Now that the 2017 season is fading in the rear-view mirror, what will the 2018 Blue Jays look like on March 29?
Not gonna lie, 2017 was a rough year for the Toronto Blue Jays. Really rough. Rough enough that the average person can only remember 58% of players who make an appearance for the team this season. It did not go according to plan.
So clearly a new plan is in order, but the 2018 version of Blue Jays is going to look a lot like the 2017 version, unless the front office finds a magic mirror that leads to a dimension where Troy Tulowitzki‘s contract can be stashed. Despite the appearance of gloom and doom, there are still moves that can be made to get this team ready to open the season with that four-game series against the ascendant Yankees in March.
But what moves should this team make? If this writer was in the boardroom with Atkins, Shapiro et al, here’s the plan that would be laid out before them for the Opening Day roster:
CATCHER (2): RUSSELL MARTIN, LUKE MAILE
Baring a shocking trade, Russell Martin is still going to be entrenched as the starter in Toronto until his contract expires.
That’s fine though! Martin is still contributing. Even as the 34 year old’s offensive WAR slipped to the lowest rating of his career (1.5, according to Baseball Reference), his defense has remained consistent (0.6, double 2016’s 0.3 dWAR), even improving with the introduction of his ability to play third on a regular basis. That’s flexibility that only a handful of other teams can boast.
As for the backup slot, it’s Luke Maile’s to lose. With Martin’s $20M contract, there was never going to be the luxury to spend on a backup. However, a healthy Maile can provide stable defense and a cannon arm. He was the only Blue Jays catcher above the league average in runners caught stealing, nailing 35% (9/26) of his targets. The offense was even coming around, with the 26 year old batting .226 in September after returning from a torn meniscus. At a pre-arbitration pricetag, that’ll play just fine, especially from a team accustomed to Josh Thole-levels of production.
INFIELD (6): JUSTIN SMOAK, DEVON TRAVIS, TROY TULOWITZKI, JOSH DONALDSON, EDUARDO NUNEZ, STEVE PEARCE
Everyone knows what Justin Smoak and Josh Donaldson bring and how valuable they are, so let me just say without hesitation that Donaldson will not be traded. A team that wants to win in 2018 will not do so with a pile of BoR umbrellas manning third base. Donaldson will be staying. Smoak as well, at least to start the season.
However, the issue of the middle infield’s failing health is near the top of the board room’s priority list. Devon Travis and Tulowitzki combined to play a mere 116 of a possible 324 games (35.8%) last season. When your shortstop and second baseman’s availability is less bankable than the average NBA three-pointer, there is a problem, and not just with the cross-sports reference.
When we talked about aspects that we wanted from current playoff teams on the first-ever JftC Live and Interactive show, I said I wanted a super-utility player, akin to a Marwin Gonzalez or Ben Zobrist. Eduardo Nunez fits that bill to a tee. The 30 year old has experience at five different positions on the field, including extensive experience at the non-first base infield positions.
More importantly, Nunez brings speed and contact hitting, two things sorely lacking from the 2017 Blue Jays. His .282 career batting average is better than every Blue Jays regular’s average from last season not named Ezequiel Carrera (who he ties), and the 24 stolen bases last season top any individual Blue Jay in the last two seasons (and Kevin Pillar‘s 25 in 2015 kept it from being last three seasons). The main knock against Nunez is that he too is injury-prone, but barring a trade for Dee Gordon, which would gut the wave of young talent the front office is trying to build, Nunez is the best fit for the Blue Jays. MLBTR agreed in its Top-50 Free Agents list, awarding him to the Blue Jays for two years at $7M per yer. Sounds great.
Steve Pearce is relegated to occasional first base duties and lefty-bat-off-bench situations. He’s a likely candidate to be traded, but if he stays, as projected here, he still has a role.
Both last year’s nominal infield starters are cut loose as Darwin Barney is a free agent that’s very unlikely to return and folk hero Ryan Goins has never been palatable as a part-time infielder, batting under .200 in each of the two seasons he was on the roster but played under 100 games. He’ll look for a starting job elsewhere (probably San Diego).
OUTFIELDERS (4): KEVIN PILLAR, TEOSCAR HERNANDEZ, LORENZO CAIN, EZEQUIEL CARRERA
With Jose Bautista‘s salary coming off the books, along with some other deferred salary contracts (Melvin Upton Jr. world champion Francisco Liriano), the Blue Jays have the finances to land a big fish. On JftC Radio back in September, I made the case for Lorenzo Cain to become the second chance for Toronto to get the speedy outfielder they were so thirsty for last off-season. I still believe it. Cain is a year older than prior target Dexter Fowler, but he also has a World Series ring, hits for contact (.300+ average three of the last four seasons) and can steal bases (25+ in three of the last four seasons).
Even as the speed starts to erode, Cain can serve as a perfect mentor for the likes of Dalton Pompey, Anthony Alford and Dwight Smith Jr. when one of them is called up to replace Carrera during this season and in future seasons. Blue Jays fans remember what Cain did to the team in the 2015 ALCS. That player is still very much there, and now he’s there for the taking.
Teoscar Hernandez earned the chance to start in right field with his slammin’ September (eight HRs in 26 games). He’ll face tougher pitchers at the beginning of the season, but he has the tools to succeed. Plus, the front office was willing to take on the contract of Nori Aoki just to pry him off the Astros. They aren’t doing that to sit him on the bench behind some lumbering left-handed bat who will be no more than a DH in one season. Kevin Pillar and Cain can be deployed in left or center, depending on rest and injuries, and not lose anything defensively. This is a more dynamic outfield and a better defensive outfield than the one with Jose Bautista and Pearce in it.
