Blue Jays Off-Season Shopping – An Out-Of-Left-Field Solution?

Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Scott
5 months ago
The Toronto Blue Jays have several holes to fill this off-season, among them is who will play centre or left field. The obvious options might not be the best fits.
In 2023, the Jays played Kevin Kiermaier in centre field and Daulton Varsho in left, with the latter filling in as a replacement when the former wasn’t available. With Kiermaier a free agent this winter, the Jays either need to decide if he’s coming back or they’ll need to find a replacement. 

Should the Blue Jays bring back Kiermaier?

Most of KK’s value comes from his glove.  If the Jays play him anywhere but CF, they are not getting full value. Problem is, the same is true of Varsho. In 2023, “Darth Varsho” had a OAA of +1 in 189 attempts in LF, for a very cromulent +2 OAA/400 in this position.  But he had a +10 in 144 attempts in CF, for an OAA/400 of +28 (which would be the highest OAA/400 in baseball, of full-time players). So keeping Darth in LF destroys his value – he *needs* to play CF to give ammunition to those who defend the Moreno trade. Which means KK either has to move to LF (destroying *his* value) or become the 4th OF (would be great, but unlikely KK would accept that role)
The Jays made the decision in the last offseason (correctly, in my view) that they would sacrifice a bit of outfield offence for defence. They believed that the Vladdys and Bos and Springers would pick up the slack. Bad news – it did not work out that way. If they are going to move Varsho to CF, the Jays need a hitter in LF, not another leather-over-lumber type.

So if not Kiermaier, who?

Some writers are suggesting that the Jays should make a play for Cody Bellinger. A 2023 stats line of .307/.370/.525 with 26 home runs and a wRC+ of 134 looks – at first glance – like a match made in heaven. But a deeper dive raises some concerns.
Statcast calculates “expected” statistics for each player, trying to remove the impact of luck / weather / park / bad opponent defence / etc. For most players, the x-stats are generally similar to the regular stats.  But Cody’s .307/.370/.525 (134 wRC+) has an x-stat equivalent of .270/.331/.437 (roughly a 107 wRC+).  For reference, the stats line of an AVERAGE NL outfielder in 2023 was .252/.330/.424. Put another way, if you look at the difference between SLG and xSLG, and you call players with SLG  >  xSLG “lucky”, then of 129 MLB players in 2023 with 350 or more balls in play, Cody was the third luckiest.
Now, some might say that x-stats are not perfect predictors of future performance – and they would be right. But if you look at the six “luckiest” qualified hitters from 2022 and compare their 2023 performance to 2022, only one matched their 2022 levels.  Four of the six had significant drops. So, agreed,  xStats do not mean everything … but they do not mean nothing either. 
The Co Bell is a centre fielder – and a pretty good one.  Like Kiermaier, that adds to his value.  But Varsho needs to play centre to maximize *his* value, which makes Bellinger an imperfect fit.
MLBTR projects Bellinger’s next contract at 12 years and $264 million. Fangraphs is more conservative, projecting “only” something closer to 6 years and $150 million.  But still a lot for a left fielder with plenty of question marks.

What about a less expensive option?

A player who is a legit hitter.  120+ wRC+, ideally with good splits against lefties
Someone who can play LF on a regular basis, and who is at least bearable defensively.  Not a KK, but not a Chris Colabello either.
Someone who is relatively cheap, both in $$$ and prospect capital.  The Jays have multiple needs to fill, and LF is likely the easiest.  To spend megabucks on a FA, or to empty the farm system for a LF (unless they can find one who is holy-cow-Batman elite) is likely not the best use of limited capital.
So who? Tommy Pham is a free agent. He had a +1 DRS in 537 innings in LF last year (a zero OAA/400 in 122 attempts). So he should meet the cromulence-in-the-field test. 
Pham had a .256/.328/.456 line and a 110 wRC+, which does not appear to meet my 120 wRC+ target.  But (a) his x-stats were .282/.361/.472, which would be a 130-ish wRC+ and (b) his line when playing LF was .307/.376/.526 with an ISO of .219. The reason his overall stats were lower was because he was terrible playing DH (in 134 ABs as the DH) his line was .149/.227/.254. Not completely counterintuitive – I have read that some players are not good at DH (or pinch-hitting) because they need to be in the game to maintain focus.
He’s also a free agent without a qualifying offer that would result in draft pick forfeiture. Fangraphs projects Pham for a one-year pillow contract in the $8-10 million range.
Phamtastic has an eye condition called keratoconus which makes his vision slightly fuzzy. Not a good thing when you are facing 95+ mph fastballs! But he was fitted with a new set of high-tech contact lenses in the 2022-23 offseason which he claims provided greater sharpness. Ordinarily, a mini-breakthrough like Pham experienced in 2023 (at age 35) would be heavily discounted  – but given this explanation, the Jays might want to give it greater weight.
Negatives? He lost time last year to turf toe, so Tommy might not be overjoyed to play half his games at the Rogers Centre. He will play 2024 at 36 years old, so no spring chicken. And he has played most of his career in the NL, so his ability to perform at a similar level in the AL *might* be a question (personally, I do not see a league switch as such a big deal). And Pham is not an extreme power hitter – even in his good 2023, his ISO was “only” .190, and he hit only 16 homers. 

The bottom line

Teams (other than the Mets!) can not afford just to buy the best player at every position. They need to spend intelligently, including on relatively inexpensive players with high upside. I see Tommy Pham in that category.


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