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Blue Jays Off-Season Shopping – Thinking Elite at Designated Hitter?
By Jim Scott3 months ago
Brandon Belt has announced that he might be retiring this winter. If he does, the Jays will need a new designated hitter. Who are the options, and who might be the best fit?
This is the third instalment in a series of articles about the Blue Jays’ off-season needs and possible solutions. The first instalment, talking about left field, can be seen here. The second instalment, regarding third base, can be read here.
The decisions that the Blue Jays make for the open positions this offseason should not be made in isolation, but rather in the context of the overall plan. So if they trade for Juan Soto in left field, they (a) will have a lesser need for a power bat elsewhere and (b) will need more money to sign one, anyway!
What does the ideal DH look like?
The two previous instalments of this series have recommended high-OBP but (potentially) lower ISO options in Tommy Pham in left field and Jared Triolo at third base. Both should be solid contributors, and both tick multiple boxes – except the power one. So to balance them out, the Jays should arguably be looking for a power-hitting DH. Someone with a career and current ISO over .200. As the Jays would be gambling somewhat on Pham and Triolo, ideally a DH with a consistent history – so someone like Jorge Soler, with a solid 126 wRC+ in 2023 but a 107 from 2020-22 might not be the best fit.
The DH should not be only a platoon bat (like Joc Pederson, with a career 125 wRC+ against right-handed pitching but a 73 against lefties) but with solid splits against both arms. And, if possible, the DH could play some other position well enough to provide some positional flexibility when one of the regulars needs a DH day. It would also help if the DH had at least some OBP ability – not a Chris Davis (remember him?) two-outcome stereotype.
The best choice to replace Brandon Belt? Brandon Belt. He had a 138 wRC+ in 2023, which (impressive as it was!) was *lower* than his 2020-2022 average of 140. Belt hits for power and for OBP, and he was a great contributor to the Jays in 2023.
But assume that Belt retires or decides to play his last season with the Giants or elsewhere. Who then?
The Jays are said to have around $40 to $50 million to spend this off-season. Tommy Pham is expected to cost $8-10 million, and Jared Triolo would come via trade and is pre-arb. So the Jays would not have to shop in the discount aisle for their DH, which is good, because the cheapest place to buy elite power is at DH.
Let’s talk about J.D. Martinez
“Flaco” had an outstanding year with the L.A. Dodgers in 2023, with a 135 wRC+, a .301 (!) ISO, and 33 home runs. And it was not just luck – his X-Stats line of .269/.370/.551 was almost as good as his regular one of .271/369/.572. His average exit velocity of 93.4 mph was fifth of 258 qualified hitters, his hard-hit percentage of 55.1% was 6th, and his Barrels/Plate Appearance of 10.4% was 8th. He hit for a 143 wRC+ against left-handed pitching, and “only” 132 against righties. The bottom line? This man can hit.
But does his bat fit our stadium? Well, J.D. has 135 career plate appearances in the Rogers Centre (mostly from his days in Detroit and Boston). His line there was .302/.348/.508. As a wise old baseball philosopher once said, “say no more”.
Martinez is projected to earn a 2-year, $40 million contract with an opt-out after the first year. A $20 million annual salary is a lot of money for a DH, but Julio Daniel Martinez is a lot of DH.
Negatives? JD was hurt in 2023 (back and groin) and only played 103 games. But from 2018-2022, he never played less than 85% of a season, so his injury risk is arguably low. And while he played twelve innings in left field for the Dodgers in 2023, he’s pretty much a full-time DH at this stage of his career.
So why would J.D. choose Toronto, when he will likely have multiple suitors? Well, if he’s looking for a pillow contract, he’ll want to play in a park and a division that will enhance his stats. The Rogers Centre and AL East would do that and would give him higher visibility.
If the Jays missed out on Flaco, a strong backup plan would be Rhys Hoskins. The Big Hosk is arguably not as elite a hitter as J.D., and he missed all of 2023 with a torn ACL in his left knee. But his career line of .242/.353/.492 with a .250 ISO is nothing to sneeze at, and he still plays a bearable (-5 OAA/400 over the last four seasons) first base. Like Martinez, Hoskins is projected to sign a one-year pillow contract (or possibly two years with an opt-out) in the $18 million AAV range.
Of the two, Martinez’s elite bat might offset his lack of defensive flexibility and make him the better candidate.
The Bottom Line
The Jays need to balance their 2023-24 offseason acquisitions. If they go with players like Pham and Triolo (or possibly even if they don’t), they will need a power hitter (ideally an elite power hitter) at DH. They will likely have to overpay to find one, but a Martinez or Hoskins will be far cheaper than looking for that kind of power in a position player (like Juan Soto or (gulp!) Shohei).
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