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After an injury-riddled season, the Blue Jays are looking to rebound back into the AL East race. With Josh Donaldson and several other key veterans only under contract through 2018, however, it remains to be seen if the Jays will acquire upgrades that will only help them next season, or if they’ll aim for longer-term assets.
- Troy Tulowitzki, SS: $54MM through 2020 ($15MM club option for 2021, $4MM buyout)
- Russell Martin, C: $40MM through 2019
- Kendrys Morales, DH: $23MM through 2019
- Lourdes Gurriel, IF/OF: $18.4MM through 2023
- Marco Estrada, SP: $13MM through 2018
- J.A. Happ, SP: $13MM through 2018
- Steve Pearce, OF/1B: $6.25MM through 2018
- Justin Smoak, 1B: $4.125MM through 2018 ($6MM club option for 2019, $250K buyout)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Josh Donaldson (5.158) – $20.7MM
- Aaron Loup (5.040) – $1.8MM
- Tom Koehler (4.090) – $6.0MM
- Ezequiel Carrera (4.039) – $1.9MM
- Marcus Stroman (3.148) – $7.2MM
- Kevin Pillar (3.113) – $4.0MM
- Ryan Goins (3.106) – $1.8MM
- Aaron Sanchez (3.069) – $1.9MM
- Devon Travis (3.000) – $1.7MM
- Roberto Osuna (3.000) – $5.6MM
- Dominic Leone (2.123) – $1.2MM
- Non-tender candidate: Koehler
One major bit of offseason business has already been handled, as Marco Estrada agreed to a one-year, $13MM extension to return to the Jays next season. 2017 was easily the worst of Estrada’s three seasons in Toronto, though much of the damage was came during a midseason slump that Estrada has said was partially caused by off-the-field issues. Given that Estrada looked closer to his old form during the second half of the season, he’ll give the Jays another solid arm to slot in behind Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Aaron Sanchez in the rotation.
Of course, that’s assuming Sanchez is able to recover from the blister and fingernail problems that kept him on the disabled list for much of the season. A full offseason of recovery time would theoretically have Sanchez ready to go for Spring Training, though given the unpredictable nature of his recurring injury, re-signing Estrada was particularly important for the Jays.
Sanchez’s blister was essentially a metaphor for the entire 2017 Blue Jays season. The team was simply never able to get rolling due to a swath of injuries and a lack of performance from most of the players who were able to stay healthy. The starting rotation couldn’t duplicate its 2016 success, and the lineup delivered some of the poorest offensive numbers of any team in baseball. A 2-11 start put the Jays behind the eight ball from the very beginning, and the club wasn’t able to achieve as much as a .500 record at any point during the year.
Better health will only go so far in solving the Jays’ problems. The team can reasonably count on Donaldson, Happ, and Russell Martin delivering closer to full seasons, though Martin turns 35 in February. Sanchez’s status is yet to be determined, and the substantial injury histories of Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis and Steve Pearce make them question marks rather than reliable regulars for next year’s lineup.
As one might expect in the wake of such a season, GM Ross Atkins has stated that adding roster depth is a big priority for the club. The challenge will be in deciding where to acquire that depth, since the Jays are thin at several positions and don’t have much in the way of MLB-ready talent at the upper levels of the minors.
One such area is starting pitching, as the Blue Jays don’t have a fifth starter lined up. Joe Biagini is the current favorite for the job but was inconsistent as a starter last season. Tom Koehler (if he isn’t non-tendered) or prospect Ryan Borucki could be candidates, while other internal options like Chris Rowley seem more like minor league depth options. The case could also be made that Biagini and Koehler are better utilized as relievers.
Between the fifth starter opening and Sanchez’s blister concerns, the Blue Jays could have cause to add a veteran starter on a short-term deal. Jason Vargas, CC Sabathia, Jaime Garcia, Doug Fister, and familiar face Brett Anderson are a few of the experienced arms available in free agency, though with Estrada and Happ both under contract for just one more year, I’d argue that Toronto could make a bigger splash for a front-of-the-rotation type. Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta seem like long shots, but the Jays have already been cited as a likely suitor for Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn is another second-tier rotation arm who would require a substantial, but not a bank-breaking multi-year contract.
Of course, Shohei Otani would be a great fit for Toronto, as he would in the rotation of every other MLB team. The Jays’ interest in Otani is known, though it doesn’t seem like they are frontrunners for his services, if he is even made available to MLB teams at all this winter (which is looking less clear than ever). If Otani did sign with the Jays, one would think the team would look to trade Kendrys Morales (even while eating some money in a deal) to free up the DH spot for Otani to get at-bats.
Even without an Otani signing, the idea of dealing Morales or another veteran regular may still have to be explored. Morales and Tulowitzki have little to no trade value given their poor 2017 seasons and the money remaining on their contracts; Martin is also owed $40MM through the next two years, and there aren’t many contenders in need of catching help.
Atkins has said that the Jays aren’t looking to trade from their MLB roster, though that may be a necessity given their lack of minor league trade chips (and obviously top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette aren’t going anywhere). A rebuilding team could have interest in Travis given his youth and the potential he’s shown when he has been able to play. Justin Smoak’s breakout year turned his contract into a bargain, and Toronto could look to sell high on him, though teams could prefer to just sign a free agent first baseman rather than make a trade. Teams could be interested in Kevin Pillar’s elite center field glove, and the Jays could conceivably replace Pillar in center field with Teoscar Hernandez or Anthony Alford.
