The AL East champions will have to rebuild their pitching staff this winter, though their first priority will be sorting out an unexpected front office shuffle.
- Troy Tulowitzki, SS: $98MM through 2020 (includes $4MM buyout of $15MM club option for 2021)
- Russell Martin, C: $75MM through 2019
- Jose Bautista, RF: $14MM through 2016
- R.A. Dickey, SP: $12MM through 2016
- Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/DH: $10MM through 2016
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Brett Cecil (5.152) – $3.4MM
- Michael Saunders (5.138) – $2.9MM
- Justin Smoak (5.077) – $2.0MM
- Ben Revere (4.149) – $6.7MM
- Josh Thole (4.126) – $1.8MM
- Josh Donaldson (3.158) – $12.0MM
- Drew Hutchison (3.128) – $2.6MM
- Aaron Loup (3.083) – $900K
- Steve Delabar (3.008) – $700K
- Non-tender candidates: Saunders, Delabar
- David Price, Marco Estrada, Mark Buehrle, Dioner Navarro, Mark Lowe, LaTroy Hawkins, Munenori Kawasaki, Cliff Pennington, Jeff Francis, Maicer Izturis
The afterglow of the Blue Jays’ first postseason appearance since 1993 quickly wore off with the stunning news that Alex Anthopoulos wouldn’t be returning as Toronto’s general manager. It was more or less expected that the Jays’ playoff run would ensure a new contract for Anthopoulos, but since that proposed extension reportedly gave the final decision-making authority to new club president/CEO Mark Shapiro, Anthopoulos said he “didn’t feel like this was the right fit” for him and walked away from the job.
Anthopoulos’ departure reportedly came as a surprise to both Shapiro and Rogers Communications (the club’s ownership group), though the Jays’ interest in a president with a baseball operations background was evident even a year ago during their flirtations with the likes of Dan Duquette and Kenny Williams. This implied that Anthopoulos was no longer Rogers’ choice to be the top baseball voice in the organization, so expecting him to accept a loss of autonomy in the wake of a division title may have been a bit naive on ownership’s part. If Anthopoulos’ decision truly caught the club off-guard, then the Jays are somewhat under the gun in beginning a GM search just as offseason business is getting underway.
Naming Tony LaCava as the interim general manager (and extending his contract) does ensure some continuity within the front office, and LaCava himself could be a fit as the permanent GM. He has been a long-time assistant GM in Toronto, he briefly worked with Shapiro in Cleveland’s front office and he has been considered for GM jobs with other teams (the Pirates, Angels, Dodgers and Orioles) in the past. Current and former members of the Indians front office like Ross Atkins, Derek Falvey, De Jon Watson, Josh Byrnes and Tyrone Brooks have been mentioned as possible candidates for the GM position, though everything seems speculative at this point.
This organizational drama has added another layer of intrigue into what was already going to be a very busy offseason for the Jays. The most clear-cut business has already been taken care of, as the Jays exercised their club options on Jose Bautista ($14MM), R.A. Dickey ($12MM) and Edwin Encarnacion ($10MM) for 2016. A combined $36MM is a more-than-reasonable price for two elite sluggers and a solid 200+ inning starter.
The next step for the Jays will be to explore extending Bautista and Encarnacion, which will be very interesting negotiations. The two men are entering their respective age-35 and age-33 seasons and Bautista’s defense has been falling off to the point that he could soon be best suited as a mostly-DH type, as Encarnacion is now. Extending any player into their late 30’s is a dicey proposition, and extending two such players could be especially risky. The counter argument, of course, is that Bautista and Encarnacion are still two of the game’s best hitters, both posting big numbers in 2015 despite battling some nagging injuries. While the Jays could wait to see if either declines next season, waiting also carries the risk of letting either slugger hit the open market on the heels of another big performance. The Bautista and Encarnacion talks will be a big subplot of this Blue Jays offseason, particularly if the team favors one over the other.
With these contract option years now officially on the books, Toronto is committed to $71MM for five players next season. The Jays will pay a projected $33MM to their nine-player arbitration class, with Josh Donaldson getting the biggest raise (from $4.3MM in 2015 to $12MM in 2016) in the wake of his MVP-caliber season. Important contributors like Marcus Stroman, Roberto Osuna, Chris Colabello, Kevin Pillar and Aaron Sanchez are still on their pre-arb contracts, which gives the team a bit of financial breathing room as it tries to figure out how much to spend on the pitching staff.
