After a second consecutive losing trip to the American League Championship Series, the Blue Jays have an abundance of questions that need to be answered before Opening Day. With their most productive hitters — Michael Saunders, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jose Bautista — on the free agent market, there are gaping holes in their lineup and in their outfield. With Brett Cecil leaving, they are in need of a left-handed reliever as well as two or three lockdown relievers and a backup catcher. The Winter Meetings could prove to be a very busy time for Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro.
Replacing the production of Bautista and Encarnacion will be a tough challenge, and they have already made moves to offset that with the Kendrys Morales signing. The free agent options are going to be pricey, but for the Jays to maintain and add to their prospect pool, the only way should be through free agency. As they showed at the trade deadline with the Francisco Liriano and Melvin Upton Jr. trades, they are more comfortable in taking on expensive contracts for cheaper prospects than trading prospects for controllable players.
The biggest holes currently are in their outfield; with Saunders and Bautista being free agents, their only options in the outfield currently are Kevin Pillar, Ezequiel Carrera, Dalton Pompey (who spent most of 2016 in Triple-A), and Anthony Alford, who is still a few years away from being an impact player in the major leagues. They need to add to that depth and need to find the most compatible player to their team style. There are options available in the free agent market and trades.
1) Jay Bruce – NYM- LF/RF
Bruce, a former first-round draft pick, has had a decent major-league career, spending the majority of his career in Cincinnati and showing above average power throughout his time. He has been a career .248 hitter and has hit more than 25 home runs six times in his career. He has provided a solid bat throughout his career and has driven in more than 80 runs in five of his last six seasons. With the re-signing of Yoenis Cespedes, the New York Mets will try and unload Bruce and his contract this offseason. The Jays could be a good fit due to them playing at Rogers Centre, which would benefit him and possibly inflate his power numbers. Another reason for the fit is that Bruce is in the last year of his contract and is owed $13 million this season, and if the Jays could take on the entirety of the contract, they could get him for an underwhelming package of prospects. He has an above-average wOBA and wRC+ and could provide the Blue Jays with more production that is being vacated by Bautista and Encarnacion. His one-year contract could be the exact amount of time needed to bridge the gap to Pompey and Alford, who could use the time in the minors to further develop.
The negatives to Bruce are his declining defensive ability, which could make him a liability in the outfield, and his high strikeout rate and low walk rate that would affect his on-base percentage. After being traded from the Reds to the Mets, his contact rate dropped from 78% to 73% and his swing rate increased from 50% to 55%, which is very high in relation to the league averages. His K% is still a little lower than Saunders, who set a Blue Jays franchise record for strikeouts in a season. His weighted Runs Above Average (wRAA) was good at 10.5% and could increase even more at Rogers Centre.
2. Carlos Gomez – Texas Rangers- CF/LF/RF
After a terrible start to his 2016 with the Houston Astros where his wRC+ was 60 and his slugging at a lowly .322, the Astros shipped him off to the Rangers. With the Rangers, he started to slowly pick up steam and raised those numbers drastically, almost double. His slugging shot up to .529 and his wRC+ elevated all the way up to 138. He has had a solid career with good slash lines and a good power-speed combination while playing above-average defense. With the Brewers, his batting average was .272 with 66 home runs over his last three seasons with them. His K% is high and his BB% is low, which could be a problem, but he has been an above-average and productive major leaguer throughout his career. His stat line with the Astros should be perceived as an outlier and a down year and not what his usual production is. In his 25 games with the Rangers, Gomez started showing glimpses of his old self and hit eight home runs during that period.
Gomez’s numbers will be better in 2017, and the Jays could evaluate him as a good comeback candidate that they might be able to get on the cheap. Rogers Centre would further increase his production and play his power up. His speed and defense are also good reasons for them to look at Gomez, as he has stolen 146 bases over his last five years and speed has been lacking on the current Jays roster. His defensive metrics show him as an above-average defender who has produced a positive Ultimate Zone Rating throughout his career. He would be an improvement in left field over Saunders, who had a -15.3 defensive rating in 2016 while Gomez had a positive 5.1 rating. If the Jays can somehow get the Rangers to agree on a trade where they would eat majority of the salary, then Gomez could be a good addition to their roster in 2017.
