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…
The clock is ticking towards spring training and thus far Toronto (to be fair, not unlike many teams) have done nothing to retool the team to make a run for it in 2019. There’s no time like the present, Ross Atkins. Over the next week I’ll be making a few suggestions for ways the Blue Jays could realistically put together a competitive and exciting team before the March opener. we’ll start by looking a t a few trade possibilities since the team itself has stated the obvious – that there are too many players in some spots and decided holes elsewhere,most notably with the starting rotation.
I, like many Jays fans, was disappointed “Big Maple”, the newly-crowned replacement for “King Felix” as the ace of the Mariners staff ended up in the Big Apple. James Paxton, the exciting lefty from B.C. grew up a Blue Jays fan and would’ve been happy to be pitching in his homeland. Could the Jays have acquired him? That we’ll never know. The Yankees offered up their top pitching prospect, Justus Sheffield, their #22 prospect, a decent AAA pitcher, Eric Swanson , and a solid power-hitting A-level outfielder, Dom Thomson-Williams. Sheffield was the big fish in the group, being 7-6 with a stirling 2.48 ERA in the minors this year and being ranked #12 overall among MLB prospects mid-season. Athlon Sports put him as the Yanks’ 3rd best prospect though, noting “durability concerns but also a huge fastball.” Since then others have suggested likewise he might be better-suited to being a middle reliever than a starter. It’s tough to know what Toronto would have had to divy up to outbid New York, but it’s easy to know they should have been in on the bidding…and no reference was made anywhere at all of Atkins trying to land him.
That being done, let’s start with a suggestion for Phone Call 1 Mr. Atkins should make :
try to acquire Carlos Carrasco and Edwin Encarnacion. In return, we offer Aaron Sanchez, Sean Reid-Foley, Luke Maile and Kendrys Morales.
this would land Toronto a stellar and reliable top end starter and a big bat to supplement what might be a still-weak hitting lineup in ’19, and a bat to defend behind apparent star-in-waiting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. when he makes the ‘Show”.
Carrasco was a solid 17-10, 3.38 over 30 starts this year, with 192 innings, a remarkable 231 K to just 43 walks and a good groundball to fly ratio of 1.22 (important in the hitters’ paradise that is the AL East.) Baseball-reference put him as a 3.9 WAR. All that was a slight drop off from 2017, when he led the league with 18 wins and had a 5.5 WAR. He’s signed on for 2019 at a reasonable $9.75M, but will be a free agent (potentially) after the season and has been publicly offered for trade by the Tribe. At 32 on opening day, he should have a good amount left in his arm and wouldn’t require a huge, longterm investment from Toronto.
Encarnacion will be 36 next spring and did what he usually does this past season as a DH – hit with pop. He hit .246 with 32 homer and 107 RBI over 137 games and posted an .810 OPS. Of concern is his increasing tendency to free swinging. He struck out 26% of at bats this year, more than double his 11% back in his heyday of 2013. Still, he’d be a good power threat and an upgrade over Morales as the DH, and occasional first baseman (he looked quite at home at first in the playoffs for Cleveland, some will remember.)
WHY TORONTO LIKE THIS – as said, a legitimate “ace” for the staff while other prospect pitchers have another year to mature, at a reasonable rate of pay and a good power bat that can probably hit triple digit RBIs again … and returns a very popular player to Rogers Centre. Worth adding, Carrasco is the player to opt for from the Indians’ staff. Corey Kluber, with his Cy Young past and his contract status (two years left potentially on contract) would cost too much and attract too much attention from the myriad of teams (Houston, NY Yankees, Atlanta etc) needing to boost the rote. Trevor Bauer, also being bandied about by Cleveland is toxic. A great pitcher, yes, but his personality would absolutely not work in Canada. I recently noted elsewhere that Jays fans’ as a group never warmed to Roger Clemens, even when he was winning Cy Youngs for the Jays. Bauer is infinitely less popular with his outspoken praise for President Trump and his various twitter rants against other players and fans who he’s wished cancer upon. He would have trash thrown at him from the home crowd even if he was hurling a no-hitter. Carrasco is the one pitcher from Cleveland to get.
WHY CLEVELAND LIKE THIS – sure, it might be good for the Jays, but we have to sell the Ohio Tribe on it as well. And it could be done. They clearly want to reduce salary but remain reasonably competitive… they have no intention of shedding superstars Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor. they want to win on a budget. This trade gives them 2 MLB ready starting pitchers for one. Yes, Sanchez was … well, rather lousy this year but he’s only two years removed from an All Star year, leading tAL in ERA (3.00) and winning percentage (15-2). He’ll be 26 next spring, not over the hill by any means, and still has a good 94MPH fastball. A great groundball to fly rate (1.6) shows he still could win and ’18’s 4.89 ERA was the first time in his career he’s been higher than the league average. His main problem is control (194 walks over 458 big league innings) and if the new coach there could right his delivery a bit to minimize that, he might well be an All Star again. And he’ll earn in the range of $4 to perhaps $5M this year, and be Cleveland’s through 2021.
Reid-Foley is the Jays’ third best pitching prospect with an “average fastball and curveball” according to Baseball-America which note his “deceptive arm angle” that makes him hard to hit but also a bit wild. He was a decent 7-5 , 3.90 at AAA but over his head in just 7 big league games this past fall, with a 5.13 ERA. He projects to be a decent but not spectacular mid-rotation starter a year or two down the road and would be the Indians’ for 6 years minimum.
Morales is not quite Encarnacion, but would give them a reasonable imitation (.249/21/57 over 130 games and a .331 on base) at a much cheaper rate… $12M compared to Encarnacion’s $20M plus a $5M buyout or else one more year at $20M.
Maile suddenly becomes valuable to them since they traded star catcher Yan Gomes to Washington this week. Young Maile’s always been regarded as a good defensive catcher, (a career average of 30% of base stealers thrown out and a good head for working with pitchers) but no bat. this year however, he showed a little flair at least at the plate, hitting .248 with 27 RBI and a run-of-the-mill .700 OPS in 202 at bats. He seems to be learning to swing better and at 28 would be a cheap, reliable replacement for the Brazilian Gomes.
All things told, the deal would save Cleveland about $12 to $15 million in 2019 without costing them a great deal in the win column.
Would they go for it? Who knows. But if I was Ross Atkins , I’d be on the phone to find out!
It’s good to be lucky and at times, it’s better to be lucky than good. Enter the 2016 Blue Jays.
Like most other fans, this observer has been quite underwhelmed with the off-season moves of Toronto’s new front office, led by new President Mark Shapiro. Yet despite the departure of David Price , the retirement of Mark Buehrle with JA Happ and Jesse Chavez the apparent heirs; despite the ongoing and somewhat bitter back-and-forth contract negotiations (or lack thereof) between the big bats of Bautista and Encarnacion and the team, Toronto still sports the best record in spring training…and that is even without Edwin E. taking part so far!
As we now enter the final week of spring training, the roster is looking more and more in focus. The majority of the slots are inked in, barring unexpected injuries or other developments, but the few remaining ones offer some good battles to watch and more depth than anticipated.
My take: the regular position spots are all filled and I’m going out on a limb to say the Jays should, and will, add Encarnacion to the DL with a day or two. Bad tooth, oblique injury…all works toward the knock on Edwin, namely that he’s not very durable. In time he will be back as the team’s everyday DH this season and will probably tip 30 out of the park even if that time doesn’t arrive until May. But with exactly zero at bats and zero innings on the field thus far, it’s unfair to EE and to the team to expect him to be in game shape next weekend. So with him and Devon Travis out, we start with
C- Russell Martin- struggling at the plate, but still the unquestionable star
1B / DH – Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello, interchangeable but likely to be in the lineup every day
2b- Ryan Goins, hitting quite well this spring (.367, 9 rbi)… if he keeps that up in the regular season, Jays may not be in a hurry to bring Travis back
SS- Troy Tulowitzki- sore hand but should be good to go, and that he’s tied for team lead in RBI bodes well for a vintage Colorado-style season from him
3B- Josh Donaldson, needless to say
LF- Michael Saunders – looking healthy and tied for lead in RBI, raising hopes of what the Canuck can do if he’s in good shape all year at Rogers’ Centre
CF- Kevin Pillar, aka new lead-off hitter
RF- Jose Bautista, who is struggling a little so far but could hit below .100 in spring and be written in for hitting third opening day.
Presumably, that will leave four spots open for position players. I’m guessing the mix will be one catcher, two infielders and one outfielder.
Josh Thole gets the nod as catcher even though AJ Jimenez is hitting better. Jimenez will benefit from regular use in Buffalo and the team will benefit , of course, from having Thole catch his usual battery mate, RA Dickey.
Darwin Barney seems a good choice for a backup infielder given his experience and fielding prowess and may still make the team but relative unknowns Dave Adams and Andy Burns are making the choice tough. Both of them are proficient at basically any infield position, and are hitting up a storm in Florida. Adams, at 28 is the more mature and has a limited amount of MLB experience with the Yankees in ’13. Last year he logged 116 games at three IF positions with AA Jacksonville and hit .294 with 6 HR, 50 RBI and a highly respectable .399 on base. In 16 games this spring he’s clipping along at .407 with a 1.133 OPS and smooth fielding at second. Burns is known to Toronto’s Buffalo fans, where he played 126 games last year for the Bisons. He hit .293 with 4 HR, 45 RBI and had a sparkling .995 fielding percentage and 4.72 range factor in games at second.
The race for the two backup spots will be something to keep an eye on this coming week and shows an unexpected strength in infield depth.
The backup outfield spot is also up for grabs. Dalton Pompey has already been sent down to gain more experience, leaving essentially a battle between three. At first glance, Dominic Brown might hold the best hand, being left-handed and having over 1500 career AB but his spring has been disappointing (.200, 0 homers) and his once skyrocketing career has been on a steady decline since his 2013 All Star season (.272, 27 HR/83 RBI) for the Phils. Junior Lake has bounced between the bigs and minors for a few years and has a total 624 AB at the major league level, and is having a bit better spring than Brown (.243 with 4 stolen bases.) But he’s right-handed, something Toronto is already top-heavy with and has been over-shadowed by the most impressive, and little known Darrell Ceciliani. Ceciliani was likely little missed by Mets fans when he came to Toronto; his 68 AB there last year were hardly memorable. However, he’s tearing up opposition pitching this March, easily the Jays biggest bat so far. After 17 games, he’s 14 for 32, a .438 average with 3 homers and an over-the-top 1.339 OPS. Throw in his decent enough defense and his solid .345 average in Las Vegas last year and you figure we have our backup outfielder and left-handed bat off the bench for 2016.
So, looking ahead to next Sunday, let’s project a lineup of 1.Pillar 2. Donaldson 3. Bautista 4. Tulowitzki 5. Saunders 6. Colabello 7. Smoak 8. Martin 9. Goins with Thole, Ceciliani, Burns and either Adams or Barney on the bench. A solid enough lineup- if the pitching co-operates.
Next we’ll look at the pitching possibilities to round out the roster…
Well, the winter of our discontent is almost over with the gates to Dunedin swinging open officially later this week. It can’t come soon enough given the cold water new President Mark Shapiro has thrown on buoyant expectations the fan base had during the playoffs last October. Not that trading for Drew Storen, or taking low-price chances on the likes of pitchers Gavin Floyd and David Aardsma and returning infielder Maicer “Oft-injured” Izturis are bad things, but they hardly make up for letting David Price walk away uncontested and the departures of Marks Buehrle and Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins and Dioner Navarro. Then there’s the little matter that two of the Big Three bats that propelled the team to the best offense of any team in the last decade are entering free agent seasons and the management are from all accounts dragging their feet in inking them to extensions.
This close to the start of spring training, there’s not a lot of room or opportunity to fix what’s broken, but I have a few suggestions. Starting with …
Lock up Jose Bautista. This is more than just throwing us fans a bone, though after the “bat flip” it’s hard to imagine Joey Bats in anything other than a Jays cap … or the fallout Rogers Communications would face should he flip his bat and walk away from the team next year. He may have lost a step or two but is still above average in the field and where else are they going to get another sure-fire 35 homer, 100 ribbie, .400 on base type guy? Who else can back the MVP and keep him getting good pitches to hit? The Jays have to keep JB, and they may have to pay the price for it after getting him at a bargain rate on this contract. Justin Upton and Jason Hayward’s contracts this winter set the pay-bar higher than ever, so now is the time (before next winter when as the Associated Press noted in an article about Yoenis Cespedes “the free agent class for outfielders next fall is far weaker … with a steep drop-off after Jose Bautista”. When Bleacher Report is ranking Colby Rasmus as the next best potential free agent OF next year, the lineup of Brinks trucks bidding for Bautista will be long. Start with a bid of three years, $70M to lock him up through 2019 and take it from there.
