As we continue our series (after my way too long delay) in which we look at how each 2015 playoff team can go about the offseason in order to chase a ring in 2016, we shift from one offensive powerhouse in the Chicago Cubs to another in the Toronto Blue Jays. The offseason acquisition of Josh Donaldson proved to be huge as he won league MVP honors while leading his team to the second best record in the American League. Let’s see how we can get this potent offense into the World Series for 2016. For more of an introduction, see the first piece in the series about the Yankees.
Since so much has already happened in the offseason, I will be looking at the deals each team has already made and giving my input. I will keep the mostly inconsequential ones, but for the most part I will be making my moves as though the offseason has not yet started and all of the free agents are still out there and all the traded players are put back on their original teams.
1. Lost general manager Alex Anthopoulos
I’ll keep this brief since these articles have been about the players, but this could hurt more than anything else that happens to the Blue Jays, including losing David Price. Anthopoulos had been among the most active general managers in the past few years and he built a contender just before he left the team. Toronto fans better hope that Tony LaCava has a similar vision of this team.
Estrada pitched much better than expected last season. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, most of that was due to luck. He only struck out 131 batters in 181 innings and still gave up just 134 hits. He gives up a lot of home runs because he is a fly ball pitcher, so that ERA should go back up to somewhere in the 4 range next season. That being said, Estrada isn’t a bad signing for Toronto. With Price leaving for Boston and Mark Buehrle gone, they needed somebody at the back end of the rotation to pair with R.A. Dickey. Although he had never thrown more than 151 innings prior to last season, Estrada can pitch as both a long reliever and an emergency starter, so there is a role for him in the major leagues. He’s getting more money than he is worthy in this deal (isn’t everybody?) but he can still be effective if used properly.
3. Traded Liam Hendriks to the Oakland Athletics for Jesse Chavez
I am not quite sure how this happened, but Toronto traded a relief pitcher who just had a very good season for another Marco Estrada. Chavez is slightly better than Estrada in strikeouts and home runs but they are both long relief pitchers or fifth starters at best. Although Hendriks had a rough start to his career, he redefined himself last season. He abandoned his changeup and started throwing his slider more often while increasing his velocity by about three miles per hour on all of his pitches. This led to a huge jump in strike out rate without changing his always stellar walk rate. As a result of going to the slider more often, he also increased his ground ball rate by a good amount. The bottom line is that Hendriks is far less replaceable than Chavez, and the Blue Jays don’t need two long relief pitchers or emergency starters.
4. Signed J.A. Happ to a three-year contract
In a vacuum, I like the idea of Happ going to the Blue Jays (more on that later), but this team has spent a lot of money and assets on starting pitchers that will not pitch through the sixth inning that often. If we erase the Estrada and Chavez deals then this signing makes a lot of sense. However, it now looks like Happ and Estrada will occupy the last two spots in the rotation with Chavez going to the bullpen. Marcus Stroman pitched well coming back from an ACL injury last season, but they better hope he quickly turns himself into a season-long ace. Drew Hutchison struggled to get through five innings in any start last season and will be their second starter with R.A. Dickey eating innings as an overmatched third starter. That rotation looks like a ticking time bomb with only Chavez to save it if one of them goes down. The Happ signing would have worked if Toronto had only gone after him, but targeting so many serviceable back-end starters is not a good strategy.
5. Traded Ben Revere to the Washington Nationals for Drew Storen
Storen is a talented relief pitcher and Revere was expendable because of the great defense by Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey, so you can see why this deal would make sense. The Blue Jays were the buyers here, so it wasn’t like they were dangling Revere and trying to get the most for him, but it sure feels like they could have gotten more. Revere is a talented center fielder who is actually one year younger than Storen. His high average and baserunning skills make him a good player to have on your team. Storen may add close to the same amount of value as a relief pitcher, but he has caused clubhouse problems before. He has demanded trades several times and will complain if he isn’t the closer. He strikes out a lot of batters and is a good pitcher, but Revere should have been able to bring in a little bit more.
Just as a reminder, here are the cutoffs we are looking at:
Last Year's Recap:
Lost in American League Championship Series in six games to the Kansas City Royals
Total WAR: 50.5
Top 12 WAR: 43.9
Top 16 WAR: 49.0
The 2015 Blue Jays are probably most well-known for their trade deadline deals. After all, they brought in Troy Tulowitzki, Price, and Revere for the last two months of the season. However, that narrative doesn’t tell the whole story. At the trade deadline, Toronto had one of the best run differentials in the major leagues. They were winning a lot of blowouts and losing a lot of close games, but their record didn’t reflect how good they were actually playing. After the deadline, their luck switched around a bit as they started to win more close games. Many people associated those wins with the deadline deals, but this team was already really good. Most of the key players will return, so this team is already loaded with great hitters and fielders without me even having to touch this roster.
