Rumours are already swirling about Edwin Encarnacion. In Toronto it's being reported that the Blue Jays are making a genuine push to keep him. In Boston the expectation is that he is so perfect a replacement for the retiring David Ortiz that ending up there is practically preordained. Jose Bautista, meanwhile, waits to see what the market will be like for his services, knowing that it won't be anything quite like the numbers that were being thrown around before his injury-riddled season.
The dream for Blue Jays fans is that the club, flush with new riches after two wildly successful seasons on the field, at the gate, and on television, will bring back at least one of their beloved sluggers and thwart the plans of the Red Sox and their fans—and, even, of Big Papi himself, who caused a stir at the All-Star Game by naming Encarnacion outright as an obvious heir apparent. Unfortunately, fans of Canada's MLB team have seen this movie before. They've seen the way Boston tends to get what it wants, and the way that the Blue Jays too often come up short with big-name free agents.
A year ago these trends converged in a devastating way for a lot of Jays fans, when the Red Sox signed David Price to a massive deal, despite the fact that he said all the right things about wanting to stay and the obvious wattage he brought to the club. But fans probably shouldn't despair a repeat—not only because it worked out so well for the club to pass on Price, but because the reasons it did so could prove instructive as to how the front office might approach this offseason, and how it might get a whole lot of bang for its buck.
Put simplistically, last winter the Blue Jays chose quantity over quality when it came to patching the holes in their roster. More specifically, they sought mid-tier talent with reasonable cost, no draft-pick attachment, and intriguing upside, rather than top-of-the-market free agents with exorbitant price tags. They spent $62 million on J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada (giving a three-year deal to the former, and two years to the latter), rather than trying to beat the Red Sox's seven-year, $217 million offer to Price. By doing so they filled two rotation holes rather than just one, which was key given the club's lack of starting pitching depth, and they provided themselves financial flexibility both in the present and down the road.
The way they used that 2016 flexibility didn't end up helping all that much—they brought in Drew Storen, who was a disaster (but eventually flipped for a useful piece in Joaquin Benoit); they almost traded Michael Saunders for Jay Bruce (who had a cheap 2017 contract option, which could have proved useful given the Jays' current dearth of outfielders); they added Gavin Floyd, who was OK until he got hurt; Jesse Chavez was given a good run before it became abundantly clear that it wasn't working out; Melvin Upton came over and promptly forgot how to hit; and then they took on a bunch of salary in the form of Francisco Liriano and seemed like they might have actually hit on something. But it demonstrated something new and different about the front office's team-building approach.
These were veteran players, honest-to-goodness big leaguers, guys who had been around, who had managed to have success at the highest level. This wasn't the "stars and scrubs" approach that the Alex Anthopoulos regime sometimes tended toward. It was much more well rounded.
Based on that, it is difficult to believe that the club will rely on internal options the way that it has in the past. Dalton Pompey will likely have to force his way onto the roster, rather than essentially being given the keys to left field, with Upton and Ezequiel Carrera his only safety net. Their 1B/DH solution won't be a mere placeholder for the mid-summer call-up of Rowdy Tellez. Prospects Conner Greene and Sean Reid-Foley will continue their development as starters, rather than be considered as weapons in the big-league bullpen.
The holes on the roster will likely be filled by spreading dollars around, and avoiding players requiring draft-pick compensation (i.e. those who were given a qualifying offer by their previous clubs and rejected it). Doing so will broaden the club's talent base, which especially helps in the long term, even if it isn't quite as flashy as adding one or two of the biggest stars on the market. It will also allow them to add balance and depth to their lineup—two things Ross Atkins stressed a need for when he sat down for a lengthy chat with reporters at the conclusion of the season. There are some cheap platoon options, potential bargain lefties and switch-hitters, and guys with speed and versatility that could help the Blue Jays look a little bit more like (to pick the obvious example) the Cleveland franchise that bested them in the ALCS, and where their top two executives came from.
Still, as the rumours suggest, the Jays might be able to have their cake and eat it, too—they might be able to keep Encarnacion or Bautista and still look elsewhere to fill out the holes on their roster. Having more financial flexibility will, perhaps, allow the club to get creative with some of their bench spots, eating salary to find new homes for guys like Upton and Justin Smoak, who maybe aren't the best fits for what they're trying to do. But even if they don't bring back the two sluggers, they can still set themselves up to be very good. Here are a few free agent names to consider.
