Five days after the Toronto Blue Jays were bounced from the ALCS for the second straight season, general manager Ross Atkins sat at a podium at the Rogers Centre to address the media. Rather than a post-mortem on the season that was, the discussion focussed on the pending offseason and what the front office perceives its needs to be in order to extend the window of opportunity afforded by a young, dynamic starting rotation and a core centered around Josh Donaldson.
Chief among the questions posed by media was where the team stood with regards to their pending free agents, most notably Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. As one would expect, Atkins confirmed the team would extend each a qualifying offer and would try to take advantage of the team’s exclusive negotiating opportunity for the five days following the World Series to discuss contracts with both players.
This is, of course, what many fans want to hear. Both Bautista and Encarnacion have anchored themselves as the faces of the franchise for years, providing offensive production that has far surpassed the value of their contracts that have long been considered “team-friendly.” It stands to reason that both sluggers, after having waited so long to reach this point, will want to test the free-agent waters.
The flip side to this is that, despite Atkins’ insistence that signing the two constitutes a priority, neither fit into the new mantra of becoming younger, faster and more balanced (that is, more left-handed and more contact hitters) at the plate.
Speculation is that Encarnacion could be offered a five-year deal north of $100 million, while Bautista, despite coming off one of his least productive seasons during which he landed on the disabled list twice, will no doubt have suitors who will pay for past production and his reputation for having a good eye at the plate.
Unless the Jays blow them away with an offer – which, considering all parameters in this decision, seems unlikely – the Jays will need to plan for life after Bautista and Encarnacion. Akins suggested in his presser that of all the needs he must address this offseason, the easiest to fill via free agency is first base/DH and corner outfield.
Here is a look at some of the various options available to Toronto should they lose both Bautista and Encarnacion to free agency.
- In-House Options
The Jays already have a first baseman on their 2017 roster in Justin Smoak, who signed a two-year, $8.5 million contract extension back in July. Smoak, a switch-hitter, represents a defensive upgrade over Encarnacion, but his bat leaves a little to be desired. Last season he hit .217/.314/.410 with 14 home runs, 34 RBI and a wRC+ of 90. Moreover, with the exception of this past season, Smoak has hit left-handed pitchers better over the course of his career and thus would ideally play as part of a platoon.
One long-shot possibility to share first base duties with Smoak is Rowdy Tellez, who had an impressive season in Double-A in which he hit .289/.364/.470/.834 with 23 home runs and 81 RBI in 124 games. Moreover, Tellez is a lefty who hit .310 against right-handers and would be a nice compliment to Smoak. Should the Jays be unable to acquire a full-time first baseman this offseason, the Jays are likely to give Tellez an extended look in spring training, making him a dark horse candidate for the job.
- Free Agent Market
Switch-hitting Kendrys Morales hit .263/.327/.468 with 30 home runs for the Royals this past season. If the Royals do not make him a qualifying offer, which could very well be the case according to Jon Heyman, the Jays would not lose a draft pick should they be able to sign him.
Thirty-four-year-old Mike Napoli could certainly fill the first base/designated hitter void should Encarnacion sign with another team. If 2016 is any indication, Napoli cannot replace Edwin’s production. His 34 home runs and 101 RBI would certainly come in handy, but Napoli hit just .239/.335/.465 with a whopping 30.1 K% in comparison to Encarnacion’s .263/.357/.529 and 19.7 percent strikeout rate. However, Napoli could easily be had on a one- or two-year deal at a much more affordable cost.
Another name that has been bandied about is former Blue Jay Adam Lind. The 33-year-old certainly does not fit into the team’s plans to get younger and faster, but he is a solid defensive player and a proven left-handed bat who could also serve as DH. Lind is coming off one of his worst offensive seasons during which he hit .239/.286/.431 with a 92 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR in 126 games, which may lower his cost this offseason.
- Potential Trade Targets
Acquiring Joey Votto from the Cincinnati Reds would be just about the boldest move Toronto could make this offseason. The two teams are rumored to have been involved in discussions last season that ultimately went nowhere, but a report surfaced amidst the Jays’ playoff run claiming the Jays had inquired as to whether or not he was available in trade.
