Entering last season, expectations for the Toronto Blue Jays were high, despite the losses of slugger Edwin Encarnacion and relief pitcher Brett Cecil. However, the Blue Jays were unable to deliver on experts’ predictions of a playoff finish, ending the 2017 season with a .469 record, nine games back of the final wildcard spot in the American League.
Missing the playoffs after consecutive trips to the American League Championships Series has left fans pondering a dangerous question: has the Blue Jays’ World Series window slammed shut? If so, then a rebuild would be on the cards, and a difficult one at that. Toronto boasts one of the oldest rosters in the MLB, and they are burdened by the untradeable contracts of veterans Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin, both earning $20 million for each of the next two seasons. The future is bright with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette on the way, but they still find themselves playing High-A ball in Dunedin.
With the notion of a rebuild out of the question, how can the Jays squeeze out another shot at the playoffs? Let’s consider the team’s options this offseason.
The addition of an infielder
The Jays boasted a middle infield comprised of Ryan Goins, Tulowitzki, and the oft-injured Devon Travis last season. A healthy Travis started at second, with Tulowitzki at shortstop, and Goins deputizing both positions.
Injuries to Travis, Tulowitzki, and Josh Donaldson exposed the lack of depth in the infield and resulted in Toronto playing some combination of Darwin Barney, Chris Coghlan, Rob Refsnyder, and Goins — none of whom are with the club today — alongside Justin Smoak. This leaves Richard Urena and Gift Ngoepe as the Jays’ only depth at middle infield, making a utility infielder a top priority.
Eduardo Núñez is one such utility infielder. Valued at almost $12 million, he can play virtually anywhere in the field should a starting player go down with an injury. Batting .313/.341/.460 with 12 home runs, 58 runs batted in, and 24 stolen bases last season with the San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox, Núñez would bring some speed to an aged squad.
Speaking of speed, Dee Gordon may find himself leaving Miami soon, as new Marlins CEO Derek Jeter attempts to lower the club’s salary. A left-handed batter with a high on-base percentage makes Gordon the ideal leadoff man. He even snagged 60 bases last season, making him an attractive trade option for the Jays. Gordon would take over at second full-time, benching Travis, and making Goins the backup shortstop, creating depth by pushing the incumbent starters down the chart.
Depth at starting pitcher
The Jays’ rotation currently features Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez, and JA Happ, leaving a vacant starter slot. Toronto have rightly expressed interest in Jake Arrieta, one of the top pitchers on the market and a World Series winner with the Chicago Cubs. With a Cy Young Award and two no-hitters to his name, Arrieta’s proven track record makes him a tantalising option for the Jays. The downside? Arrieta would command almost $27 million per year on a long-term contract.
The most interesting option is dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, who is free to be signed on a minor league contract. Unproven against MLB opposition, he is considered a promising starter with a good bat. The one caveat to signing Ohtani is that all teams in MLB have a shot at signing him, so the Jays need a contingency plan should they fail. Toronto should take a run at him, but they will show reluctance to play him in the field if they succeed, as they’ve shown reluctance to push young players, such as Sanchez, too hard for fear of injuries.
Expect Toronto to pick up a few low-cost starters to improve pitching depth. Don’t rule out a return for Brett Anderson.
Not splurging on sluggers
The loss of Jose Bautista has left the Jays short of a slugger in right field. With big-money power threats JD Martinez and Jay Bruce hitting free agency, it can be tempting for a club to spend big on a long-term deal for either, but they shouldn’t. If Toronto is serious about reaching the World Series in 2018, they need more than just Martinez or Bruce — they’d need to improve the infield depth and the pitching rotation to stand a chance against teams like Houston. Such moves would prove costly in the long term, as the Jays would be stuck with the hefty contracts of Martin, Tulowitzki, and any free agent acquisitions.
Instead, the team should place their faith in Teoscar Hernández, who showed some pop during a September call-up, to spare themselves the stress of carrying several overpaid veterans in the future.
Verdict: the Jays will express caution, making deals to improve depth and hope that last season’s misfortunes were but a blip. This team is good enough to turn things around on their own, and should get back to winning ways with minimal alterations.