After making the ALCS in consecutive years, the Toronto Blue Jays expected to qualify for the playoffs once again in 2017. But everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong for this team. Toronto is last in the AL East for many reasons. Their offence is among the worst in baseball. Their rotation hasn't been healthy nor has it performed much at any point this season.
Team President Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins have said they're not looking at tearing down the roster, and both have expressed the plan to make this team a contender again in 2018. Are they serious about that? If so, here's how the Jays should look for next season.
Allow me to point out that I did write this piece about the eight players Toronto should keep and seven they should trade. I know it's highly unlikely most of those players get traded, so I'll be as realistic as possible here.
*Stats courtesy of ESPN.com and are through July 20th*
15 First Base: Justin Smoak
Last year, the Blue Jays came under criticism for giving Smoak a two-year extension worth $8.5 million. Smoak was Edwin Encarnacion's backup at first base and struck out way too much and was more of a liability than anything else.
But Smoak has come out of nowhere to emerge as one of baseball's premier hitters. He's hit 25 home runs and is batting .294, and is coming off of his first All-Star Game appearance. Smoak is just 30 years of age and should be a long-term piece of the Blue Jays future.
Why else should they keep him? Because, there are no suitable replacements at first base in the farm system or in free agency next year. Toronto now has to get Smoak under a long-term deal. He is their best hitter thus far in 2017, and deserves to be part of the future.
14 Second Base: Dee Gordon
Dee Gordon is one of the top trade candidates at this year's deadline, and Jon Heyman from FanRag Sports noted that the Blue Jays are interested in him. Good, because he's exactly the player they need.
Gordon is owed $40.5 million over the next three seasons, according to Spotrac.com. The Marlins may be willing to take on some of the money, and you have to figure their demand for Gordon won't be too high as they try to slash payroll.
Gordon is batting .290 this season with 32 stolen bases. The Blue Jays have grounded into more double plays than any other team, and they're easily among the slowest units in baseball. So why not take on Gordon? He's your ideal leadoff hitter. He can hit, he can run and he can steal.
Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins need to get Gordon before another team does. Miami seems happy to give him away at this point.
13 Third Base: Josh Donaldson
Yes, I did say that the Blue Jays "should" trade Josh Donaldson. But the reality is that Shapiro has come out and said he doesn't want to trade Donaldson, so let's accept that the Blue Jays are planning to keep him around until the end of the season, at least.
Donaldson has been a disappointment thus far in 2017 -- considering he won the AL MVP in 2015 and nearly took it home again in 2016. He's batting just .246 and currently owns a mere 1.1 WAR after posting one of at least 7.0 in the last four seasons. Donaldson's defence has also been awful -- he's made nine errors in 48 games.
Nonetheless, Donaldson remains one of the top-10 players in baseball. There is simply no better option for the Jays at third base. The plan now is for Shapiro to hammer him out to a long-term extension. Keeping Donaldson around keeps this team's championship open for a few more years.
12 Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki
Troy Tulowitzki also appeared one my list of players that the Blue Jays should trade, but it simply isn't going to happen unless they willingly eat up a handful of the remaining $69 million he's owed up until 2021.
So like it or not, the Blue Jays are probably stuck with 'Tulo' for the foreseeable future. He's definitely not hitting that well anymore, but he at least remains one of the best defensive shortstops in league history (though there has been a decline in that aspect as well).
Tulowitzki just carries too much remaining money, so the Jays probably aren't going to find a trade partner. They'll bank on him to somehow turn it around (hey, Derek Jeter had a turnaround season at age 40 in 2012). Tulowitzki will remain shortstop for at least the start of 2018. So don't expect a change.
11 Catcher: Russell Martin
The Blue Jays don't have much of a reason to trade Russell Martin, as I noted on my piece about players they should trade and keep. Sure, he's overpaid and isn't as great of a hitter as he used to be.
But Martin remains one of the top 10 catchers in baseball. He can still hit better than most and remains a standout behind the plate. He's a well-respected veteran in the clubhouse, and the Jays just don't have a logical replacement for him right now. Martin only has two years left on his deal, so the Jays may as well just stick it out and fulfill their deal.
