- The Blue Jays may be headed for brighter days next year, now that youngsters like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, and Bo Bichette have arrived on the scene. Could veteran–and franchise icon–Edwin Encarnacion be a steadying presence for that young nucleus in 2020? Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic takes a long look at Encarnacion’s fit as a potential Toronto addition, opining that the hulking slugger could be a more-than-viable replacement for the likely-to-depart Justin Smoak. Encarnacion’s steady power (104 home runs since 2017) and on-base skills (13.0% walk rate in same time frame) would certainly help boost Toronto’s young lineup, although, as McGrath notes, GM Ross Atkins previously said the club might prioritize a first base addition that “can play other positions as well“. Encarnacion, who will be 37 at the start of spring training, has a $20MM club option with New York for 2020, although he figures to have his $5MM buyout exercised.
Blue Jays Rumors
There may be an extension on the horizon for Toronto Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro, per The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal (via Twitter).
There’s not a lot of concrete action here to go off of, but both sides are open to discussing an extension as Shapiro enters the final year of his current contract. Prior to taking over as team president in 2015, Shapiro had been a soldier of the Indians organization since 1991. He served as GM for the 2002-2010 seasons before a promotion to team president. In what was a fairly gracious move on the part of Indians ownership, they allowed Shapiro to leave for the Toronto job without requiring compensation.
Shapiro took over in Toronto on August 31, 2015, just a month before the team would make their first playoff appearance since 1993. Previous team president Paul Beeston had announced his intentions to retire following the 2015 season. GM Alex Anthopoulos chose not to return following the 2015 season. Though there was reportedly an extension offer at the time, Shapiro’s hiring also removed Anthopoulos’ autonomy regarding baseball decision. In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising that Anthopoulos would step aside given the circumstances. He has done just fine for himself after being hired as the Braves GM in November of 2017.
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are putting together a roster of note for the first time since those playoff squads, though they are likely a year or two from truly competing in the AL East. As for Shapiro, his intentions regarding Toronto appear clear, per this tweet from Ben Nicholson-Smith of sportsnet.ca, in which Shapiro states, “I’ve been clear and consistent about enjoying where I am and wanting to be here. From a competitive perspective, I want to finish the job. That’s incredibly important to me.”
Former Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is throwing his hat in the ring for the many managerial openings across Major League Baseball, per MLB Network’s Jon Morosi (via Twitter).
Gibbons last managed a major league team in 2018 when he led the Toronto Blue Jays to a record of 73-89. It was the final season of a 6-year stint in Toronto during which the Blue Jays went 488-484, winning the AL East with a 93-win season in 2015. Toronto came within two wins of reaching the World Series, falling in six games to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in the ALCS.
They made the playoffs twice in Gibbons’ tenure, also capturing the Wild Card in 2016. The Blue Jays won that WC game in thrilling fashion when Edwin Encarnacion walked off Ubaldo Jimenez in the bottom of the 11th with a 3-run home run. That game is more famous for the decisions made in the opposing dugout, as Buck Showalter never got uber-closer Zack Britton into the ballgame, despite owning a 0.54 ERA across 69 games on the season. Showalter’s decision certainly played a role in the expansion of the fireman concept in contemporary bullpens, as teams are far less likely these days to save someone like Britton for a save situation that may never come.
Gibbons’ teams performed well in the postseason, winning not just the WC game but also sweeping the Rangers in the ALDS. Losing two straight seasons in the ALCS won’t etch Gibbons name anywhere in Cooperstown, but it was an achievement nonetheless. He helped end a 22-year postseason drought that extended from their World Series victory in 1993 until the division title in 2015.
Of course, Gibbons was well aware of the drought, as his first and only other managerial experience came with the Blue Jays from August 2004 until June of 2008. Those Blue Jays teams were always competitive, despite never reaching the postseason. His entire Blue Jays tenure ended with a record of 793-789, a .501 winning percentage.