3. Dexter Fowler – Free Agent – OF
After being a late offseason signing for the Chicago Cubs, Fowler increased his value in 2016 by producing a year where he slashed .276/.393/.447 with 13 home runs, 13 stolen bases, scoring 84 runs, and driving in 48. His speed and switch-hitting definitely excite the Jays and make him a prime target for them. He is bound to be expensive, and Spotrac has his market value being $17,768,227, which could be out of the Blue Jays price range. However, if they do not want to dip into their prospect pool to find everyday productive outfielders, the best way might be for them to spend some money to plug in the holes. He has produced a 121 wRC+ which is well above average by 21 points. His WAR in 2016 was 4.7; however, according to Streamer projections, they see it declining to 2.1. His walk rate is 13.2% and strikeout rate is 22.3%, which shows that even though he does strike out a little too often, he still gets his walks in and produces an above average OBP. His wOBA has also been above average throughout his career, and it proves his value as a productive outfielder and major-league hitter who could benefit the team that signs him.
Fowler’s cost could almost be too high for his production, but in an inflated market, that could be the best price to get him. The Jays have a lot of holes to fill, and it might not be wise to spend a lot of their payroll on one player instead of spreading the wealth and acquiring what they need, like they did last season with the Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ signings, which provided incredible value. It really depends on how much ownership has allowed them to spend, and how they think they can plug their other holes with the other market values and demands.
4. Nori Aoki – Possible Non-Tender Candidate – LF
Aoki, who could be a strong non-tender candidate after the Astros invested in Josh Reddick, has been a solid major leaguer throughout his career and could be a good target for the Blue Jays if he gets non-tendered. He has produced strong contact skills and does not strike out much at all. He has a 9.6 K% with 7.3 BB%, which shows he almost walks as much as he strikes out and makes regular contact. He has had past seasons of 30, 20, 17, and 14 stolen bases, which shows he is a threat to run and can provide above-average speed. Aoki’s career slash line of .286/.353/.387 shows him as a strong on-base presence with limited home run power but still an extra-base threat. He could be a cheap option to put in left field and would provide solid but not extraordinary numbers.
Aoki also provides a left-handed bat, which the Jays so badly need. He does not play above average defense but is solid enough to not be a big liability in the field. He posted a wRC+ of 106 last season, which categorizes him as above average, and his career wRC+ is 106 as well, which further proves he is a reliable, if not slightly above-average major leaguer. If he does not stray from his career norms, then he could prove to be an under-the-radar, affordable signing by the Blue Jays to plug one of their outfield posts. This could even free up more money that they could use elsewhere to better their team.
5. Ian Desmond – Free Agent – OF/IF
After not signing until the end of the offseason and settling for a one-year deal due to the draft pick being attached to him, Desmond defied all critics and put up an All-Star season with the Rangers manning the outfield. Being a full-time middle infielder, the Rangers asked Desmond to play the outfield and he did not balk at the order, but instead provided average and solid defense. While learning to play a new position, he still managed to slash .285/.335/.446 with 22 home runs, 107 runs scored, 86 RBIs, and 21 stolen bases. He is projected to regress from those standout numbers but should still be an above average addition to any team.
Desmond’s price could be too high for the Blue Jays, as Spotrac projects his market value to be $16,579,419 after taking a one-year discount last season. He has proved his value and will probably get paid heavily. He has a career wRC+ of 101 and in 2016 had a wRC+ of 106, which makes him above average. His wOBA was .336, which is well regarded. His WAR last season was 3.3, which adds to his impressive statistics and furthers his case for a big contract. Although he is another right-handed bat in an almost completely right-handed lineup, he could still provide value and versatility, with his power, speed, extra-base hit power, and strong arm. He can also play most of the outfield as well as second base or shortstop to give one of the regulars a day off. He could be an intriguing option for the Blue Jays, but only at the right price.
The Blue Jays need to get moving, and the Winter Meetings will further show which direction they are going to head in, whether it be spending money in free agency or trying to find a bargain deal through trades. Outfielders on the market are quickly decreasing, and they need to act fast to keep the winning culture alive in Canada. There are a lot of holes to fill and their first move would provide understanding on how much money they have to play with and what their strategy will be.