Unless the Jays are trading for Yadier Molina (they're not), or planning to sign Jonathan Lucroy (also not happening), then there's zero need to move on from Martin. He's their catcher through at least 2018.
10 Left Field: Kevin Pillar
Yes, I know Kevin Pillar is a center fielder, but the Blue Jays can easily move him around to left. They were in on St. Louis Cardinals CF Dexter Fowler last offseason, which means they were planning to move around the outfield a bit.
Pillar hasn't been that great defensively this season. According to FanGraphs, his UZR isa mere 1.2. It was 14 and 21.4 in 2015 and 2016, respectively. So perhaps they'll be better off moving Pillar to left field.
And one bad season on defence isn't why he should move. There is a prime centre fielder in free agency the Blue Jays should chase (I'll get on that in a bit). In order for that guy to come aboard, Pillar would have to move to left. Also, the Jays left fielders have all been terrible defensively. Move Pillar there and their defence is taken care of. Sounds good to me.
9 Center Field: Lorenzo Cain
This is why Pillar has to move to left. Kansas City Royals star Lorenzo Cain is set to become a free agent, and he's everything Toronto needs if they want to reform as a championship contender.
Cain brings exactly what the Blue Jays lack: Speed, the ability to steal bases, very solid contact and good outfield defence. He's a career .285 hitter and has stolen 28 bases in too different seasons. He was a vital reason the Royals won the 2015 World Series (sadly, I remember as a Jays fan from watching the ALCS).
Cain also doesn't strike out much. Per FanGraphs, his strikeout rate is a mere 17.6 percent. To put that into perspective, the Jays own a team strikeout rate of 20.8 percent. So Cain would really bring that number down.
ESPN's Buster Olney reported that the Jays offered Dexter Fowler $64 million in the offseason. Seeing that they are desperate for an elite centre fielder, they'll surely have no problem giving Cain around $70 million. Whatever it takes to land him, hopefully.
8 Right Field: J.D. Martinez
You're probably thinking I'm getting a little carried away for expecting the Jays to add all these big names. Well, please allow me to explain why I think they have a chance at both Lorenzo Cain and J.D. Martinez.
Rogers gave the front office the green light to spend to set a record in franchise payroll. Well, Jose Bautista ($18 million), Marco Estrada ($14.5 million) and Francisco Liriano ($13.6 million), are all coming off the books this winter. None of them are probably coming back, so the Jays will have over $40 million coming off the books.
This is where they break the bank for a star right fielder in J.D. Martinez. The former Detroit Tigers star was just traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. He's on his way to batting above .300 for the third time in four years and should club over 20 homers for the fourth-straight year.
Martinez is a great fit for the Blue Jays. If I'm Shapiro, I'm offering him four years worth $80 million. That's the price you pay for a true winner.
7 Designated Hitter: Kendrys Morales
Kendrys Morales has been both a solid pickup and yet so frustrating for the Blue Jays. Signed for three years worth $33 million to replace Edwin Encarnacion, Morales has sort of done his job as a DH. He's batting .255 with 17 home runs and 52 RBI, which is solid enough production for DH.
But Morales strikes out way too much, and he grounds into plenty of double plays that crush a lot of Jays rallies. But hey, great designated hitters in history like David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez weren't fast. A true DH just has to have the hitting power, and Morales provides that. The Jays won't find many better designated hitters, and Morales does more than enough for them. No need to replace him next season.
The easiest way for me to present this is to break down the five guys that should round out the Jays rotation next year and why.
1. Marcus Stroman: The 'Stro Show' has been one of the top pitchers in baseball this season. Though Chris Sale is going to steal the Cy Young Award from him, Stroman is pitching ridiculously well. He's 9-5 with a 3.10 ERA and has 98 strikeouts in 119 innings pitched. He's under team control through 2021. He's going nowhere.
2. Aaron Sanchez: The 2016 A.L. ERA champion has been held back by ongoing blister and fingernail injuries. Frustrating, sure. But Sanchez is just entering his prime and is also under club control through 2021. He's going nowhere.
