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With some major core players eligible for free agency, the Blue Jays may need some significant retooling to make another postseason trip.
- Troy Tulowitzki, SS: $74MM through 2020 ($15MM club option for 2021, $4MM buyout)
- Russell Martin, C: $60MM through 2019
- J.A. Happ, SP: $26MM through 2018
- Josh Donaldson, 3B: $17MM through 2017
- Melvin Upton Jr. OF: $16.45MM through 2017 ($12.05MM covered by the Padres as per the terms of the July 2016 trade)
- Marco Estrada, SP: $14MM through 2017
- Francisco Liriano, SP: $13MM through 2017
- Justin Smoak, 1B: $8.25MM through 2018 ($6MM club option for 2019, $250K buyout)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Josh Thole (5.165) – $900K
- Darwin Barney (5.085) – $1.6MM
- Aaron Loup (4.040) – $1.2MM
- Ezequiel Carrera (3.039) – $1.2MM
- Marcus Stroman (2.148) – $3.5MM
- Non-tender candidates: Thole
- Jason Grilli, RP: $3MM club option (exercised)
- Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil, R.A. Dickey, Joaquin Benoit, Scott Feldman, Dioner Navarro, Gavin Floyd
Since the start of the 2010 season, Jose Bautista has hit more home runs (249) than any player in baseball, while Edwin Encarnacion (231) ranks third on that same list. Having both of these prolific bats together on (what turned out to be) very team-friendly contracts has been one of the key factors behind the Blue Jays’ recent success, but this winter, it seems very likely that the Bautista/Encarnacion era will come to an end.
Naturally, the Jays’ decisions on the two cornerstone players will shape the rest of their offseason decision-making. Re-signing both seems very improbable, as the Jays would be committing millions to two players in their mid-to-late-30s when the team already has a pretty expensive and aging roster. Re-signing one of the two is a possibility, and initial signs are that Encarnacion may be the prime target. In his case, he said he was “really disappointed” by his Spring Training extension talks with the club, as the Jays reportedly only offered him two guaranteed years with multiple vesting options for further seasons. That offer seemed strangely low at the time and it looks downright meager compared to what Encarnacion will earn in the wake of a 42-homer, .263/.357/.529 season. Though Encarnacion will be 34 on Opening Day, he has put himself in line to easily land a four-year guarantee with a $20MM+ average annual value, and perhaps one enterprising team could even go as high as five years.
Bautista, on the other hand, will require a much lower price tag but also carries far more question marks. Bautista hit .234/.366/.452 with 22 homers over 517 PA; good numbers for most players, but a big step backwards from his usual offensive output. While he was still productive at the plate, his baserunning (as per Fangraphs’ BsR metric) and defense (-9.3 UZR/150, -8 Defensive Runs Saved) nosedived, leaving him with an overall contribution of just 1.4 fWAR. Injuries likely played a part, as Bautista had two lengthy DL stints due to a sprained knee and turf toe. The 36-yeard-old has now suffered through three injury-shortened seasons in the last five years, and between his health history, age and declining defense, his future may lie as a DH/first baseman rather than as a regular right fielder.
GM Ross Atkins told reporters that the Jays had plans to speak to both players in the exclusive five-day prior to free agency (which expired about 13 hours ago), and both Encarnacion and Bautista were issued qualifying offers. At the very least, the Blue Jays will receive first-round compensatory draft picks should Encarnacion and Bautista sign elsewhere, assuming they turn the QOs down. (Encarnacion certainly will, and Bautista reportedly will do so as well, though there’s at least a minor chance he could opt for the one-year, $17.2MM offer and shoot for a healthier platform season in 2017.)
Left fielder Michael Saunders did not receive a qualifying offer, as Toronto’s other big position player free agent had a very rough second half of the season that overshadowed his All-Star caliber first half. Retaining Saunders would give the Jays a much-needed left-handed bat to help balance out a very right-handed lineup. If Encarnacion and Bautista both departed, Saunders could see more time at DH, which would improve the Jays’ outfield defense and also perhaps help Saunders stay fresh and productive throughout the entire year.
If all three hitters left in free agency, the Blue Jays would lose some serious pop but would also gain the opportunity to remake a somewhat one-dimensional lineup. While Toronto finished ninth among all teams in runs scored in 2016, the club was rather an all-or-nothing offense, prone to extended cold streaks (such as down the stretch in September) when not hitting home runs. The Jays were also a bottom-10 team in both contact rate and stolen bases, while finishing eighth in strikeouts and hitting into a league-high 153 double plays.
To address these problems, the Jays are planning to become “more athletic, flexible and balanced in the batting order,” in the words of Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi. The club will cast a wide net in exploring options in the outfield and at first base, as the Jays are reportedly planning to check in on such free agents as Josh Reddick (a left-handed bat), Ian Desmond (a right-handed bat who play multiple positions) and switch-hitter Dexter Fowler, with Davidi suggesting Mike Napoli and Brandon Moss as other potential targets. Carlos Beltran drew attention from the Blue Jays at the deadline, so it seems likely that the team would again explore acquiring the veteran switch-hitter now that he’s on the open market. There are a variety of other bat-first candidates available, with Kendrys Morales also representing a DH possibility on the open market.
Signing Desmond or Fowler would cost the Jays a draft pick via the qualifying offer, so if the team is already considering an expensive multi-year commitment, could they shop at the very top of the market and pursue Yoenis Cespedes? He would bring outstanding left field defense and a lot of power to Toronto, though as a right-handed bat, Cespedes isn’t a completely ideal fit in the lineup. One might think the Jays would want more of a perfect match if they were going to sign a player to what would have to be the most expensive contract in franchise history, so I’d consider the Blue Jays to be darkhorses at best in the Cespedes sweepstakes this winter.