While nine-figure payrolls aren’t new for the Jays, it has yet to be determined just how much they’re willing to spend this winter. Last year’s Opening Day payroll was just under $126MM and that number went up during the year after their big deadline trading spree. It’s fair to assume that Shapiro and LaCava will have at least that $126MM figure to work with in the offseason. While it has been speculated that Rogers hired Shapiro in part because of his experience with modest payrolls in Cleveland, Shapiro wasn’t afraid to make notable signings (the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn deals) and extensions (i.e. Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta) in his time as the Tribe’s GM and president.
It could also be that Shapiro will receive more financial leeway than Anthopoulos. The Jays were heavily criticized by fans and local media for making virtually no major moves between the Dickey trade in December 2012 and the Donaldson trade in November 2014, and in hindsight, that seeming transactions freeze could’ve been the first sign of ownership disenchantment with Anthopoulos in the wake of the disastrous 2013 season, rather than a sign that Rogers wasn’t willing to spend. Given how attendance and TV ratings skyrocketed from August through October, Rogers now has clear evidence that a winning team will be a huge boost to revenue.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the club is willing to spend the $200MM+ it will take to sign David Price to a new deal this winter. Price has been vocal about how much he enjoyed pitching in Toronto, though with teams such as the Dodgers and Cubs likely in the running for Price’s services, it would be a surprise to see the Jays win a bidding war. Russell Martin’s $82MM contract from last winter was the biggest free agent deal in franchise history while Vernon Wells’ $126MM deal from 2006 is still the largest overall contract the Jays have ever handed out; the team would likely have to spend as much as those two deals combined, if not more, to retain Price.
Besides Price, Marco Estrada and the possibly (but not certainly) retiring Mark Buehrle are also hitting the open market. Estrada’s strong performance in both the regular season and postseason boosted his price tag, and the Jays could well re-sign him if that price is around three years and $30MM. If it goes much higher, I suspect the Blue Jays would be willing to let him walk — especially since they would receive a draft pick in return, as Estrada was issued a qualifying offer. The two sides are in the midst of discussing a multi-year deal right now, though there have been no indications that a deal is close.
As for Buehrle, he’s been leaning towards retirement for a while. If he did come back, it might be on a one-year farewell tour type of deal with his hometown Cardinals or a return to the White Sox, rather than re-signing with the Jays.
Right now the Jays’ rotation consists of rising star Stroman, Dickey, and Drew Hutchison (whose inconsistent 2015 season makes him only a fifth starter candidate at best). One of the two open spots could be filled internally by Osuna or Sanchez, and the latter is the likelier pick since he’d be easier to stretch out. Sanchez was originally intended to be a reliever last spring, then became a starter in the wake of Stroman’s injury. He struggled prior to a lat injury (5.21 FIP, 42-to-37 K/BB ratio in 66 innings) but returned to thrive in a relief role. It’s possible that a full spring of preparing solely to start will lead to better results for Sanchez, who’s just a year removed from being labeled one of baseball’s top pitching prospects.
Shifting either Sanchez or Osuna to the rotation is a risky move for a contender, however, as both are unproven as MLB starters and using either to start weakens the bullpen. Osuna’s transition from A-ball starter in 2014 to star Major League closer in 2015 was already unlikely enough that the Jays may not want to further press their luck by pushing Osuna any further. His 78 combined IP in the regular season and playoffs last season was a career high, so he’d certainly be on an innings limit as a starter. Thus, the Jays would need a replacement for the latter portion of the season.
Everything therefore seems to point to the Jays adding at least one notable front-of-the-rotation arm and quite possibly a mid-tier starter as well. There’s no shortage of aces in free agency, and the Jays might not mind losing a first-rounder to sign a qualifying offer free agent since they’d be getting back a comparable draft pick back if Estrada leaves, and their current pick (No. 26) is toward the end of the first round as it is. Aiming for free agency, however, will test how much the team is willing or able to spend. The Jays have been linked to Johnny Cueto, Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija in the past, though that was under Anthopoulos. Shapiro and LaCava may have different opinions of how well either starter would fare in Toronto, especially on an expensive long-term deal.
Rather than free agency, the Blue Jays could acquire pitching via the trade market. Shapiro has denied a report claiming he directly criticized Anthopoulos for moving top prospects at the deadline, though it would still be somewhat surprising to see the Jays continue to deal youngsters since building from within is Shapiro’s stated preference. Dealing from the Major League roster, however, could address both the pitching staff and a couple of question marks around the diamond.