1. Re-Sign David Price
I know that this will cost a fortune and these deals usually don’t work out over time, but if there was ever a team that is just one player away it is the Blue Jays. They have the offense in place, as no other team in the American League will be able to match a lineup of José Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, and Tulowitzki, assuming they all stay healthy. Once you get outside those four, Russell Martin and Chris Colabello represent tough outs as well. Pitching, on the other hand, could be a problem for the Blue Jays. Marcus Stroman was fantastic in his return from an ACL injury last season, but it was a very small sample size. If we ignore the additions they have already made to the rotation by free agency, Stroman is followed by Drew Hutchison, R.A. Dickey, and two blank spots. Adding Estrada and Happ to those blank spots and shuffling the order really doesn’t do much, anyway. I don’t need to tell you how good David Price is, but adding him to the top of that rotation and allowing everyone else to shift down one slot would help a lot. When your pitching staff consists of at least three starters who should not be any higher than fourth in the rotation, you will need someone who can win the ace versus ace battles. You are essentially conceding the third spot most of the time and the current Jays roster would be giving up the number two battles as well. Their offense would mitigate the effects of having a bad rotation, but adding Price would make it just a bad back of the rotation. The offense will hit enough that they can win those games against the other teams’ weaker starting pitchers even if Dickey’s knuckleball is getting hammered. It will be much harder to consistently win those games, though, if they have to face legitimate number two starters when Hutchison is struggling to make it past the fifth inning. Price arguably had his best year yet in 2015, and he actually beat Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel in terms of strikeout and walk rates. Many people were talking about how well Price pitched after being traded to Toronto, but that actually undermines just how good he was all season. He posted an ERA of 2.53 with a 1.11 WHIP in Detroit, which was only slightly behind his 2.30 and 1.01 numbers in those respective categories in Toronto. His FIP in Detroit was higher than his ERA, but one could make the case that the only difference was the change in catcher. StatCorner had James McCann rated as the worst pitch framer, with Russell Martin above average. All of this is to say that last season was no fluke and Price still has some great years left. The Blue Jays should take advantage of that before their power hitters start to decline or they have to break up the offense due to payroll obligations.
2. Sign J.A. Happ
Now the Blue Jays are ready to sign Happ. I only took issue with the Happ signing after they had already secured a pair of fifth starters and didn’t really have a place for him. With Price in the fold, all we need is one serviceable starting pitcher to fill the fifth spot behind Dickey and Hutchison. This rotation is now set to compete every five days, with Stroman being a very good number two starter and Hutchison and Dickey being solid middle to back-end options. Happ has had an up-and-down career, but he has settled in a bit the past two seasons. His FIP was a career-low 3.41 in 2015, due in large part to his 63 brilliant innings in Pittsburgh. The Pirates’ pitching coach, Ray Searage, has notoriously gotten more out of fourth and fifth starters than any other pitching coach in the majors, so Happ probably will take a step back from his overall numbers next year, but he should still be good enough for Toronto. His ERA tends to hover slightly above 4.00, and his FIP is right around there, too. This isn’t a flashy signing, but Happ does a good enough job of forcing batters to put the ball in play that he will work out just fine as a fifth starter behind the Blue Jays’ offense.
3. Sign Jeff Mathis
The only position left for Toronto to take care of is backup catcher. Recommending that a team sign a player who can’t hit .200 sounds ridiculous, but Mathis still has great defensive tools. His DWAR has been positive since 2006, when he only played 20 games, and he is still a very good pitch framer. StatCorner rated him in the top 25 pitch framers in terms of total value gained from that category, despite only receiving about one-fourth of the total number of pitches that you would expect from a starting catcher. Mathis won’t add any offensive value when he is asked to play, and this could backfire if Martin is out for a long time. That being said, you won’t find much better defensive value elsewhere. The Blue Jays already have enough of an offense in place that going with a pure defensive backup catcher seems like a good move.
Final Team and Projections
Russell Martin (2.9 WAR) – He is still one of the best all-around defensive catchers.
Jeff Mathis (0.0) – Unfortunately, his offense cancels out his defense.
Edwin Encarnacion (4.2) – He will crush anything on the inner-third of the plate.
Ryan Goins (3.1) – Goins is one of the most fun defensive players to watch.
Devon Travis (1.1) – Goins took his job, but Travis’ bat will be valuable off the bench.
Josh Donaldson (8.2) – Before you say that my projection is too high, here are his WAR totals from the past three seasons, chronologically: 8.0, 7.4, 8.8.
Darwin Barney (0.3) – Nice pickup for the Blue Jays late last season, as Barney can field multiple positions well.
Troy Tulowitzki (2.7) – I would say that he would do better, but I doubt that he makes it through 100 games on the turf.
Kevin Pillar (4.6) – If you like watching good fielding and baserunning, make sure to catch some of this guy’s highlights.
Ben Revere (2.3) – He’s a good leadoff hitter in a league without many of them.
Jose Bautista (4.6) – Maintaining a high walk rate will be the key to him sustaining his success as he gets older.
Dalton Pompey (1.2) – He struggled as a rookie offensively, but his glove is already among the league’s best.
Chris Colabello (0.5) – He can’t field anywhere, but it is a lot of fun watching him hit.
David Price (4.7) – His past two seasons are the only years in which he has fanned more than a batter per inning. Is he actually getting better?
Marcus Stroman (3.1) – He doesn’t overpower you, but he gives up very few home runs and free bases.
R.A. Dickey (1.9) – It’s pretty simple: knuckleballers don’t age in baseball years.
Drew Hutchison (1.3) – He gave up thirty more hits than innings pitched, so he will be better when that number normalizes a bit.
J.A. Happ (1.4) – He strikes out around 7.5 batters per nine innings and doesn’t get into too much trouble with walks.
Roberto Osuna (1.9) – Seven home runs in 70 innings represents a minor concern, but he is still really good.
Aaron Sanchez (1.2) – If he can lower his walk total, then he can become a force.
Brett Cecil (1.2) – He has quietly put together three straight years of a sub-3.00 ERA.
Aaron Loup (1.0) – His hits allowed number was way too high given his walk and strikeout totals, so he should go back to being a reliable bullpen arm.
Blake McFarland (0.6) – This guy is 28 years old and has yet to throw a pitch in the major leagues, but his minor league numbers are very good. It’s time to give him a shot.
Pat Venditte (1.3) – Another good pickup for the Jays, as Venditte averaged over ten strikeouts per nine innings in the minor leagues.
Liam Hendriks (.8) – Expect to see more of the Hendriks that we saw last season.
Here are the numbers for the Blue Jays: