time appears to be running out to make a career out of baseball – who was .179 with one homer in 18 games, and Billy McKinney, a .215 hitter with a .696 OPS in 84 games. And suffice to say, none of those names was going to be mentioned in a conversation about Gold Gloves.
Using the new but currently in vogue “Outs above average” stat, which looks at every play and tries to rank its ease based on how far the runner has to run, how hard the ball is hit and so on, and gauge how hard it is to make the play, only Grichuk comes out with a positive rating. He was seen as adding 6 outs, and being 21st best among full-time OF in the majors. Not too bad, although viewers were sure to notice the day-to-day fluctuations of his fielding. Still that was much better than McKinney (-5 outs), Gurriel (-4) and Fisher who cost the team 3 outs in his limited use and caught the flyballs 4% less than an average fielder. In case you were wondering, the Twins slugger Eduardo Roasario was seen as the absolute worst outfielder by these definitions, with -17 outs.
So we have Gurriel, a decent young hitter who looks mediocre in left; Grichuk, a power hitter with a lack of plate discipline but fair fielding skills… and a bunch of guys who can’t hit, catch or throw. Not a good way to compete with the Yankees or Red Sox, even if the team does now have fairly decent pitching and a promising youthful infield. There’s a clear need for outside help in the outfield.
While there are any number of potential trade candidates, four pretty good OF remain on the free agent market. One hopes Toronto is talking to at least a couple of them. There’s highly-touted Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, former-Jay Kevin Pillar, and the “wild card” in the mix, controversial Yasiel Puig.
Of the four, Puig probably has the highest ceiling, but also the most uncertainties with his health and demeanor. Pillar is likely the best defensive OF of the four, but the weakest hitter. Ozuna and Castellanos are Plan 1A and Plan 1B for a whole range of teams including the Cardinals , White Sox, Cubs and maybe Twins (although they may be spent out now after surprising the sports world by getting 3B Josh Donaldson on board.)
I ran a poll on Twitter and found that an overwhelming majority preferred Castallanos out of the four, by about 4:1 to the both Ozuna and Pillar. Not scientific but a good insight into fan perception of the quartet.
Do I agree? Well, I think any of the four could be beneficial. Let’s look at the four quickly.
Pillar is a known commodity who dominated the team’s “Best Defensive Plays of the Decade” tape. He’s still seen as an above-average defensive OF based on that “outs above average” and is reliable. He’s got 7 seasons under his belt, 6 with Toronto, and has logged 500+ at bats for the past five years. He averages 37 doubles a year over the past four seasons, has good speed and hit a career high 21 homers last year. However, his OPS has never been above the league average, something you’d rather hope an outfielder could do at least once or twice in a career!
Ozuna also has been around for 7 seasons, and has played 123 or more games for the past six. His on base percentage has been .320+ for the last four years and he’s generally around 2 on the WAR scale, although his monster 2017 (37 homers, .924 OPS) with Miami gave him a 6.1, seemingly an outlier of a year.
Castellanos suffered perhaps by playing most of his recent years in the terrible Tigers organization. He also has 7 years experience. He hit career highs last season with 27 HR and an .863 OPS but it’s widely noted that it was the tale of two seasons in one for Nick. With Detroit for much of the season, he had a .462 slugging percentage and one homer per 37 at bats . After being traded to the Cubs at the deadline, he skyrocketed to one homer per 13 at bats and a .646 slugging. If he’s really the Tiger Castallanos, he’s a decent, workaday, nothing unusual outfielder. If he’s the Cubby Castallanos, he’s a budding superstar, a possible 45 HR/125 RBI guy. So discerning which player he is will be of importance to any club wanting to sign him!
Puig too, has 7 years of service and is still only 29 which surprises some. He’s had health issues along the way (missing a cumulative 140 games between 2015-16) but has played 140+ games each of the past three. He’s got some speed, averaging 16 steals a year over the past three, and has posted decent OPS of .833, .820 and .785 over the past three years. He has some home run power and a strong arm. The problem with Yasiel seems to be primarily that he came up as an expected superstar but has developed only into a slightly above-average player, disappointing some therefore, and that he’s perceived as being something of a slacker. Determining whether that last part is true would be of vital import to any team looking at him.
Overall last season, Castellanos had the best WAR with 2.7, followed by Ozuna at 2.2, Pillar at 1.0 then Puig at 0.5. Strangely though, all four posted negative defensive WARS , which seems counter-intuitive given Pillar’s reputation and +outs above average. However, of the 4, only Castellanos had a truly bad defensive rating, of -1.5.
In short, any of the four could potentially be an upgrade for Toronto over Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney or Derek Fisher . Which one would I prefer? Whichever one is willing to sign in Toronto on a one or two year deal that won’t break the bank, given that none of them are likely to be “drive-the-team-to-the-World-series-by-themselves” guys. My best bet is that Pillar would return to the team he knows well at a reasonable rate, or that as spring training draws nearer Puig could still find himself on the outside looking in and go for a one year deal with a low base rate and lots of incentives designed to show he is still a viable star and could really hammer the ball in the hitter-friendly AL East.
Get to those phones, Mr. Atkins!
In the last few weeks, we’ve examined most parts of the Blue Jays roster, with needs highlighted and potential solutions. Today, we look at the last part of the roster, the outfield. It’s an area that all agree needs to improve if the team is going to compete any time soon. While it has a busload of potential players to fill the spots, unlike the infield, it lacks any real hot prospects of “sure things.” The minor league system is also far from loaded with talent in positions “7-8-9”. Ross Atkins has said it’s an area he’s focused on, for what that’s worth.
The Jays used any number of outfielders in ’19, including Jonathan Davis, Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher, but the core trio for most of the season consisted of Randal Grichuk, Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel. Individually, none of them is a bad player. Problem is, all things considered, probably only Gurriel is even league average and collectively that makes for a bad outfield. Weak fielding, weak hitting. An upgrade is necessary, preferably two.
Of the three, Gurriel is the one I’d most like to keep as an everyday player for ’20. He’ll only be 26 next spring, and has shown slow but steady improvement over his two seasons in Toronto. He’s also had his share of injuries, making his two year total a one-year like total of 149 games played, over which he hit .279 with 31 homers and 85 RBI, and a .499 slugging percentage. However, the latter jumped up noticeably in ’19 from .446 to .541. He’s been a negative defensive WAR both seasons, but seemed to be rounding into shape as an OK-ish left fielder after being moved out from the middle infield where he began his major league career. If he could stay healthy he could probably become an average left fielder who could shine with 25-30 homers and a close to .300 average. I’m OK with him being the opening day LF… but wouldn’t turn down a good offer for him if another team wanted him as part of a package to part with a starting pitcher or star outfielder.
Outfield help could come in the usual manner of ways – trade or free agency. This year’s crop of MLB free agents in the outfield is a little sub-par, but not without any hope. Marcell Ozuna is interesting, but with a combination of A) his subpar defense, B) his drop-off in numbers in St. Louis compared to his early career in Miami and C) his standout star performance in the post-season, one has to think his salary might not end up close to his actual value to the team. I’d check in on him, but assuming he’s not going to go for something like three years and $30-36M, I’d move along. I expect I’d be moving along.
More viable options would be Alex Gordon or Corey Dickerson. Both would improve the outfield “D” with their gloves and throwing arms – Gordon’s won Gold Gloves the last three years and Dickerson took one home in 2018. Both hit left-handed too, something of a weakness in the 2019 Jays lineup. Of the two, I’d focus more on Dickerson, being younger (31 to Gordon’s 36 by spring), earning less than half of what Gordon did last year and thus perhaps looking for a little less to sign, and seeming to offer more of an offensive upside. Indeed, Gordon’s hitting isn’t anything special at all – he has a .258 career average and his .266 last year was highest since 2015, but he’s come in below league average OPS for the last 4-straight seasons. However, his great glove still makes him a “+” WAR player annually.
Dickerson on the other hand, is perhaps still on the ascent of his career. It’s noteworthy his numbers didn’t drop off after leaving Colorado as many expected. Last year in Pennsy (splitting the year between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia before having his season ended prematurely with a fractured foot), he got in half a year’s worth of games – 78 – and hit .304 with a great .906 OPS and 12 homers, 59 RBI. His career average is .286.
Another name we’ve heard is Kevin Pillar . Pillar is like a younger Gordon… sort of a Gordon-lite. He’s popular in Toronto,where he spent his first six seasons (and got in 5 games last year before being traded to SF) and has made some of the most spectacular catches seen in the Rogers Centre this century. He did hit career highs with 21 homers and 88 RBI last year, and averages 38 doubles per year over the past three. The downside though is his speed is starting to leave, and his hitting has always been below league-average due to his impatience. Last year he managed only 18 walks against 89 strikeouts and the best on base of his career was a middling .314 in 2015. That was the year his WAR peaked, at 4.9; since it’s dropped by the year to 3.5, 3, 2.5 and just 1 last year. I wouldn’t rule out signing Kevin again if demand for him is low enough to keep the money low, as he’s popular, a good clubhouse guy and still a bit better than average in the field. But I wouldn’t look to him to be an everyday CF anymore and wouldn’t break the bank to bring him back.
However, just because the crop of free agent major league outfielders is a bit weak doesn’t mean the total field is a bust. This winter two Japanese stars are wanting to come on over – Shogo Akiyama and Yushitomo Tsutsugo. Both hit left-handed. Come spring time, Akiyama will be 32, Tsutsogo 28. Of the two, Akiyama is speedier and a better defensive outfielder, being a star CF for the Seibu Lions. Tsutsogo is a big-time power hitter with weak defensive skills but the ability to play the infield corners as well as left field. Akiyama also comes with the bonus of being an unrestricted free agent whereas the younger player will require posting fees be paid to his old club, Yokohama.
Akiyama is durable and a 9-year Nippon league veteran with a .301 career average which has risen to .323/.322 and .303 through the past three. He also averages over 70 walks a year and has 10+ steals seven of his nine campaigns. In 2016,he hit a Suzuki-like .359 with 216 hits in 143 games. He’s a five-time All Star there with great outfield speed. The Cubs are said to be hot in pursuit of him.
The Jays (as well as the Twins) have been heavily linked to the younger Tsutsogo in rumors. If so, they’d better strike soon – the odd international rules mean he’ll have to sign in North America in the next 10 days or play another year in Japan – I don’t make the rules, so don’t ask me why. He’s played 130+ games every year from 2014 on (remember, their season is about a month shorter than ours) and posts a .284 career average with a .525 career slugging percentage. Even though his OPS last year fell to a 6-year low of .899, he still hit .272 with 29 homers. Over the past four years, he averages 87 walks a season (about what Kevin Pillar would get cumulatively in four) and 35 homers. One unnamed exec has said (according to Jon Paul Morosi at mlb.com) that he questions if he has the skills to be a major league left fielder, but his bat makes it worth the while for an AL team to take a chance on it. They could always DH him or put him on first base if he flops in the outfield.
Based on past performance of hitters coming over from Japan, we should expect a drop-off but not a terrible one when they hit the MLB. It’s not unreasonable to expect Akiyama to perhaps be a .280 hitter with 10-15 steals and a good on-base over here; Tsutsogo could potentially be a 30-35 home run guy here with the longer season – particularly in the AL East with our parks.
I’d take serious run at bringing in Akiyama but also be in touch with Tsutsogo. If Akiyama seemed to want too much, or was too focused on going to the Windy city, I’d make a quick offer to Tsutsogo of three years and about $30M (they would also need to pay the Japanese team several million if successful.) A side-effect of the Cubs interest would be if they sign Akiyama, they’re expected to trade Albert Almora Jr., another Kevin Pillar-like player (great person, very good fielder, weak hitter) who might be of use to Toronto. Badfinger 20 mentions that the Dodgers might well trade Joc Pederson, another lefty who never quite became the superstar he was expected to be in his 2015 rookie season but still is a solid hitter (36 homers last year) who at least will take a walk – 50 last year meaning a .339 on base.
Options aplenty, we have to hope Ross Atkins will shuffle the deck and bring on at least one star-quality everyday outfielder, another backup-type one (as in Pillar, maybe speedy Rajai Davis) and be willing to thin out the crop of existing Jays to make roster room for them.
Next time, we’ll have an overview of what the 2020 roster could look like … and start to look at the Hall of Fame and who should be getting in next year.
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…
OK… we’ve got the Blue Jays 2020 starting rotation in good shape now courtesy a mix and match from the likes of Carlos Carrasco, Hyun-jin Ryu, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark to supplement the existing arms of Matt Shoemaker and the best of a bevy of youngsters like Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay or Jacob Waguespack. That brings us back about 300 feet in the stadium to … the bullpen.
Last year’s bullpen wasn’t “lights out” but actually functioned reasonably well for Toronto, especially considering how much they were called upon due to the unreliable starters. So it might seem little needs doing to it. That’s true…ish.
The star of the bullpen is fittingly, the closer. Ken Giles. Disliked in Houston, Giles has been terrific in his run in Toronto and seems to have fit in very well. His 1.87 ERA and 83 Ks in 53 innings was not that far off All star Roberto Osuna (whom he was traded for) without the stigma of domestic violence hanging over him. He is arbitration eligible and expected to get about $8M if he goes to it. Needless to say, there’s a vocal minority around the Jays organization clammoring to trade him to save money and rake in another minor league prospect or two.
I on the other hand, would see him as the cornerstone of the bullpen and a good piece for the competitive future and would be looking to extend out his contract for a couple more years. It would take a blockbuster offer to get me to give up the one Grade A component of the ‘pen.
With the rosters expanding to 26 in 2020, Toronto is expected to likely run a 13-man pitching staff (which is the new maximum allowed) meaning 8 in the bullpen. While there are enough arms already, the issue is with the quality of them, especially now that Tim Mayza (the most reliable lefty last season and team leader in appearances) is gone for the year with Tommy John surgery. Add to that the team’s baffling DFA of both Ryan Tepera, a relative veteran despite having just parts of 5 seasons behind him, and Justin Shafer, a hard thrower with a few control issues but high upside, and there’s a definite need to add on.
The good news is that the additions needn’t be as many or as high-profile as the rotation calls for. The Jays will still have some decent arms back there, including Derek Law (who was second on the club last year with 58 appearances), Wilmer Font and a guy some on MLB.com called the team’s MVP- Sam Gaviglio. I wouldn’t put him in that category, but he certainly has taken to his important role as a “long man” in the bullpen well, and hurled 95 innings out of it last season with a solid 4:1 K:BB ratio. However, there is still a need there.
First and foremost, with Mayza’s injury, they don’t have any reliable southpaws left for the bullpen. While my “plan” would probably add Daniel Norris and convert him to relief, they still would need one conventional left-handed arm there. Big Drew Pomeranz would be a good fit, having fallen out of favor as a starter but finishing the year strongly in the Brewers bullpen, with a 2.39 ERA and a great 45:8 strikeout to walk ratio. He only turned 31 so could have a long bullpen life ahead, so I’d offer him a decent three year contract at a good rate for such – maybe $20M over the three. Tony Sipp would be a good fall-back option, although at 36 he shows signs of decline. But he’d be a good one year addition as long as at a low price.
They could use another veteran righty or two as well, and there are several good free agent options who shouldn’t break the bank, like Collin McHugh and former-Jay Tyler Clippard. I’d try to get at least one of them, and failing that, chat with our scouts (who seem very capable in that narrow field of evaluating under-the-radar relief pitchers) and try to trade for one, which shouldn’t be difficult. The Rodney Dangerfield’s of the baseball world, “middle” relievers get tossed about freely and cheaply and a decent right hander or two could probably be acquired for one of Toronto’s extraneous young, but so-so outfielders like Jonathan Davis or Derek Fisher, or perhaps for a low-level minor league pitcher.
Right – that’s a serviceable bullpen… onto the position players next!
ADDENDUM: only an hour or so after I posted this, Toronto announced they signed AJ Cole to a minor league deal…a perfect example of picking up a decent veteran RH with experience (Cle. last year) on the cheap. A smart though small step forward.
Continuing on with my “foolproof” plan to get the Blue Jays into contention in 2020. Last time we figured on upgrading the starting rotation – a necessary point agreed upon by everyone involved in the team it would seem – by adding a great, front-line starter through trade. Preferably Carlos Carrasco but perhaps Jon Gray. They, along with recently acquired Chase Anderson, would improve the starting rotation vastly and theoretically, make it good enough to compete IF people stayed healthy and a couple of the group of youngsters we saw this year like Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay or Ryan Borucki continued to develop and improve. However, that seems like a lot to assume. Remember how last spring, it seemed like the rotation was quite “deep” with Clay Bucholz and Clayton Richard added to Marcus Stroman, a seemingly revitalized Aaron Sanchez and Borucki coming off a very strong rookie campaign. Those guys and 16 others added in, we know how that all turned out! So more would still need to be done.
As we’ve often noted, Toronto is a big market with deep pockets, but has spent “small” the past couple of years. Mark Shapiro says they have money to spend, if need be, and with Russell Martin and perhaps Justin Smoak off the payroll, they’ve cut another $20-25M from the budget since September. (To clarify, Martin was playing for the Dodgers but Toronto had picked up most of his $20M salary as part of the trade.) Spending a chunk of that on pitching would be wise. So I’d be looking to add another quality starting pitcher via free agency.
The one who comes to mind to top the list of candidates would be Hyun-jin Ryu. The Korean veteran was second in NL Cy Young balloting this year after having a 14-5, 2.32 season, that ERA being best in the majors among pitchers tossing better than 100 innings in ’19. He had a great 163K : 24 BB ratio through his 183 innings. That added up to a WAR of 5.3 – and given how bad some of Toronto’s rotation was, one might think that if he’d been here he might have added more than 5 wins to the year-end tally.
Over the past two seasons, Ryu is second to only two-time Cy-winner Jacob Degrom in ERA, and through his whole career here, he’s come in at 2.98, a rather stellar number, even when considering he’s pitched in the pitcher-friendly NL West. While as our reader Badfinger 20 notes, he’s no longer a strikeout machine, he knows how to pitch. And as MLB point out,he has one of the lowest “hard hit” rates against him- he can keep batters off balance enough so even when they do hit him, they don’t usually get tremendous power or lift. All factors which would play very well in Toronto.
On the negative side, Ryu will be 33 by opening day and has pitched 150 innings only three times in his six seasons (and he missed almost all of 2015-16. due to injury.) He thus doesn’t have a reputation as being very durable, but that could work to a suitor’s advantage in possibly deflating the market for him somewhat. Unfortunately Scott Boras is his agent, and he says “age wise, (he’s) 32, but…innings-wise, probably 26 or 27” and he expects a huge contract for his client. However, even Boras doesn’t get everything he wants (witness Dallas Keuchel sitting out half the season before signing a one-year deal when Boras was aiming for a huge, multi-year deal.) I’d not break the bank for Ryu or pay him Verlander-type money, but if he would sign on for three or four years at $18-20M a year or so, I’d welcome him with open arms… and point out just how multicultural Toronto is, a plus for an Asian-born player.
If Ryu held out for a much bigger contract, or was determined to go to San Diego as rumored, I’d turn my attentions to another 33 year-old come springtime – Tanner Roark. Roark, for whatever reason, has been linked to Toronto as a potential employer often this fall anyway.
Roark isn’t quite the star Ryu is, but is even more reliable so far in terms of staying healthy and is a consistently solid pitcher. From 2014-19, he’s averaged 189 innings a year and owns a career 3.71 ERA. He split 2019 between Cincinnati and Oakland, going 10-10 with a 4.35 ERA and a WAR of 2.0. The year before, he posted a WAR of 2.9 with Washington. His ERA’s always bested league average and he has good numbers with things like strikeouts to walks. A bit of a concern is how much his numbers fell and his homers allowed rose in Oakland this summer, the first time he’s been in the AL, but he is resilient enough and a good enough pitcher to suspect he will adjust just fine and be back to about where he’s been before – no superstar, but a winning pitcher who’ll go pretty close to 200 innings. Even more than with Ryu, I’d not be giving him a mega-contract, but given his last salary of $10M and his age, he might be a good fit and willing to sign for say three years and about $40M total.
Ryu would be a huge upgrade, Roark a solid one. Either would make Toronto’s rotation very solid with the other additions mentioned, but i’d still learn from 2019 and try to add one more arm, but at a bit of a discount rate. Toronto’s been famous for doing so in the past, and sometimes such bets pay out (Carlos Villaneuva for instance) and other times, they don’t so well (Bucholz), but with Toronto’s income and the possible upside it would be worth a shot. the names I have in mind are two lefties – Alex Wood and Daniel Norris.
Wood will be only 29 in spring, and has had some good years behind him in LA. Check out his career 3.40 ERA. But, he was injured for the first half of ’19 and didn’t come back too strong for the Reds, going 1-3 with a 5.80 ERA and a negative WAR. He allowed an uncharacteristically high 11 home runs in just 35 innings and basically wasn’t good. But the year before, he was (9-7, 3.68, 27 starts and 151 innings) and the year before, even more so (16-3, the best winning percentage in NL, 2.72 with a 3.3 WAR in 152 innings.) He has a good deceptive delivery, steady srtikeout to walk ratio and thus a pretty big upside. But that’s countered by a steadily dropping rate of strikeouts per inning, his inability to go much beyond 150 innings a year and the ugly campaign this season. His name isn’t mentioned much in discussions about “name” free agents, so if he would sign on for one or two years at a lower rate (probably about $6-8M a season, perhaps with a number of incentives for innings, quality starts and so on) he’d be a great, under-the-radar pickup.
The last name, Norris, is well-known to Jays fans. He was the centerpiece of the trade with Detroit that brought David Price in for the 2015 playoff run. At that time he was the highest-rated young Jays arm. However, the southpaw has never quite lived up to the potential in Tiger-town and now that trade’s throw-in Matt Boyd seems the lasting reward to them. So they might be open to trading Norris. On the bad side, he’s 14-29 career with Detroit (but hey, that’s one bad team so it’s difficult to load up on “W”s there!) and his ERA has been middling at best – 4.49 last year. His fastball is only so-so – 91MPH average last year, according to Fangraphs – and has lost two or three miles over the past three years. And his career has seen too many balls fly out of the park behind him. However… there may be hope. He has a good slider and a pretty decent curveball which perhaps could improve given the right coach and get more outs if utilized more. And even with his 13 losses last season, he had a fair WAR of 2. He’s only 27 and here’s what interests me – like a lot of other pitchers, he’s good early in the game, and loses steam mid-game. Last year, he posted a 3.38 ERA over the first 4 innings, and allowed under a hit per inning. He slowed in the fifth but from the 6th on, forget it. He gave up nearly 2 hits an inning and his ERA was 12.59 in them. My take – he doesn’t have the stamina or the “smarts” to go deep into the game and keep batters off balance several times one day. But he can do so well for once through the order. He might make a very good long reliever, something which could be of great use to the Jays.
The Tigers surprisingly say their biggest need is infield help. Maybe not surprising when you consider they rely on such redoubtables as 3B Dawel Lugo (.271 OBP) and middle-infielder Jeimer Candelario (.203 avg, .337 slugging percentage.) Toronto has one time star Brandon Drury gathering dust and likely to not be more than a seldom-used backup in ’20. He’d be an upgrade over anyone (except perhaps aging Miguel Cabrera) on the Tigers infield. I’d make the offer.
So there we have it. Whew! My 2020 Jays would have one star first-line starter (Carrasco or Gray), another solid one (Ryu or Roark) and probably at least one more potential decent starter or long reliever (Wood, Norris or maybe both) added to the existing likes of Matt Shoemaker, Trent Thornton, Chase Anderson and a bevy of young “bubbling under” arms like Zeuch and KAy to choose from. My work here is done. But alas, the starting rotation was only one pressing need for the team next season. I’ll look at other changes to make next time out.