There are a number of managerial vacancies around the MLB at present, including high profile offices in New York and Chicago. The Royals, Padres, Pirates, Giants and Angels are the other clubs hunting a new field manager. For what it’s worth, Gibbons began his professional coaching career with the Mets in 1990. He also served as a bench coach in Kansas City, and Double-A manager in the Padres system for the 2012 season.
The Blue Jays and their fans were surely excited to see a potential wave of young talent reach the Majors, with Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio all debuting in 2019, but the team’s pitching proved to be a disaster. Toronto starters posted a combined 5.25 ERA, and that number includes Marcus Stroman’s pre-trade contributions. Cut out his 124 2/3 innings of 2.96 ERA ball, and non-Stroman Blue Jays starters recorded a 5.74 ERA.
As such, it was hardly a surprise to hear general manager Ross Atkins declare that his organization plans to “look for pitching in every possible way” this offseason when meeting with the media yesterday (Twitter link via Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet). That’s probably a bit of hyperbole, as no one’s expecting the Jays to be prime suitors for Gerrit Cole or Madison Bumgarner. However, Atkins also suggested that simply acquiring filler won’t be good enough. Rather, the the Jays need arms they can “count on” to “contribute in significant ways.”
Currently, the Blue Jays’ rotation is virtually bereft of certainty. Trent Thornton led Toronto starters with 139 1/3 innings. But while he showed an ability to miss bats and had some positive stretches, the collective results (5.04 ERA, 4.80 FIP) were lackluster. No other pitcher currently on the Jays’ roster even tossed 70 innings as a starter. Right-hander Jacob Waguespack managed a 4.13 ERA with lesser peripherals in 65 1/3 innings. Injuries wiped out Ryan Borucki’s season. Veteran Matt Shoemaker gave the Jays 28 2/3 innings with a 1.57 ERA (3.95 FIP) before suffering an ACL tear early in the season. Lefty Anthony Kay, acquired in the Stroman trade, should get a chance to log a high volume of innings next year.
The Blue Jays, notably, still have Shoemaker under club control. He signed last winter after being non-tendered by the Angels but only had four-plus years of service time. He’s still shy of six years of service, meaning the Blue Jays can control him via arbitration. Atkins didn’t tip his hand with regard to Shoemaker’s status, though Nicholson-Smith suggests that Shoemaker is open to a multi-year deal (Twitter link). Such an arrangement, presumably, would buy out Shoemaker’s final arbitration season and give Toronto an additional year of relatively cheap control. Simply retaining Shoemaker via arbitration wouldn’t be an onerous financial commitment, as his 2019 salary checked in at just $3.5MM.
Realistically, though, the Blue Jays shouldn’t fret much over any levels of spending. Toronto has only $29MM in guaranteed money on the books in 2020, and their arbitration class only features one player in line for a notable raise: closer Ken Giles, who’ll be an offseason trade candidate anyway. Giles is due a raise on this season’s $6.3MM salary. Beyond him, Shoemaker, Devon Travis ($1.925MM in 2019), Ryan Tepera ($1.525MM), Brandon Drury ($1.3MM), Ryan Dull ($860K), Derek Law (pre-arb) and Luke Maile (pre-arb) are the only players who are in line for raises. Travis, Dull and Maile are non-tender candidates.
To that end, Atkins indicated that the Jays plan to spend more aggressively this winter than in the past two offseasons, stating that the “overall outlay will be more significant” than last year while voicing a willingness to add salary in trades (Twitter link via Nicholson-Smith). Even looking past the market’s elite options, there’ll be useful starters for the Blue Jays to pursue. Jake Odorizzi, Dallas Keuchel and Tanner Roark are among the many second-tier options in free agency, and the trade market should offer additional names. Toronto isn’t lacking in outfield options that could be made available to other teams, with Anthony Alford, Derek Fisher, Teoscar Hernandez, Jonathan Davis and Billy McKinney all on the 40-man roster (in addition to the well-compensated Randal Grichuk and breakout left fielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr.). None of that bunch is going to headline a deal for a marquee name, of course, but any could be a piece in a theoretical deal.
