In an offseason where Chris Davis has dominated much of the speculation within the free agent market and Freddie Freeman — at least for some time — stood as a very surprising trade candidate, a number of general managers sit puzzled with exactly how they’re going to fill their club’s hole at first base. It’s no surprise that this is the case; first base production has declined over the past few years and so has power. Teams are finding better ways to produce runs than via the long ball and pitchers are as elite as ever, which has emphasized a long-standing belief that maybe defensive-first one-baggers are the new way to roll.
Whether or not that’s the case, many teams are still without a viable option at first base or a slugger in their lineup, and most of them would prefer to avoid spending $140 million on Davis at all costs. And even if Freeman were available, it’s tough picturing the type of trade package the Atlanta Braves would demand for what many would consider to be their franchise player. That leaves the market with just a few alternatives. With the Rule 5 Draft approaching, Balbino Fuenmayor‘s name has surfaced as a potentially special and rare talent eligible for the taking, and Tyler Goeddel might be able to handle duties at first base for, say, the Colorado Rockies or Oakland A’s or another team that could use that kind of supplement. Daniel Murphy also has experience at first, and Justin Morneau stands as a less-intriguing albeit cheap option and hits from the left side. And Hanley Ramirez, baseball’s most disappointing player in 2015 (by a large margin), has been made available.
Ordinarily, the status quo would present a scenario in which a contending club with some offense to spare might realize that trading a player whose skill-set is in demand and has a year left on his contract might net them something pretty valuable in return. And that’s why I think the Toronto Blue Jays would be silly not to consider at least dangling Edwin Encarnacion to a degree, with the intention of listening wholeheartedly to offers. It’s a stretch, and Toronto is in buy-now/win-now mode, but with what Encarnacion will demand on next-year’s market — also one with less-than-stellar options at first base — and with no guarantee that Toronto wishes to lock Encarnacion up, it could be interesting for the north-of-the-borderers to explore this possibility.
Toronto led the major leagues in 2015 in just about every offensive category: home runs and RBIs, but more reliably, wOBA, wRC+, and offensive runs above average. Those last three are considerably more advanced measures of cutting out the loose ends attached to offensive performance (i.e., ground balls that might squeeze through the hole for a hit) and focusing entirely on only what players can control. So, from a team standpoint, the Blue Jays far and away dominated the league offensively and only improved throughout the year. By acquiring Troy Tulowitzki and employing Chris Colabello in the lineup mid-season (although Colabello became a regular in late-May), Toronto had even more reinforcements available. And once Colabello began playing some first base in the wake of Encarnacion’s DH stint, it became clear that Colabello — along with Justin Smoak — was no stranger to the position.
The offseason is really only just under way, but the Jays haven’t been asleep by any means. Jesse Chavez and J.A. Happ have both become 2016 Blue Jays starting pitchers over the course of the past few weeks, and Marco Estrada is back in town. These pitching moves, to say nothing of further additions, really only suggest that Toronto’s placing a further emphasis on pitching depth in 2016, something they lacked in the early months of 2015. In taking pressure off of an already-strong offense — one that willll feature a full year of Ben Revere and Tulowitzki in 2016, a healthy Devon Travis and Michael Saunders, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player, Russell Martin, and some guy named Jose Bautista — Encarnacion and his modest $10 million free-agent-year salary would benefit another club perhaps a lot more than his current one and would likely net the Blue Jays something very attractive.
The St. Louis Cardinals glaringly appear to be the club most pressed to add a power bat to the mix, particularly one that can play some first base too. The Texas Rangers, Rockies, Seattle Mariners, A’s, Baltimore Orioles, and perhaps San Diego Padres and Houston Astros could all be fits for somebody like Encarnacion, and for that matter might just as well be in the market for a first baseman as well, or at least an upgrade over their current one-bagger. There’s no reason to expect that an acquiring club would deal anything crazy for Encarnacion, but with what players return to their clubs at the July deadline, for instance, its easy to imagine Encarnacion’s stock currently standing high enough to send some pretty valuable pieces north of the border. Without playing too irresponsible a role, it wouldn’t be crazy to envision some sort of Luke Weaver, Charlie Tilson, and Austin Gomber package getting dealt to Toronto from St. Louis for the slugger. That would give the Blue Jays the option of either keeping the prospects and rebuilding the system or using them to acquire whatever else they’d like to secure before spring training begins.
There hasn’t been any talk or indication that the Blue Jays would explore such a possibility, but they should. At the very worst, a Smoak-Colabello platoon would trump the first-base production of about half of the MLB teams and would net something pretty shiny for a club that’ll likely see their commodity walk following next season’s conclusion. On the other hand, Toronto could keep Encarnacion and send Colabello or Smoak elsewhere, but Encarnacion’s value is too high for such a scenario to be plausible.