When this winter began, questions regarding the impending offseason for the Toronto Blue Jays were as numerous as they were diverse. What’s going to happen to Edwin and Jose? Is the front office going to take a step back? How much money is there to work with? Are the Jays willing to trade young assets or surrender draft picks to improve the team in the near term? What about the bullpen? The outfield? What’s with Justin Smoak? Is there a clear path to being competitive given how good the Red Sox are? Etc.
The widespread nature of the opinions and inquiries surrounding the Toronto Blue Jays was simply a testament to how complicated the team’s position was. They were coming off back to back ALCS appearances but were hemorrhaging a host of good to great players in free agency. This combined with a depleted farm system and a new management group plus a talented, but flawed, on field collection of players kept fans unsure of what the logical path was going forward. Everybody had guesses and opinions as to what was coming. I summarized mine in Part 1 of this piece written back in November: The Jays will almost certainly try to have their cake and eat it too. Translation: they’re going to use their payroll flexibility and existing talent core to try and stay competitive over the next three years by bringing in good players on short term deals through free agency or trade. Meanwhile, they’ll be building the farm system in the background so that they can field a very good, young team by the end of the decade when the big contracts expire. This strategy would maximize their competitive window, it would keep the fan base excited in the near term, and it would ensure that Shapiro and Atkins have a good chance of building something special of their own in the not so distant future.
Well it looks like that prediction was somewhat accurate (shameless self plug withstanding). At the cost of only cash plus one sandwich pick from this year’s draft, the Jays brought in Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, J.P. Howell, and Jose (Thank God He’s Back) Bautista. None of these players signed for more than 3 years. In doing so, they filled vacant spots at DH and in right field, they improved their bullpen, and they greatly enhanced their first base picture by supplementing Justin Smoak with Pearce’s lefty smashing bat. All in all, that ain’t bad, especially considering how terrible this offseason has felt. The long periods of inactivity and failure to secure targeted players have made this whole winter feel unpleasant for Jays fans. However, if you analyze each move individually and objectively, there is reason to be pleased.
The most criticised move was the early November signing of Kendrys Morales. Many have argued, including Jonah Keri in a piece at CBS Sports, that Morales doesn’t offer a lot. His major lack of speed and defensive value combined with a bat that only put up a 110 wRC+ in 2016 makes one wonder how much he’ll really be able to contribute. While these points are logical, I prefer (yeah maybe because I’m biased) to feel good about some of the more positive signs. According to a post in Fangraphs by Tony Blengino, Morales’ adjusted production of 150, which is like wRC+ but includes batted ball data like exit velocities and launch angles, was ranked second best in 2016 among AL DHs to the now retired Davis Ortiz. He scalds the ball. Additionally, he spent most of his career in pitcher’s parks, including last year when he played in Kauffman stadium and still hit 30 bombs. There’s reason to be optimistic that his power will play up big time while playing half of his games at Roger’s Centre and another 30ish games at hitter friendly Fenway Park, Yankees Stadium, and Camden Yards. Plus, as a switch hitter, he offers a valuable break in the line of righties that compose the meat of the Jays lineup. There has been lots of legitimate criticism against the Jays front office for coming out strong and signing Morales to a 3 year/$33 million deal considering how much the market cratered for old, one dimensional sluggers. This criticism was intensified heavily by the Edwin saga, but hey, what’s done is done and Morales could very well be a nice addition.
As for the Steve Pearce signing, there’s not much to dislike given his positional versatility and strong bat. He SMASHED left handed pitching last year and was no slouch against righties (176 and 118 wRC+, respectively). Some people seem to project his usage a little bullishly given his injury history (no more than 102 games played in a season in his career) but that was obviously factored into his contract. He’s only being paid to be worth around 1.5 wins above replacement over the next 2 seasons. Given that he’s still rehabbing from a tendon injury in his throwing arm from last season, just keeping him at first and allowing him to play in place of the underwhelming Justin Smoak is probably the best way to use him.