Looking to the team’s collection of position players, that glut of outfielders and the aforementioned emergence of several key infielders should give the team a promising (but still raw) lineup. Bichette and Biggio will comprise the team’s middle-infield tandem next season, and Atkins emphasized that the Jays are committed to Guerrero at third base, though they want him to improve his conditioning in the offseason. Danny Jansen showed pop and elite defensive skills behind the plate, even if his overall .207/.279/.360 batting line was obviously weak. He had a fairly productive three-month stretch from June to August (.243/.310/.459, 10 homers in 203 plate appearances), so there’s some hope for better days ahead.
A reunion with Justin Smoak at first base isn’t out of the question, Nicholson-Smith tweets, but the Jays have Rowdy Tellez as an option there and will likely look at more defensively versatile options in free agency. “It’d be nice to consider alternatives that are more flexible, can play other positions as well,” Atkins said. Speculatively speaking, Todd Frazier, Neil Walker, Brock Holt and Jedd Gyorko are among the many infield options on this year’s market who have experience at multiple positions, and as with the pitching market, there will be alternatives available via trade.
It should be noted that a promise of increased offseason spending doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the team’s Major League payroll. Toronto opened the 2019 season at $114.5MM, and given the numerous pre-arbitration players occupying key roster spots, upping the actual payroll would mean taking on perhaps more than $60MM in 2020 salary alone. That may technically be plausible based on previous payroll levels — the Jays peaked at $163MM in 2017 — but team president Mark Shapiro cautioned against being the team that “wins the offseason” only to fall shy of postseason play. A more aggressive winter seems certain, but the Jays probably won’t be going for broke just yet.
We’re continuing with our “Three Needs” series, in which we take a look at the chief issues to be addressed for clubs that have fallen out of contention. Next up: the Blue Jays, who ran up 95 losses but also installed some highly promising core pieces at the MLB level.
1. Open The Wallet For Starters
The Shapiro/Atkins regime has rarely lured significant starters with hefty promises, due in part to the organization’s need to transition away from some big preexisting commitments. (That task is now all but complete, with only eighteen million more Troy Tulowitzki dollars left to pay down.) To this point, J.A. Happ (3/$36MM) and Marco Estrada (2/$26MM) are the biggest pitching deals the current front office has done.
It’s time for more. With Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez finally dealt away, there’s a mile-wide opening in the rotation. The Jays may like their long-term outlook for graduating pitching talent, but at present the returning unit would be anchored by Trent Thornton and Jacob Waguespack. The 2019 Jays relied upon Clayton Richard, Edwin Jackson, Clay Buchholz, and a smattering of other pitchers to get through the season.
Bringing back Matt Shoemaker and/or adding another bounceback candidate is well and good, but if this club is going to make strides it’ll need to spend — perhaps significantly — to bring in multiple quality arms. Avoiding overly lengthy and massive entanglements may still be wise, but the club ought to be willing to take some financial risk with a short-term, high-AAV deal (as in the John Lackey-Cubs signing) and/or mid-length, lower-AAV contract (e.g., the Twins’ deal with Phil Hughes) — depending upon what’s achievable on the market.
2. Deal Ken Giles
This runs somewhat counter to the above point, but the Jays aren’t in a position to point the bus down the road and slam the gas. They still need to meander around and make some additional finds before moving on down the road. Spending on some starters will boost the quality of the team significantly in the near-term and enhance the outlook for the next few seasons. Hanging onto Giles for his final season of arbitration eligibility would be a luxury.
