Just before the long weekend hit, the fine folks at Sportsnet assembled several of their biggest name baseball writers to ask them some burning questions about the Jays’ off-season. Participating in this year’s year-end Blue Jays roundtable were Jeff Blair, Shi Davidi, Ben Nicholson-Smith, Mike Wilner, Arden Zwelling… and now yours truly!
What’s going to happen with Donaldson? Who should the Jays pursue in free agency? What under-the-radar free agent might they like? Who might get traded?
Answers to all these questions and… uh… hmm… — I was going to say “so many more,” but actually there’s just those four questions. Anyway, here’s what I think about all that!
As always, I have not read any of Wilner’s answers…
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If the Blue Jays pursue any big-ticket free agents, which ones make the most sense?
I’d be very surprised if the Jays actually end up landing, or really even pursuing, any of the really big free agents — I think we’re going to find out by the end of the winter that Ross Atkins’ definition of “impact” (as in “add one impact arm and one impact position player for sure”) is a little different than the fans’ definition — but there’s a small, naive, silly little piece of my heart that thinks the exception to that could be Shohei Otani. The top player in Japan is definitely an impact arm, and could very well be an impact bat, too — and a lefty one at that — albeit in a somewhat limited role. The baseball world would be shocked if Otani picked the Jays, and so would I, but there are a couple factors with him that give me enough pause to ensure I end up disappointed when he lands elsewhere.
For one, Otani’s move to the big leagues isn’t about money. MLB’s CBA prevents him from being paid what he’s actually worth at first. And though he’ll eventually get paid a whole lot if he performs the way he’s expected to at the big league level, there’s definitely more financial risk to coming now than there would be if he stayed in Japan and ran roughshod over that league for another couple of seasons. He’s coming because he wants to test himself against the best of the best, and while there will be some kind of financial element to where he lands (there’s a $20 million posting fee that will be paid to his current club, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, plus perhaps some kind of handshake deal about the future), the playing field is a whole lot more level for a team like the Jays than if this were a straight auction for his services.
For two, the fit is there. The Jays have a spot in their rotation (though I think any team would have a spot in their rotation for a guy like this), and could definitely give him some time in the outfield on his off-days — or even at DH. That’s assuming that Otani wants to continue being a two-way player, which he reportedly does. Will other teams be so accommodating? I’m not entirely sure. Will the Jays? Not necessarily, but “fit” was supposedly a deciding factor for Bo Bichette when he agreed to let the Jays draft him. Bichette has a violent swing, which some clubs perhaps wanted to fix. And, as Arden put it in a Big Read piece this summer, he “also had strong opinions about the type of organization he wanted to join, telling some clubs not to bother drafting him because he felt they didn’t have a track record of encouraging individuality in their player development.” That’s obviously quite a different situation than what we’re talking about with Otani, but if respect for a player’s individuality is a core concept in the Jays’ vision of player development, that’s probably an asset. “I know there are some organizations that would not be very happy with the way that I hit,” Bichette told Arden. The Jays were happy to take him and let him do his thing.
Thirdly, there’s the Jays’ having recently ramped up their operations in Asia, and the Dan Evans factor — and, specifically, this piece last month from BP Toronto. To wit:
The Blue Jays’ main point of contact in Japan is Dan Evans, who the source says “has an outstanding relationship he has cultivated with the GM and President of Nippon [Ham],” the team Otani plays for currently in the NPB. Evans “has a lot of weight [in Japan], and has been working on this for at least four years,” according to the source with the Blue Jays. “[Evans] wants him badly,” he continued.
Now, Evan is hardly the only executive that badly wants his team to land Otani, I’m sure. But that the relationships are there maybe gives us a sprinkle of hope — so too does the fact that, as Shi reported last month, Otani has worked out with Munenori Kawasaki, who one hopes would put in a good word for the Jays. The sense that’s been created by what little there has been in the way of insight into Otani’s thinking is that he’s maybe not the guy who’s going to definitely go to the Dodgers or the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Mariners. Would him coming here be that much more surprising than Yu Darvish ending up in Texas? And though I feel Jays fans who get their hopes up too high on Otani will probably have a similar experience as we did with Darvish (minus Kevin Gray), the chances of him actually coming here might genuinely be at least marginally above zero. And based on cost, talent, and need, nobody on the market would come close to a better fit.