DESIGNATED HITTER (1): KENDRYS MORALES
Despite some other sites’ best wishes, it doesn’t look like Kendrys Morales is going anywhere. That $11M price tag that look like a bargain last off-season is now growing into an albatross. I don’t know if there is a trade partner out there for Morales. Perhaps the Twins could be persuaded they need a power bat to prevent the likes of Robbie Grossman getting DH starts. Honestly though, Morales is likely the starting DH next March.
STARTING ROTATION (5): MARCUS STROMAN, AARON SANCHEZ, J.A. HAPP, MARCO ESTRADA, TYLER CHATWOOD
Not much work to do on the rotation with four of the five names already known. Aaron Sanchez will have to prove he is healthy enough to pitch starter’s innings again, but he’s going to be angry and have a lot to prove with the way his 2017 went down the tubes. If he’s back, that gives the Blue Jays four excellent starters with Gold Glover Marcus Stroman, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada, but much of the clamoring is for that fifth spot that was so troublesome last season. Some fans dream of Yu Darvish filling the rotation, while others look to the more affordable Alex Cobb. Allow me to present a different option.
Tyler Chatwood was the forgotten man in the Rockies rotation last season. He didn’t have the numbers that rookies Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela put up, and he was bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the starting five. His 6.05 ERA at Coors Field was atrocious and contributed to his 4.69 overall ERA and National League-topping 15 losses. Doesn’t sound like the kind of pitcher a team should throw money at.
However, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello breaks down in an excellent piece, Chatwood’s road splits are miles ahead of his home splits (2.57 road ERA in the last two seasons), his fastball is back around 95mph, another season under his belt means he could use his curveball more effectively as a weapon in 2018, and, perhaps most importantly, he is another ground-ball machine. Chatwood’s five pitches (4-seam, sinker, slider, curve and change) are designed to induce grounders. He ranked 11th in MLB for ground balls coerced last season at just under 55% (Stroman was second with 63%).
MLBTR had Chatwood heading to the Phillies for three years at $20M, but other teams are calling. River Ave Blues’s Dominic Lanza made a similar case for him to join the Yankees, potentially at $30M. I think he’s worth at least a $24M investment, especially considering he’s only 27 years old. He is a double-Tommy John survivor, but that is less of an issue in this modern world, and he still has room to grow. He’s a perfect addition to this rotation at a more cost-effective price than Cobb.
BULLPEN (7): ROBERTO OSUNA, RYAN TEPERA, DANNY BARNES, DOMINIC LEONE, CARLOS RAMIREZ, MATT DERMODY, KEVIN SIEGRIST
Now you, the eagle-eyed reader, will notice Joe Biagini‘s name is missing from that list. That’s because with one more year of options under his belt and the front-office seemingly committed to Starter Biagini, I project him starting the season in Buffalo as the #6 starter, ahead of #7 Ryan Borucki and #8 Chris Rowley. He’ll get a chance to stretch himself out without being thrown to the lions as he was last season. If he succeeds, he’ll be back with the Blue Jays throwing starter’s innings. If not, he’ll be back in 2019 as a reliever, and that’s fine.
Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes and Dominic Leone are locks. Carlos Ramirez and his 0.524 WHIP should get a long look to start in the bullpen this upcoming year, as he aims to prove last season’s succession of goose eggs was no fluke. Aaron Loup is likely to be replaced. The Louisiana native was given all the time in the world to prove he could be the lefty successor to Brett Cecil and the Wolfman didn’t do it. Too many times Loup would appear in a game and exit with a zero in the innings pitched column. He was used primarily in mop-up duty in September, with four of his last six outings coming before the end of the fifth inning. Loup will likely be declined arbitration by the Blue Jays.
Instead Dermody, who pulled a reverse-Samson and improved after cutting off his glorious hair, should get the first shot. Dermody moved into the LOOGY role in September, and did well, allowing only two earned runs in 16 appearances. Tim Mayza can be the backup in Buffalo and come up if there is injury, but there could be another option.
Given the success I had predicting the emergence of Leone as a key cog in the bullpen, I’m going to try my luck again this season. The target is another reclamation project. In 2015, lefty Kevin Siegrist pitched in a NL-high 81 games for the St. Louis Cardinals, tossing 74.2 innings with a 2.17 ERA. 2016 he pitched to a similar effect with a 2.77 ERA, his 1.10 WHIP actually lower than his 2015 rate. However, the wheels came off in 2017. His 4.81 ERA in 46 appearances resulting in being waived in September. He joined the Phillies, a fate not wished on anyone, and gave up two runs in five innings and was not given a contract for this season.
Siegrist is the perfect buy-low bullpen option for the Blue Jays. He’s still young (28), he fills the absence of lefties released in the off-season, and as an added bonus, he is a Buffalo native. So a chance to pitch for the hometown Bisons if he fails to make the team might be attractive. It’s likely Biagini could be the seventh in the bullpen and serve as the long-man. However, if Siegrist can work his circle change and curveball in to off-set his 92mph fastball, if he can find that form from 2015, similar to Leone, he could fill that 2017 lefty bullpen role as well.
But hey, these are just ideas. I’m sure you have your own. Who do you want to see coming north? Fire away in the comments below!
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