The Jays almost certainly would’ve dealt Giles this summer had it not been for an ill-timed injury episode. He bounced back and finished strong, wrapping up the campaign with a 1.87 ERA and 14.1 K/9 vs. 2.9 BB/9 over 53 innings. That’s high-end relief output. With 23 saves also finding their way onto his ledger, Giles is going to command a pretty big raise on his $6.3MM salary, so he’s not cheap. But think about it from a contenders’ perspective: would you rather take a one-time, ~$10MM shot on a 29-year-old with elite stuff or risk as much or more annually over a multi-year term for one of the best-available free agents? There’s value here for Toronto to cash in and it’ll probably make sense to do so this winter.
3. Take Risks In The Relief Corps
Giles’s own year-to-year volatility is emblematic of a broader phenomenon that is by now well-recognized. It helps boost the reasoning behind dealing him. It also provides cause to believe that the Jays can dig up real talent on the relief corps by taking some shots.
This is hardly a new strategy. The Jays have used it themselves of late, inking veterans David Phelps and Daniel Hudson (since spun off via trade) and acquiring castoffs such as Derek Law, Ryan Dull, and Brock Stewart. So … suggesting this isn’t exactly earth-shattering. But it’s not the right approach for every team and every situation. It does seem to fit perfectly for the Jays. If they move Giles, as suggested above, the team will be left without a single relief pitcher who turned in a clearly productive 2019 season.
There’ll be plenty of internal hurlers who will and should get to compete for jobs in camp, but the Jays can legitimately offer free agents an opportunity to step right into prominent late-inning roles. Splashing some cash on short-term relievers isn’t going to hamstring the club in the long run. Waiver claims and minor-league signings offer other routes to bringing in talent. The Jays can fill out their group for the spring, then make late-camp changes as other clubs make their own tough calls. There’s no real need to focus on stability — something the club will be hoping to establish on the position-player side in 2020 — so much as to grab the most, best talent and let it all play out.
- Turning to strictly on-field matters across the American League, it seems Trent Thornton has pitched his way into the Blue Jays’ rotation plans for 2020, writes Kaitlyn McGrath of the Athletic. The rookie overcame a dreadful start to his MLB career to log a team-high 154.1 innings, working to a 4.84 ERA with pedestrian strikeout (22%) and walk (9%) rates. As McGrath notes, Thornton’s changeup has given him problems in the past and developing consistency with the offering will be among his offseason priorities. Thornton’s profile doesn’t scream future ace, but his durability and high-spin fastball and curveball make him a logical fit for a Toronto rotation that is lacking in certainty and rich in opportunity.
- Rookie fan favorite Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was scratched from today’s lineup with right knee soreness, tweets Ben Nicholson-Smith of sportsnet.ca. If Vlad Jr. misses both of the Blue Jays final games, he’ll finish his rookie season with a .272/.339/.433 line across 123 games while notching 15 home runs and 69 RBIs. His 105 wRC+ is not perhaps the world-breaking debut that many expected, but in effort and showmanship, Vlad Jr. more than held his own. His performance at the home run derby will go down as the defining moment of his rookie season, where he showed the national audience more than enough to justify the hype of the past few seasons.
The Blue Jays have selected the contract of right-hander Ryan Dull and recalled right-hander Yennsy Diaz for the final few games of the season, tweets Shi Davidi of Sportsnet. Dull and Diaz will give the Blue Jays some extra arms to serve as reinforcements for a bullpen that has thrown 27 innings across the past three games thanks to a 15-inning marathon Monday and a series of openers being utilized. In order to make room for Dull on the 40-man roster, the Jays put Lourdes Gurriel Jr. on the 60-day injured list. Gurriel underwent an appendectomy this week and wasn’t expected to return before Sunday’s season finale.
This marks the latest roster move for Dull in a roller coaster couple of months. The veteran righty has bounced from Oakland to San Francisco to New York to Toronto on waivers since the beginning of August and finally cleared waivers within the past week after he was designated by the Jays. Dull didn’t appear in the big leagues with Toronto before being designated for assignment and sent outright off the 40-man roster. He’ll now have a chance to suit up as a Blue Jay and log a few extra days of big league service to close out the year, though he’ll quite likely be removed from the 40-man roster once again when the season concludes.