3. J.A. Happ: He won 20 games last year and is starting to turn it around after a slow start in 2017. Happ is under contract for one more year. At such a good bargain of a deal, the Jays don't have a suitable option to replace him.
4. Jeremy Hellickson: Toronto won't have payroll flexibility or the prospects to land a guy like Sonny Gray. But Jeremy Hellickson makes sense as a bargain pickup. He's 6-5 with a 4.44 ERA and can easily fill out the fourth spot on the rotation.
5. Joe Biagini: He struggled big time after being thrown into the rotation. Biagini does have the stamina and talent to be a starter. He's worth another shot in 2018.
The Blue Jays bullpen has actually been pretty steady for most of 2017, if you minus the disappointing performance from Jason Grilli that led to his departure. Fortunately, the bullpen isn't an area the Blue Jays need to address much in 2018.
Ryan Tepera (3.59 ERA), Danny Barnes (2.89 ERA), Dominic Leone (2.83 ERA), and Joe Smith (3.41 ERA), have all been very solid setup men. Smith has been injured for about a month and is slated to be a free agent in 2018. But with 47 strikeouts in 31.2 innings pitched, you figure the Jays are ready to extend him.
Toronto also has a reliable lefty in Aaron Loup. None of their relievers are what you would call "bad." This team is loaded with talented arms, and there's no need to waste more payroll on what's already a strength.
4 Closer: Roberto Osuna
There are only three closers in the majors who are probably better than Roberto Osuna right now -- Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland. We know those guys are staying with their respective teams, and we know the Jays have no plans to move Osuna. He's not going anywhere.
The 22-year-old has found himself in the trade rumor mill, but the Jays are smart enough to not trade him. Osuna's under team control through 2021 and could make his case as the best closer in baseball before long.
Osuna is super young, super elite and super cheap (for a few more years). Toronto is extremely fortunate in owning one of the game's best. He's going to remain a Blue Jay for the long run, so the Jays don't need to worry about a new closer any time soon.
3 Manager: Eric Wedge
Sorry folks, but John Gibbons should not have been re-hired to manage the Toronto Blue Jays again in 2013, and it's a wonder how he lasted this long. No, the Blue Jays didn't reach the ALCS in 2015 and 2016 because of Gibbons. They won in spite of the skipper.
Gibbons doesn't believe in playing small ball and is always against the bunt when it's necessary. He doesn't have much leadership in the clubhouse and has a history of feuding with his players. It's evident that the players have given up on him, and a change is necessary.
That's where respected veteran Eric Wedge comes into play. He's an advisor in the Blue Jays organization, and has 1,620 games of managerial experience under his belt. Wedge's larger personality makes him a better choice than Gibbons as the manager.
2 General Manager: Ross Atkins
If Atkins once again fails to do much this offseason, then the Blue Jays will have no choice but to eventually replace him. We know they'll be patient with him, so what am I saying? Atkins has always had a good relationship with Shapiro, and he's not going to get fired any time soon. He's safe for at least the next two seasons.
Atkins' tenure as GM has been mediocre at best. On one hand, he probably was smart to stay away from re-signing David Price long-term. Signing J.A. Happ as a replacement was smart. But he didn't do much at the 2016 trade deadline to fix this team's championship dreams, and nothing was done to help this team last winter.
But all that matters is what Shapiro thinks of Atkins. The two are always on the same page, and their long-lasting relationship ensures he stays here for a while.
1 Owners: Rogers Communications
The Blue Jays have been owned by Rogers since 2000, and there's no way they'll be relinquishing ownership any time soon. Many fans have been frustrated with Rogers' lack of willingness to spend a ton of money (like the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers). This team's long-term commitment to guys like Gibbons and Jose Bautista has also been a cause of frustration.
Rogers gets a lot of money from a fan base that has formed the best attendance in the American League, so there's no reason for them to worry about fielding a contender. The Blue Jays have a nation-wide fan base, so the TV ratings, merchandise sales and revenue will always be high.
Rogers knows how to make money, but they're not willing to spend that much of it. Like it or not, they probably will remain this team's owners for the rest of your lifetime.
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