Votto is exactly the type of offensive player the Jays claim to need – a lefty who has established himself as one of premier hitters in the game, with the second-highest OPS in the majors. If money were no object, the Jays could take on the $182 million he’s owed through the 2023 season, during which he will turn 41 years of age. Although the budget is likely to increase for next season, the fact that the Jays already have $107 million committed to just eight players in 2017 suggests that room would not be made for Votto’s contract.
The other consideration is what the Jays would have to give up in order to pry Votto away from the Reds. Both Atkins and President Mark Shapiro have made it clear that rebuilding the Jays’ farm system is a priority and they may not be willing to part with the pieces necessary to facilitate such a trade. All around, the cost of acquiring Votto is quite prohibitive and, frankly, incredibly improbable.
- In-House Options
While confirming that the team would extend qualifying offers to Bautista and Encarnacion, Atkins said the Jays were still in the deciding as to whether or not to do so with outfielder Michael Saunders. The 29-year-old was named to the All-Star Team based on impressive first-half numbers: .298/.372/.551 with 16 home runs and 42 RBI. His offensive stats fell off a cliff during the second half, however, during which he hit .178/.282/.357 with eight home runs and just fifteen RBI. Though he was one of the few lefties in the lineup, it is very possible the Jays won’t risk him taking a qualifying offer and may be content with letting him walk.
The Jays have two other corner outfielders in the fold. Ezequiel Carrera and Melvin Upton, Jr. both represented the Jays’ only true base-running threats, but neither has proven himself to be an everyday player. Carrera won the fourth outfielder’s job out of spring training and batted .248/.323/.356 with a wRC+ of 85. A lefty who hit .329 off of left-handed pitchers in comparison to .218 off of righties last season, Carrera is a platoon player at best. Upton Jr. was enjoying a decent offensive season when acquired from the Padres but could do little at the plate in a Jays uniform, hitting .196/.261/.318. Its stands to reason the Jays would aim to improve over these two options.
Dalton Pompey was named the starting center fielder out of spring training but struggled mightily before being sent first to Triple-A and then to Double-A. He spent all of 2016 in Triple-A and batted .270/.349/.353 with an OPS of .702 before being called up in September. Pompey is a switch-hitter and has spent time at both corner outfield positions. One of his greatest assets is his speed, but unless he can hit major league pitching, that won’t be enough.
- Free Agent Market
Former gold-glove winner Josh Reddick is a solid option to take over for Jose Bautista in right field. Though he lacks power, Reddick hits for average (.281 last season) with a low strikeout rate. He did miss time due to a broken thumb and slumped after the trade deadline and thus may be looking to rebuild some value. At 29 years of age and left-handed, Reddick is along the lines of what the Jays are looking for this offseason.
Switch-hitting Dexter Fowler batted .276 with an OPS of .840 with the Cubs this season. He possesses speed and a bit of pop in his bat, but struck out 22.5 percent of the time in 2016. Regardless, he would represent an offensive upgrade over all current in-house options and would also solve the Jays’ lead-off question. Acquiring Fowler would likely mean shifting Kevin Pillar to either right or left field.
- Potential Trade Targets
Charlie Blackmon is coming off the most productive season of his career, hitting .324 with 29 home runs and an OPS of .933 with the Colorado Rockies. The left-hander, who is in his second year of arbitration, has been the subject of trade rumors as the Rockies may be looking to shed payroll. He’s also fast – he stole 43 bags in 2015, a number greatly diminished in 2016 likely due to a turf toe injury early in the season.
Adam Eaton is another left-handed hitter coming off a good offensive season. He hit .284/.362/.428 with an OPS of .790 and wRC+ of 115, and provided excellent defense in right field. He’s signed to a team-friendly contract through to the end of 2019 worth just over $21 million total, with a team option for 2020 and 2021, and thus the asking price for the White Sox may simply be too high for the Jays to pay.
Without knowing what Toronto’s budget will be for the 2017 season or which players might be available for trade, it is difficult to speculate as to which direction Jays’ front office is leaning. Surely, they will present a budget to ownership that includes several different scenarios.
While it may be difficult for some fans to accept, Bautista and Encarnacion may not be a part of Toronto’s plans moving forward given potential budget constraints as well as the stated goal of diversifying the lineup. If both have indeed played their last game in a Toronto uniform, the Jays have plenty of options — and decisions to make — with regards to how to best move on from two of the most popular players in franchise history.
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