Left field, for instance, has Ben Revere as the incumbent and set to earn a $6.7MM salary through arbitration. This could be a bit high for the Jays’ liking since Revere is a somewhat limited offensive player and has mixed reviews over his career (as per advanced metrics) as a left fielder. The Jays could try to deal Revere as part of a package for a starter and then go with a Michael Saunders/Dalton Pompey platoon in left. Then again, Saunders could himself be a trade or even a non-tender candidate given his $2.9MM arbitration projection. Dealing him for value could be difficult since he barely played in 2015 due to knee injuries. Pompey isn’t likely to be traded given his high prospect pedigree, though counting on him for anything more than a part-time role is a risk given how he looked overmatched at the plate when he began last season as the starting center fielder and was eventually demoted.
First base could be another position of depth. Encarnacion will mostly be used as a DH, leaving Colabello and Justin Smoak splitting time at first. Colabello was a hugely successful under-the-radar signing last winter, giving the Jays an .886 OPS in 360 PA. Colabello is still a year away from arbitration eligibility which could make him a very attractive trade chip, especially if the Jays think he’ll come back to earth next season (given that he did post a stunningly high .411 BABIP). Smoak, meanwhile, hit .226/.299/.470 with 18 homers in 328 PA while providing solid defense. The switch-hitter is an ideal backup for whomever is getting the lion’s share of time at first, whether it’s Colabello or a new addition.
This is just my speculation, but Shapiro’s former team in Cleveland is one of the few that has high-quality, controllable arms potentially available this winter. The Jays actually came close to landing Carlos Carrasco at the trade deadline for a package of Pompey, Jeff Hoffman and Daniel Norris, so it’s possible Shapiro could revisit those talks from the other side of the table to pursue Carrasco or Danny Salazar. (Though of course, a new offer would have to be made since Hoffman and Norris have since been dealt.)
You can also make the case that the Blue Jays could just stand pat with their everyday regulars given how the team turned into world-beaters on both offense and defense once their final lineup was solidified at the deadline. Given how injuries really left the Jays short-handed in early 2015, keeping the outfield and first base surplus intact could be a wise move, as a number of veterans in the lineup already come with notable injury histories. Devon Travis’ return theoretically makes Ryan Goins expendable, though Goins is perhaps too valuable a bench piece to deal — he provides tremendous defense at either middle infield spot, which comes in handy since it’s far from guaranteed that Travis or Troy Tulowitzki stays healthy all year.
For now, Toronto’s bench lines up as Goins, Smoak, at least one of Saunders or Pompey and then Josh Thole (the knuckler-catching specialist for Dickey) as the backup catcher. Dioner Navarro did a good job in the backup role last year, though he’s expected to depart for a team that can offer him more playing time.
The bullpen was a problem area for much of the year, seemingly rounding into form around the deadline, but injuries in the playoffs exposed the lack of depth. If Sanchez is moved into the rotation, the Jays will need a new reliever to set up Osuna. Brett Cecil pitched very well last season and could do the job, though he could be better deployed outside of a set role and used in high-leverage situations (particularly against left-handed hitters) whenever they may arise in the later innings. Aaron Loup had solid numbers against lefty bats strictly in a LOOGY role, though the Blue Jays will probably look to bolster their bullpen southpaw corps. Free agent Tony Sipp could be a possibility if Shapiro wanted to bring in a familiar face from his Cleveland days.
LaTroy Hawkins is retiring and Mark Lowe is a free agent, so the Jays will also need some help on the right-handed side of the bullpen ledger. Darren O’Day, Tyler Clippard and Shawn Kelley are some of the bigger names available in free agency, though it’s worth noting that Shapiro has never pursued notable free agent reliever signings when he ran the Tribe. Rather than spend on a righty reliever, the Blue Jays could just keep Sanchez in the bullpen for another year (with an eye to him replacing Dickey in the 2017 rotation), sign a low-cost right-hander and funnel all available money towards the rotation.
Toronto has enough clear areas of need on the roster that it’s obvious what will be targeted no matter who takes over as the full-time general manager (Shapiro will ultimately be calling the shots anyway). The Jays certainly have work to do on the pitching front, but with so much of their league-best offense likely returning, the club has expectations of another postseason run in 2016.