As for Bautista, already much ink has been spilled about his return. So to sum it up…he’s good! He was easily the best option for the team even leaving aside the connection he has to the franchise. But he does have a pretty damn strong connection to the franchise! Much of the discourse around the left behind sluggers has had Bautista wrongly lumped in with pure home run hitters who strike out a ton and don’t walk. He easily had the highest upside of any of the remaining options and his return makes the Jays look much better from an offensive standpoint. Just take last years’ stats. If you project those numbers over 150 games, you’re looking at nearly 30 home runs with a .366 OBP and 122 wRC+. That’s great production and it doesn’t even account for the fact that Jose was playing hurt with lower half injuries for much of the year. Projection systems seem to agree that he’s due for a bounce back as Steamer has him being worth 2.6 WAR with a 130 wRC+ this season. It was a good signing.
Despite these facts, many fans will continue to think of Jose as an unfortunate consolation prize after missing out on their real target of the offseason, Edwin Encarnacion. It’s easy to see how one may feel this way given the chronology of the offseason and how crazy the Edwin contract drama ended up being. His leaving felt like a real gut punch to the city and for good reason. He went to a small market team for less than the Jays offered him…the same team that sent the Jays home in the ALCS. However, as Dave Cameron of Fangraphs argues, this might not be such a bad thing. If Edwin had taken the Jays 4 year/$80M offer and the Jays had nabbed him instead of Bautista this winter, they would have presumably then spent the money that they gave to Morales on an outfielder. For 3 years and around $33M, they likely wouldn’t have got a great player based on what outfielders have been getting paid in free agency. For example, Josh Reddick signed for over $50M on a 4 year deal. Therefore, the choice is really whether you’d rather have Bautista and Morales, or Edwin and some OKish outfielder. Well, in 2017 both options are projected to provide similar production for the same price, but the Bautista option doesn’t entail the long-term risk that the Edwin deal would have (1yr vs 4yr commitment to an old slugger). So, by that logic, Edwin’s rejection of the Blue Jays offer wasn’t so bad after all.
Lastly, the Jays signed left handed reliever J.P. Howell to a nice little 1 year/$3 million deal. Howell has had a very solid career as he’s posted a 3.79 ERA since his debut with Kansas City in 2005. This past year his numbers weren’t all that appealing as opponents slashed .277/.338/.392 against him. LHH really got to him, slashing .299/.340/.412. However, in the 3 years prior, he shut down left handed hitters, holding them to a crazy .491 OPS. In that time, his overall ERA was 2.03, facing similar numbers of both LHH and RHH. So why the drop off from elite to not good in 2016? It seemed to be mostly bad luck. His K/9, BB/9, and groundball % stayed remarkably consistent over the past 4 years. His xFIP never left the range between 3.48 and 3.59 in that span. What really jumped out in 2016 was the .370 BABIP he allowed against LHH because it never rose above .300 in the three years prior. Additionally, his HR/FB ratio rose and his strand rate dipped compared to previous years, culminating in a 4.09 ERA in 2016. Therefore, this soft tossing lefty is the textbook definition of a bounce back candidate. If he can produce anywhere close to his pre-2016 numbers, this will be a total steal for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins.
Oh, and we can’t forget about Salty (Jarrod Saltalamacchia), whom the Jays got on a minor league deal. He brings lots of experience along with some pop against right handed pitching. He should be a suitable backup to Martin.
This offseason has felt, at times, hopeless and demoralizing for many fans of the Toronto Blue Jays. Failing to get deals done with Edwin Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler followed by a month and a half of total silence from the front office left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, including the fans that are usually even-keeled and trusting of management. However, the late and surprising signing of a franchise icon, the addition of a slugger who smashes the ball like few others, the signing of a real MLB caliber left handed relief pitcher, and the clever pickup of an underrated and versatile offensive weapon have, when taken together, made the offseason defensible and even…dare I say…. pretty good. For it to be really good, more work must be done, but if there’s anything we’ve learned this winter it’s that having a little patience may pay off in the end.