Then let’s look at the likely weakness of the ’16 Jays… starting pitching.
While we can all cross our fingers and hope that JA Happ remembers the lessons he learned in Pittsburgh and his final ten starts there are the new norm not a happ-y blip on the radar; that Marco Estrada will pick up where he left off and that Marcus Stroman (he of less than 30 career starts) is the Ace the team expect him to be right now; the realities of it are that the Blue Jays starting rotation is mediocre at best. RA Dickey’s innings have dropped annually since his Cy Young 2012 campaign, but he’s still logged the most innings (654.1) and wins (39) in the three years since. JA Happ is 27-26, 4.24 in that span; Marco Estrada 27-18 with a 3.74 ERA but only 460 innings. Then there’s young Stroman, 15-6, 3.31 for his career, excluding last October’s run. Adding in a jesse Chavez seems unlikely to add much to this collection; it seems hard to believe that Drew Hutchision was last year’s season opener and a gamble to believe that his 2.91 ERA, .238 Opponents average at home was more representative of the real Drew than the astonishingly bad 9.83 ERA and .380 average on the road. Then there’s newly-signed Gavin Floyd, a decent veteran, but only a year removed from elbow surgery and four years past his last hundred-inning campaign. It looks like Aaron Sanchez will be recast as a starter and that may turn out alright, but any way you slice it, the roatation is thin at best and probably one big injury away from pitching the team out of October, no matter how many runs are put up for them.
Alas, there aren’t many good starters still pacing about looking for work, so the free agent route is a long shot to yield dividends now. Yovanni Gallardo is the best one still available, and though rumored to be close to a deal with the Jays around Christmas, the Baltimore Sun now have him dotting the i’s and crossing t’s on a deal with the Orioles. So unless that falls through and Toronto come up with, say three years and $40M for Gallardo- another Estrada-type pitcher, the only way to improve quickly is via the trade market.
That too is problematic, as hope springs eternal in, well, spring, and not many teams want to trade a top-flight pitcher at any time. Which leads me to my radical suggestion…
Trade Edwin Encarnacion for pitching. I know, I know, I can feel the virtual bananas and tomatoes being thrown at the screen right now. I like EE as much as the rest of you, and know that replacing a solid 35 HR/100 RBI guy would be difficult. But trades require a bit of pain, and fact is, Toronto could stand to lose a few runs and still contend. Edwin’s days of playing in the field are numbered if not over, and that makes him expendable for Toronto – if the right deal comes along. Even the optimistic among us feel it unlikely the owners are going to pay both him and Bautista the market value to keep them around after ’16 (on top of the rising salary of Donaldson and the big money Troy Tulowitzki gets), so why not get something in return now?
EE would be a welcome addition to an AL team without Toronto’s power. There are few teams around that wouldn’t benefit by adding him as their DH. Meanwhile at our end, while improbable that we’d match his 39 HR,111 RBI and .557 slugging percentage of last year, the fact is that the average for everyday DHs last year was around 22 HR, 83 RBI and a median .422 slugging. Those are numbers Justin Smoak could deliver. Or Justin Morneau, if the team takes Bluebird banter’s advice and sign the Canuck first baseman on the cheap (which would be an option with the savings from Encarnacion.)
The problem is, finding a suitor for Edwin with expendable pitching. To me, that’s not going to happen directly. However, a bit of creativity should allow a three-way deal. A team like the White Sox or Astros would benefit greatly from Encarnacion and have some good youth. Send them Edwin for a bundle of prospects, then in turn deal some of the kids to an NL team looking to shed a pitcher. San Diego comes to mind. With all the stars they dropped within the last year, it’s hard to imagine them keeping James Shields around, particularly when he can opt out of his contract after this season. Shields would give Toronto the type of experienced, 200-inning, 15-win type pitcher they need to anchor the rotation. Or, thinking even bigger, the Nats might be willing to part ways with Stephen Strasburg, the cream of next year’s pitching free agent crop.
We’d miss Edwin Encarnacion, no doubt. But if it means having Shields or Strasburg in the rotation instead of Hutchison or Chavez, I think we’d get over it!