Speaking of big contracts, the Jays have at least some level of interest in Joey Votto, who has long been linked to his hometown team in trade rumors thanks to the Reds’ rebuilding process. Votto, who has said he hopes to remain a Red despite the team’s rebuild, has a full no-trade clause and is owed a whopping $179MM through 2023, so a lot would have to happen for the Reds and Blue Jays to work out a blockbuster deal. Cincinnati might not be the first place Toronto looks if it wants to address first base or the corner outfield via the trade market; clubs like the Mets, Marlins, Cubs, Athletics, Rockies or Cardinals could all be better options.
The Blue Jays could also look internally to address these positions, though this would seem to be the clear “plan B” due to a lack of reliable bench depth. Melvin Upton Jr. is a potential fit for left or right field on paper, though he struggled so badly after joining the Jays at the deadline that the team may not be satisfied with the veteran in an everyday role. Upton could share time with backup Ezequiel Carrera or prospect Dalton Pompey, if the Jays believe that Pompey has developed enough to be a passable hitter at the big league level.
Switch-hitting first baseman Justin Smoak was surprisingly signed to an extension at midseason, and yet contract aside, it would be hard to see Smoak stepping into any more of a regular role in a wake of a sub-replacement level 2016 season. Chris Colabello seems to be on the outs with the organization in the wake of his 80-game PED suspension, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blue Jays cut ties with him entirely this winter. Prospect Rowdy Tellez is coming off a big Double-A season and could get himself in the picture with a big Spring Training, though more likely scenario is that Tellez is a late-season callup rather than a candidate for regular duty.
Looking further at the bench, Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney are on hand as utility infielders, providing backup should Troy Tulowitzki or Devon Travis suffer another injury. A new backup catcher will be required since Josh Thole had little value to the Jays aside from being R.A. Dickey’s personal catcher, and Dickey is almost certainly departing in free agency. Dioner Navarro could be re-signed given his popularity within the clubhouse and familiarity with the rotation, though Navarro is coming off a very poor 2016 season.
Pitching-wise, the Jays are already set with their starting five of J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano and Marcus Stroman. Toronto’s rotation was seen as the team’s weak link headed into last season and yet it ended up being a surprisingly big strength, thanks to impressive seasons from Happ, Estrada and breakout star Sanchez. As mentioned, it doesn’t look like there’s any room for Dickey to return, and the veteran knuckleballer will either pitch elsewhere in 2017 or perhaps even retire.
The Blue Jays got quite a bit of durability from their rotation last year, and since two straight years of good pitching health is a rare gift for any team, some starting depth will be required in the minors or in the form of a bullpen swingman. Rule 5 draft pick Joe Biagini blossomed into a major bullpen contributor, and there has been speculation that the Jays could stretch him out for future use as a starter. Biagini could potentially fill that swingman role, with an eye towards becoming a full-time starter in 2018 if Liriano and/or Estrada leave in free agency.
On the other hand, Biagini may be needed more in the bullpen for the time being. Toronto is set with Roberto Osuna closing and Jason Grilli in a setup role after his strong showing following a mid-season trade, though the rest of the ’pen is in flux, and relief upgrades will be a priority this winter. The Blue Jays will explore re-signing longtime bullpen stalwart Brett Cecil and summer pickup Joaquin Benoit, with Cecil carrying the much bigger price tag of the two. Southpaw bullpen help is a particular need for the Jays even if Cecil returns, so expect Toronto to scour the market for left-handed relievers in free agency (Boone Logan, Jerry Blevins, J.P. Howell, etc.) or in trades.
Between their players under contract, the four arbitration-eligible players likely to be tendered contracts and Grilli’s option, the Blue Jays have roughly $118MM committed to 13 players for 2017. Counting the minimum salaries slated for Travis, Sanchez, Osuna, Biagini and Kevin Pillar as pre-arb players, that takes the total to approximately $120.6MM for 18 players.
Toronto’s Opening Day payroll has been in the neighborhood of $136-$137MM in two of the last three years, so there isn’t a ton of room for Atkins and president/CEO Mark Shapiro to maneuver for another big contract. The front office would have to shed salary elsewhere, get a payroll increase approved by the team’s corporate ownership at Rogers Communications or sign players to backloaded deals that don’t kick in with the big money until after 2017 — or perhaps even 2018 (when Happ is off the books and Russell Martin’s deal only has one year remaining).
Of course, the Jays could also add more long-term commitments this winter in the form of extensions. Josh Donaldson already agreed to a two-year extension last February that covered two of his remaining arbitration years, and surely the Jays would have interest in talking to their superstar third baseman about a longer-term deal to keep him beyond the 2018 season. Toronto could explore keeping Estrada or Liriano beyond next year, and there could even be some talks with Sanchez, Osuna or the other pre-arb building blocks about extensions that would guarantee them their first big paydays while gaining the Jays some cost-certainty and perhaps some future control.
There are a lot of moving pieces to Toronto’s offseason, as the team could move quickly to replace Encarnacion and Bautista if it feels there isn’t a chance of re-signing either. Conversely, the Blue Jays could wait to see how the two sluggers’ markets develop on the off-chance that either becomes available at a lower price (a la Cespedes and the Mets last winter), though then the Jays risk missing out on other players.
With most of their best prospects still at least a year away, Shapiro and Atkins will have to be creative in looking externally to fill what could be several holes on the 25-man roster. Still, with a full and talented rotation, one of the game’s best players in Donaldson and several other solid young and veteran building blocks, the Jays project to be contenders again in 2017 if they can find those critical missing pieces.