The biggest trade chip, of course, is Donaldson, though he reportedly isn’t on the table as a trade candidate since the Jays plan to contend next year. The star third baseman has expressed interest in an extension that would keep him in Toronto beyond 2018, though if contract talks fail to materialize over the winter, trade speculation will only increase. The Cardinals are known to be one of several teams interested in Donaldson’s services, and they’re a particularly interesting potential trade partner since they can offer outfielders and multi-positional infielders. Even if Donaldson isn’t up for discussion, I’d imagine the Jays will have some talks with the Cards this winter.
These may seem like bold moves for a team that doesn’t seem to be planning any sort of huge shakeup. That said, if the Jays intend to add (in the words of president/CEO Mark Shapiro) “Durability. Athleticism. Flexibility,” to the roster, one way to achieve those goals is to move some of the players that don’t fit those categories. Trading Travis, for instance, would make it easier for the Jays to sign a multi-position infielder like Eduardo Nunez, as Toronto could then offer Nunez regular time at second base and then have the option of bouncing him around the diamond as the situation warrants. As mentioned, Morales couldn’t be dealt without eating a big chunk of the $23MM remaining on his contract, though moving a DH-only player who posted below-average hitting numbers last year would go a long way to giving the Blue Jays a more well-rounded roster.
If Toronto eschews bigger moves in search of pure depth additions, someone like Stephen Drew stands out as a left-handed hitting utility infield option. Backup catcher is a notable area of need, as Jays backup catchers combined for -1.5 fWAR last year — a particular issue given that Martin played in just 91 games. Miguel Montero struggled badly after joining the Jays last summer and isn’t likely to be re-signed.
The corner outfield positions are the most obvious areas to add much-needed speed and left-handed hitting into the mix. The team has already confirmed that it won’t be picking up its end of Jose Bautista’s mutual option, ending the franchise icon’s tenure in Toronto on a sour (-0.5 fWAR) note. This leaves Pearce as the top option in left field and Hernandez as the current favorite in right field after his impressive September performance. Alford and Ezequiel Carrera are also in the mix as platoon or backup options, with former top prospect Dalton Pompey slated for Triple-A after missing almost all of 2017 due to a concussion and a knee injury.
There is clearly room for improvement here, as Pearce and the youngsters could be slated for left field and a new face could play right. Jay Bruce has been a Blue Jays target in the past and would bring some much-needed left-handed pop to right field, so Toronto is likely to check in on his availability in free agency. Left-handed bats like Curtis Granderson or Jon Jay aren’t quite ideal for everyday roles, though the Jays can use Pearce and Hernandez as their corner outfielders when a southpaw is on the mound. If the Indians decided to decline their club option on Michael Brantley in the wake of Brantley’s recent ankle surgery, you’d expect Atkins and Shapiro to be all over Brantley given their past Cleveland ties.
Beyond free agents, teams like the Marlins, Indians, White Sox and (as mentioned) the Cardinals all could have outfielders for sale this winter. Jays fans may cringe at the idea of another big trade with the Marlins, but since Toronto had some interest in Dee Gordon last summer, Miami fits as a trade partner that could address the Jays’ needs at both second base and in the outfield in a single blockbuster. This is just my speculation, however — the Blue Jays may not have the prospects necessary to attract the Marlins’ attention on their star outfielders, and the Jays reportedly balked at Gordon’s remaining salary ($38MM through 2020).
Speaking of salary, the Jays have approximately $142.5 MM tied up in 19 players (eight guaranteed salaries and their 11-player arbitration class) for next season. This gives them some room to spend if they approach their $163.3MM payroll from last Opening Day, though even with Bautista off the books, big arb raises for Donaldson, Pillar, Stroman, Koehler, and Roberto Osuna will wipe out a lot of those savings. Koehler’s $6MM arbitration price tag is probably too high for the Jays’ liking, though they could look to re-sign him at a lower salary given his potential value as a swingman, multi-inning reliever, or fifth starter candidate.
Now that Osuna’s strong numbers no longer come with the benefit of a pre-arbitration salary, there will likely be some trade talk surrounding the 22-year-old closer. Osuna had a career-high 3.38 ERA and ten blown saves in 2017 while also dealing with some anxiety issues. S everal advanced metrics, though, indicate that the young closer was as dominant as ever last season and just ran into some bad luck (only a 59.5% strand rate) and perhaps some complications from increased usage of a cutter rather than his normal fastball-heavy arsenal. While teams will surely approach the Blue Jays with offers, it would be a surprise to see Osuna dealt given that his salary is still quite reasonable for a closer with his track record.
The Jays also need Osuna to anchor a bullpen that posted some decent numbers last year despite being heavily overworked; Jays relievers pitched 596 2/3 innings, the third-most of any club in baseball. Beyond Osuna, Toronto has some solid options on hand (Danny Barnes, Dominic Leone, Ryan Tepera, Carlos Ramirez) and could be further bolstered depending on what happens with Biagini or Koehler. Aaron Loup is the only southpaw in the pen, so expect the Jays to check in on left-handed relievers this winter. The club could look to replicate its low-cost signings of Joe Smith and J.P. Howell from last offseason, hoping for a better than their .500 return — Smith pitched well and was flipped at the trade deadline, while Howell battled injuries and was released in August.
The Atkins/Shapiro regime hasn’t made many big splashes in its two offseasons running the front office, though more is required this winter in the wake of the Jays’ disappointing 2017 campaign. Counting on better health to fix the problems is a big risk, especially since the club’s roster is old enough that decline is just as big a concern as injuries at this point. As intent as the Blue Jays are on contending, the AL East is competitive enough that another slow start could quickly turn the Jays into deadline sellers. Some significant roster shuffling is needed for the Jays to make 2017 into an aberration, rather than the first sign that their contention window is closing.