Considering the bevy of rumors linking Marcus Stroman to the Yankees before July’s trade deadline, it wasn’t a surprise rebuilding Toronto sent the right-hander to New York during the summer. It was, however, unexpected that Stroman ended up with the Mets instead of the Yankees. It turns out the Yankees’ interest in Stroman – although real – wasn’t especially high, general manager Brian Cashman reveals to Yahoo Sports’ Wallace Matthews in a quality piece profiling the longtime executive.
“We were interested in Stroman but we didn’t think he would be a difference-maker,” Cashman said. “We felt he would be in our bullpen in the postseason.”
That’s an eyebrow-raising quote in regards to Stroman, who was plenty effective in the Yankees’ division – the American League East – from 2014-18. Despite Stroman’s successful track record, his remaining year and a half of affordable team control and the Yankees’ apparent need for starters, they held firm when the Jays “were demanding” outfielder Clint Frazier in a package for the hurler, Matthews reports. Frazier drew plenty of rumored interest from around the league before the deadline, at which point he was languishing in the minors, but he stayed put. While Frazier’s latest recall didn’t come until rosters expanded at the beginning of this month, he has picked up some starts of late as the Yankees’ outfield deals with injuries to Aaron Hicks and Mike Tauchman.
Whether the Yankees were right to seemingly prioritize Frazier over Stroman is up for debate. No matter which side you’re on there, it’s hard to have complete confidence in the AL East winners’ rotation – something they didn’t address at the deadline – as the playoffs approach. The Yankees just lost Domingo German for the season because of a domestic violence investigation (though Cashman obviously couldn’t have foreseen that), and CC Sabathia will end his illustrious career in the bullpen after a rough, injury-plagued regular season as a starter. Sabathia’s fellow aged lefty, J.A. Happ, has joined him in struggling for most of this year, but Happ has rounded back to form lately. Even better than Happ’s recent success? Ace Luis Severino just debuted last week after a season-long battle with injuries, and James Paxton has been on a roll since mid-August.
In the event the Yankees need four starters in a postseason series, Severino, Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka (who hasn’t been great in 2019) and Happ will present their four best traditional options. While there’s a strong case that Stroman’s preferable to at least one member of that quartet, the Yankees didn’t regard him as enough of an upgrade to surrender significant young talent for him over the summer.
- Blue Jays outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is out for the rest of the year with appendicitis, manager Charlie Montoyo told Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet and other reporters. While Gurriel struggled during a truncated second half (he just came back from a month-long absence because of a strained left quad), this will go down as an encouraging season for the 25-year-old. Gurriel slashed .277/.327/.541 line and swatted 20 homers in 343 PA, and he acquitted himself decently in his first experience as a major league outfielder (minus-2 Defensive Runs Saved, plus-0.3 Ultimate Zone Rating).
- Third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., yet another young Blue Jays building block, surprised over the weekend when he suggested via an interpreter he has never lifted weights. It turns out that isn’t the case, though. Guerrero clarified his prior remarks on Monday, telling Alexis Brudnicki of MLB.com and other media through an interpreter: “They wrote that I never lifted weights before. That sounds like ’before’ — never even in the Dominican, the States, with the team, and that wasn’t what I was saying. I was very clear, and I said that I never lifted weights in the offseason in Dominican Republic. I did a lot of other things, conditioning things, but weights at the gym, never did it before” (Sportsnet’s Arash Madani, whom Guerrero made his comments to last week, has the full transcript of their original conversation). Guerrero went on to state that he’ll add a weight program to his regimen this offseason in order to better prepare for the grind of a 162-game schedule. The 20-year-old has played in a professional-high 133 games between the majors and minors this season, including 120 with Toronto.