After reaching the ALCS in the previous two seasons, the 2017 Blue Jays stumbled out of the gate to a brutal 2-11 start and simply never got on track. The team did have some good stretches and was still hanging around the wild card race in late August, so it could be tempting to write the season off as a by-product of some brutal injury luck, as several Jays regulars spent significant time on the disabled list. It could also be argued, however, that the injuries simply exposed some underlying issues with the roster that would’ve prevented Toronto from contending even at full strength.
A rebuild isn’t in the cards given the talent (and big contracts) still on hand, so the Jays are planning for a big rebound in 2018. Here are a few of the areas that need to be addressed in order for the Jays to return to contention…
1. Make the lineup less one-dimensional. The Jays ranked at or near the bottom of the league in just about every major offensive category except for home runs and walks, and this lack of versatility led to the third-worst offensive fWAR (9.0) of any club in baseball. Justin Smoak’s breakout year was countered by Jose Bautista and Kendrys Morales having sub-replacement level seasons, plus the light-hitting duo of Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney getting the bulk of playing time at the middle infield spots thanks to Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis missing much of the year. Lengthy DL stints for Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and Steve Pearce also didn’t help matters.
A general lack of speed and positional versatility is baked into the Toronto roster given the presence of so many veteran players. If the Jays are looking to add contact hitting, defense and perhaps more stolen bases into the mix, two positions that stand out are right field (which we’ll address in the next point) and second base. The Jays simply don’t know what they have in Travis due to his already-extensive injury history, so getting a more reliable middle infield option is necessary. Shortstop is another question mark thanks to Tulowitzki’s own continued injury problems, though he’s probably untradeable because of his big contract. An everyday middle infielder that could play second base but handle short in a pinch would be ideal for the Jays, as it would give them flexibility in the increasingly-likely event that Tulowitzki or Travis will again hit the DL.
The Jays could also consider trading a veteran simply in order to create room for more versatile players, even if it wouldn’t free up any payroll space. The Jays would have to eat money to move Tulowitzki, Morales or maybe even Pearce, but they could cut down on that financial outlay by taking on another “bad” contract in return. Dealing one of those big contracts to add a somewhat pricey corner outfielder, starting pitcher or reliever in need of a change of scenery would allow Toronto to address a need while technically not really creating another roster hole, given how little the in-house veterans contributed in 2017.
A bigger-picture move would be to deal Donaldson or Smoak, though such a trade doesn’t seem likely since the Jays will be counting on those two as cornerstones of next year’s lineup. The Jays will certainly talk to Donaldson this winter about an extension as he enters his last year under contract, and even if talks don’t go anywhere, it seems much more plausible that Toronto shops Donaldson at next July’s deadline (if at all) rather than move him this winter.
2. Add a new right fielder. Bautista’s tenure with the club is all but certain to end, leaving a big hole in right field. Teoscar Hernandez, acquired at the deadline for Francisco Liriano, is the most obvious in-house candidate, though he may also not be ready for an everyday role on a contending team. Ezequiel Carrera, Anthony Alford, Dwight Smith and perhaps Dalton Pompey are other internal options if the Jays wanted to cobble together a platoon, but right field stands out as a clear opportunity to add a reliable everyday player to the lineup.
While the Jays will have some money to spend, signing the likes of a J.D. Martinez or another top-tier free agent bat doesn’t fit with the team’s usual M.O. A trade could also be somewhat difficult; barring the type of bad-contract swap scenario I mentioned earlier, the Jays don’t have much in the way of MLB-ready prospects to offer in deals. This could be a situation where Toronto uses the money freed up by Bautista’s departure to acquire an outfielder from a team primarily looking to move salary rather than add prospects.
3. Add at least one, preferably two starting pitchers. The Jays head into 2018 with a rotation headlined by Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and (theoretically) Aaron Sanchez, provided that Sanchez can solve the blister and finger issues that limited him to just 36 innings. Sanchez’s injuries have already been enough of a lingering concern that he can’t be entirely counted on until the spring, making it all the more important that the club reinforces its pitching staff.
One spot could be filled by a familiar face, as there is mutual interest in a reunion with impending free agent Marco Estrada. That will be a boon if Estrada returns to his 2015-16 form, though even the inconsistent 2017 version of Estrada has still delivered 176 2/3 IP and 2.7 fWAR.
It seems like any pitching additions will have to come via signings or trades, as Toronto is lacking in MLB-ready starters at the Triple-A level. Joe Biagini could be a candidate for a fifth starter’s role after a full Spring Training of preparing to be a full-time starting pitcher, though his up-and-down performance as a starter this year hints that his ultimate future could be in the pen. The Blue Jays won’t be shopping at the high end of the free agent pitching market, but a mid-range signing akin to their deal with Happ two winters ago could fit. The Jays have already been mentioned as one of the teams potentially targeting Alex Cobb this offseason.