I’m just going to come out and say it. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins need to overhaul the Blue Jays’ lineup for 2017. This Blue Jays offense, while supposed to be the biggest strength of the club coming into the season, underperformed dramatically, particularly in the ALCS. While Dave Cameron of Fangraphs suggests the Blue Jays should rebuild their club, making way to evaluate what the Blue Jays have in their young prospects. I’ll argue another side, suggesting that the Blue Jays can retool to remain competitive.
With Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson all signed to big contracts and under control for next year, it’s clear that the front office will have to work around this core. Devon Travis, provided he stays healthy, will be the second baseman but, in my mind, the rest of the positions are up for grabs.I’ll preface this article by saying that I don’t usually speculate on possible trades, since there are endless permutations that one could get sucked into, nor will I suggest who the Blue Jays should chase in free agency.
My first move is to sign Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion’s high walk rates, big power and relatively low strikeout rate (although 2016 had him striking out at a considerably higher rate than over the past several years) make him a big piece of the puzzle for the Blue Jays going forward.
A re-signing of Edwin leaves us with needs at DH/1B and two corner outfield positions while, in my opinion, the Jays can look for some upgrades in center field. Now before you jump all over me saying that Kevin Pillar is the greatest thing since Devon White, I’m not slagging Pillar’s defense, but he gets almost all of his value from his glove. Pillar’s 2015 season had him hitting .278/.314/.399 with a 93 wRC+ (creating runs at a level that was 7% below the league average). Despite being a below-league-average offensive producer, he still managed to rack up 4.3 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs (or fWAR). This year, however, that fWAR dipped to 3.2 despite getting more value out of his defense, thanks to a wRC+ of 80, hitting .266/.303/.376. White’s lowest wRC+ in his five years as a Blue Jay was 93 (in 1992 and 1994) but he also had a season of a 119 and 109 wRC+ in there too. At his peak, White had seasons of 5.4, 5.9 and 6.4 fWAR. Do we see Kevin Pillar as having that kind of upside at this point?
Justin Smoak is another player who will be back (unless the Jays can trade him) and his salary isn’t huge but it’s significant and with two guaranteed years at $4.125 million each year, he could be hard to trade. He’s also a big strikeout guy who doesn’t help change the Blue Jays’ identity as big-swinging home-run hitters.
In the corners of the outfield, I expect Bautista to test the free agent market and the Blue Jays look to sign Saunders if he’s going to sign for reasonable salary. While Saunders demonstrated an increase in power (a career-high 24 home runs and .224 ISO), his defense is suspect and he struck out at a very high rate (28.1%). It is impossible to predict which Michael Saunders the club would be getting: the great, first-half player or the brutal August/September player. Saunders made $2.9 million this year, so his production is actually quite a good bargain, but the league has paid a premium for power so his home run total could entice a bidding war for a mid-level outfielder this offseason. The Jays have Melvin Upton, Jr. on the roster but he could even get released if the Jays don’t see themselves having a place for him (since the Jays are only on the hook for $5 million of his $16.45 million salary).
Who replaces these players? If we look internally, there isn’t much. My top candidate for the 1B/DH spot is Rowdy Tellez. Tellez had a phenomenal developmental year in Double-A this year, hitting 23 home runs and increasing his walk rate and lowering his strike rate, really showing an ability to take pitches where they’re thrown and not try to jump out of his shoes to hit home runs in a park that’s favourable to left-handed hitters. Another year in the minors certainly wouldn’t hurt Tellez but I would almost say that the Blue Jays could speed up the developmental curve for him without hurting him too much. As a left-handed hitter, Tellez would complement Encarnacion well (provided they re-sign him). If Edwin doesn’t come back, I would accept Joey Votto as a suitable substitute. Should that happen, I’m happy with Tellez in Buffalo and Smoak backing up, giving the club a right-handed hitting option at 1B/DH.
In center field, I would give Dalton Pompey another serious opportunity to reclaim at least a platoon spot. Pompey had a strong season in Buffalo and, when he’s himself, is an outstanding defensive center fielder and the club wouldn’t be losing too much there. Pompey had some rough periods, but he always maintained at least a .333 OBP for every month (despite a .217 batting average in August) and the upside of a .312/.365/.442 slash line for July offers hope for an improvement on his career big league stats and a possible slight improvement over Pillar with the bat.
This morning on Jeff Blair’s show, John Gibbons spoke of looking for balance in the lineup. I think that balance includes more left-handed hitters and more hitters with a more balanced profile. A guy that hits 20 home runs a year, gets on base at a .340 clip and doesn’t strike out as much, hitting balls into the gaps . . . in fact, a guy like Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, the White Sox’ Adam Eaton, or even a guy like the Giants’ Angel Pagan.
Again, I’m not going to get into too much speculation, but if the Jays can find some more well balanced hitters, there’s a big possibility that they can retool their lineup and still take advantage of Josh Donaldson in his prime while Tulo and Martin begin their inevitable declines. In fact, I don’t entirely disagree with Dave Cameron’s hypothesis (if you still haven’t read Cameron’s article, do it now) of completely rebuilding and getting drastically younger. Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki’s value is likely not going to get higher than it is now. Marco Estrada has a ton of value, which was only bolstered by his ability to pitch well under the big spotlight over the past two years. The only issue that I have with his plan is that it’s tough to know if the young position players coming through the system are going to be able to produce at the major league level, and the ones who probably will be able to have a real impact are likely three to four years away.
What would you like to see the Jays do this offseason? Who would you like to see on the club?
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