Dexter Fowler (CF)–Cubs
A true longshot, as he'll be expensive and would require the Jays to surrender their top draft pick, but there could be a fit here. The free agent predictions at MLB Trade Rumors suggest he'll take $28 million less than Encarnacion over four years, but that's hard for me to believe (he's younger and plays a premium position). If it were somehow true, though, there's a whole lot to like. A switch-hitter to slot perfectly into the top of the lineup, Fowler is terrific at taking walks, and brings with him a little bit of power and a little bit of speed. They'd waste a little of his defensive value by having him play in a corner, but he would be a nice cover for Kevin Pillar, should the Jays' incumbent CF continue to struggle with the bat (or become a trade chip).
Neil Walker (2B)–Mets
Can Neil Walker play in the outfield? Would he? The Blue Jays' infield is crowded, so adding a guy who has only played at second (and a little bit of third) in the big leagues maybe seems counterintuitive, but it certainly intrigues. Walker played 14 games/103 innings in left field in Triple-A in 2010, so it's not like he's completely unfamiliar—and if he was willing to sign on to be a Ben Zobrist-type, the Jays could certainly use a guy like him. A switch-hitter who could play in left field, slot in at DH, and cover for the oft-injured Devon Travis at second base? Sign me up! Plus, Walker has steadily hit near his career line, .273/.339/.436 for several years, and chipped in 23 home runs in two of the last three seasons. Even if he didn't play the outfield, he could have value as a DH and infielder, I suppose. But there are problems with this scheme: he's recovering from season-ending back surgery, and was given a qualifying offer by the Mets, meaning he'd require the Jays to give up their top draft pick to sign him.
Luis Valbuena (2B/3B)–Astros
I always thought the Jays gave up a little too quickly on Valbuena—whom they acquired from Cleveland following the 2011 season, but lost on waivers to the Cubs at the end of spring training in 2012—but the club could potentially still see some benefit from him as a poor man's Walker, and a very poor man's Zobrist. Valbuena doesn't offer the positional versatility (I'm not nearly as interested in the idea of him in the outfield, for example), and he would need a platoon partner. But as the lefty half of a DH platoon who could spell Josh Donaldson and Travis when necessary, you could do worse. He strikes out too much, but he takes his walks, has some power, and has posted three straight seasons of a well-above average wRC+ between 123 and 129 against right-handed pitching. There's value there.
Josh Reddick (RF)–Dodgers
Perhaps it's because he always seems to play well in Toronto, but Reddick's name has long been on the mind of greedy Blue Jays fans salivating over the possibility of stealing more talent from the Oakland A's. Now that he's a free agent, he might present a fit for the Jays, but there are some red flags here, too. Reddick has been awful against left-handed pitching over the last three seasons, so he's unquestionably a platoon player. And in the second half of 2016, he struggled. Part of that may have been due to a fractured left thumb suffered in May, though. His power was down, but his eye seemed just fine, based on his decent strikeout rate and ability to take a walk, so a bounce-back campaign isn't difficult to bet on. But it hurts him that he'll require a platoon partner (Upton?), and isn't nearly as great defensively as he once was. At the right price he could make sense as a replacement for Bautista, but at anything resembling the same price, why not Jose?
Matt Joyce (OF)–Pirates
On the other hand, if you're going to look to a lefty outfielder who needs a platoon partner, you could do worse than Matt Joyce. He was awful in 2015, but rebounded with a nice campaign this season (141 wRC+ against right-handers!) and has generally been an above-average hitter throughout his career. There's no qualifying offer to speak of here, and he won't cost a whole lot.
Carlos Beltran (DH)–Rangers
A switch-hitter, Beltran fell off a little bit after his July trade to the Rangers, but the fact that he was moved means the team signing him won't have to surrender a draft pick to do so. Overall his numbers were still strong (124 wRC+), though he was better as a right-handed hitter than from the left side—a reversal from previous seasons, and less valuable to a Jays club looking to balance its righty-heavy attack. Still, the track record in recent years, as his career winds down, is pretty good. He's a future Hall of Famer, and he'd understand his role, which might mean occasional outfield work, though his best days defensively are long behind him. Think Dave Winfield. Beltran would also provide a cheaper, shorter bridge to oncoming prospects like Tellez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. than Encarnacion or Bautista—though that's something the Jays will probably not be terribly concerned about until the youngsters force their hand.