Who’s one under-the-radar player the Blue Jays should consider in free agency or trade?
Can anybody be under the radar anymore? Like, I feel like any name I say, some fuckstick is going to be like, “Pfft, yeah, that’s obvious.”
I don’t mean for that to be a cop out, it’s just… if someone’s off the radar, they’re off the radar. But sure, OK. We can do this. What if I told you there is an impending free agent who is a lefty hitter, slashed .273/.393//.378 over 299 plate appearances, was worth 1.1 WAR, and played four positions in 2017: second base (37 starts), shortstop (20 starts), third base (two starts), and left field (one start)? That ticks off a lot of the Blue Jays’ boxes, I think. Granted, this player is not particularly fast, the advanced defensive metrics grade him pretty average at all those positions, he’s going to turn 32 in May, and his track record as a hitter at the big league level looks nothing like what he did this year (career 78 wRC+ based on a .245/.313/.324 line over 529 career games) — but what that also means is that he’s not going to cost a lot. A low cost one year deal should be all it takes. Even if you have to go to two years, given the positional versatility and the lefty stick, maybe you swallow hard and do that.
The player? Former A’s utility infielder Eric Sogard. The Blue Jays’ off-season: TASTE THE EXCITEMENT!
Which current players on the Blue Jays’ roster stand out as realistic trade candidates?
All of them?
I mean, who are they not going to listen on, other than minor leaguers Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette? I’d be very surprised to see Stroman, Sanchez, and Osuna moved. I’d say the same for Smoak, Happ, Estrada, Martin, Hernández, and Alford. And for different reasons, I’d also say the same for Tulowitzki and Travis. Probably Morales, for different reasons still. But other than that?
So who does that leave us with as possible candidates to move? Pretty much anyone in the bullpen could move — and with the Jays having a little bit of depth there, maybe dealing one of those guys could help them rebuild their infield depth, or get them a starter, a la the Liam Hendriks for Jesse Chavez deal. Steve Pearce or Ezequiel Carrera could move.
Kevin Pillar could move, though maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part. Honestly, I’m not sure the club would feel comfortable leaving such a vital position inexperienced players like Alford or Hernández, or whether it even helps to blow a second hole into the outfield.
And, of course, Donaldson could move. I’d be surprised by that, too. But maybe.
Ultimately, I think what they’re probably looking at is maybe moving some less valuable young players for guys with contracts their teams wouldn’t mind being rid of, sort of like the Francisco Liriano deal with Pittsburgh, or perhaps, as I say, a bullpen piece going for a back-end starter or some infield depth with a little higher salary and less term. There might be some moves when it comes time to finalize the club’s 40-man roster, with several players not on it needing protection, and a few names we’re more familiar with getting released, non-tendered, or traded, which perhaps could be the first of a few dominoes to fall, but… I don’t know. Interesting stuff, perhaps, but not real sexy stuff, in other words. But maybe sexy isn’t the way to go when your season damn near depends on Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis staying healthy. And yet let’s not forget that a couple nice deals for infield and rotation help, plus hitting on a free agent outfielder, and you may genuinely have something here. Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak, Russell Martin, Roberto Osuna, and a Stroman-Sanchez-Happ-Estrada front four is not a bad position to be starting from.
What’s going to happen with Josh Donaldson this winter? And what should happen?
I’m going to guess that everybody said the same thing here, which is that what should happen is the Jays should re-sign him, and what will happen is that he signs the obligatory one-year arbitration deal and the Jays wait until July to figure out what to do — be it trading him away at the deadline, or (fingers crossed) signing him to an extension around the All-Star break. By that point, though, I’m not sure why Donaldson wouldn’t want to test free agency, so… yeah.
Not really much else to say about that, I don’t think. Sigh.