Kendrys Morales (DH)–Royals
The Jays are rumoured to be among the teams with interest in the now-former Royals slugger. Morales, like Beltran, is a switch-hitter who struggled from the left side this year, though that wasn't the case in 2015. He's... not exactly the guy anybody is going to brag about getting. If the 2015 version of Smoak had made contact a bit more, and struck out a bit less, he'd basically be what Morales was with the Royals this season. Fine, in other words, but not much more than that. Morales had a much better season in 2015, though, posting a .290/.362/.485 slash line and being a key middle-of-the-order bat as the Royals charged to the World Series. So there's some upside there, and he's a guy that might be hurt by the depth of DH options on the market, so could end up a nice bargain, should the Jays choose to slow-play the market.
Matt Holliday (DH/OF)–Cardinals
Like the previous two examples, Holliday is an aging, lumbering slugger whose positional versatility is nil. Unlike the others, he's a right-handed hitter. But that doesn't mean he should be overlooked, as he has hit right-handed pitching about as well as he's hit lefties over the past two seasons, and has always been a strong hitter against them. Of course, he used to be a much better hitter overall. Holliday's 2016 walk rate dropped by nearly half from 2016, and though he posted his highest slugging percentage since 2012, his .322 on-base was a career worst. Like Morales, an intriguing potential bargain for later in the winter—assuming the market plays out that way.
Ian Desmond (SS/OF)–Rangers
The fact that Ian Desmond can play both at shortstop and in the outfield is a plus. The fact that he hit like Pillar in 2015 and worse than Saunders in the second half of 2016? I think I'll pass.
Jon Jay (OF)–Padres
More of a fourth outfielder-type, Jay had a .371 BABIP in 2016, and yet still was only about a league-average hitter. He's a lefty outfielder, though, with some decent years on his track record, so maybe a guy the Jays would take a look at... if they once again wanted to overlook what they have in Ezequiel Carrera, that is.
Steve Pearce (Util)–Orioles
Pearce is a lefty-mashing veteran who has played all over the diamond during his career—everywhere but centre field, shortstop, and catcher. He could make a decent platoon partner for Valbuena, or somebody, at DH.
Eric Thames (1B/DH/OF)–NC Dinos, Korea
The former Blue Jays outfielder has spent the last two seasons in Korea, and will likely return to North America next spring, with a KBO MVP award on his résumé, and 87 home runs over the last two seasons. It's would be easy for Blue Jays fans to get sentimental and want to see him return to the place his career started and maybe replicate some of the success he's had overseas—or even the success of Baltimore's former KBO star, Hyun Soo Kim—but there's also some reason to think it might make sense. He can slot in at two positions of need for the Jays, would bring some left-handed power to a lineup that needs it, and a little bit of speed, too. He stole 40 bases in 2015 (though his total went down to just 13 this year). Give it a shot, I say!
Joey Votto (1B)–Reds
He's not a free agent, but Votto is the obligatory name to check when considering how best to improve the Blue Jays in the post-Bautista-and-Encarnacion era. He makes a whole lot of money, and he might not waive his no-trade clause to come here, but some believe a chance to play for his hometown team at the peak of their powers would be too much to resist, and he's certainly an absolutely perfect fit. I happen to think that Blue Jays fans are a little too obsessed over the dream of adding him to the lineup, but can you blame them? A hometown guy on a rebuilding team in a small market with a massive contract who is basically Miguel Cabrera with less power but more walks? The possibility can't fail to get you excited, even when you're hearing it for the 400th time. And maybe with a whole bunch of money coming off the books, the club as well-positioned to spend as its ever been, and extra draft picks due to come its way from the potential losses of Bautista and Encarnacion, this really is the year when the Blue Jays and Reds can finally do this thing.
Suddenly the temptation of the "stars and scrubs" approach makes a bit more sense, doesn't it? Suddenly one dreams of the Jays calling a press conference to announce the signing of Encarnacion and the acquisition of Votto, with Atkins jumping up on the conference table thrusting his pelvis, whooping and giving the finger into the assembled TV cameras as he curses the rest of the American League.
If you're a Jays fan, I wouldn't hold my breath for any of that, though.
Hey, but Eric Thames looks intriguing, right? Right???