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The youth movement is on in Toronto, as the Blue Jays will look to continue trading veterans and picking up controllable pieces for the future.
Arbitration Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
It’s pretty unlikely that any player the Blue Jays acquire this winter will have as much impact on the franchise as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is expected to make his long-awaited MLB debut sometime early in 2019. The precise timing isn’t yet known, but there’s no question the club will wait until it is no longer possible for Guerrero to achieve a full year of MLB service time. The consensus top prospect in the sport, Guerrero represents the next generation of Jays baseball, when he and a host of other intriguing youngsters from Toronto’s farm system will theoretically become the core of the Jays’ next contending team.
Until those prospects arrive and develop, however, the Jays will spend their time (perhaps the next two seasons, as per GM Ross Atkins’ rough timeframe) figuring out who will be playing alongside them. The club already began dealing some of its veterans once it faded out of contention last season, and it’s safe to assume the Blue Jays will be open to moving any and all remaining established names to make way for younger talent.
Since the Jays currently have a lot of options for both the infield and outfield spots, Atkins has already said that the team will prioritize moving some of its excess position players to add pitching. The rotation is perhaps the biggest concern heading into 2019, as the Jays are poised to deploy a highly uncertain starting five. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are still in the mix. Otherwise, the unit is slated to be made up of largely untested hurlers — Ryan Borucki, and then some combination of Sean Reid-Foley, Sam Gaviglio, Thomas Pannone, and perhaps Jon Harris or Jacob Waguespack.
Stroman received trade interest last summer, even while in the midst of a down year that saw the right-hander post a 5.54 ERA over 102 1/3 IP while battling shoulder and blister issues. The Jays would be selling low on Stroman if they dealt him this offseason, and are perhaps more likely to explore a trade (if at all) during the season, provided the righty is healthy and showing some of his 2017 form. Sanchez is an even greater longshot to be moved, as his stock has fallen after pitching only 141 innings total in 2017-18 due to persistent finger, nail, and blister problems.
Given that even the veteran names in the rotation aren’t certainties, Toronto will look at adding at least one experienced arm on a short-term contract, similar to their signing of Jaime Garcia last winter (obviously with better results, the team hopes). Ervin Santana, Josh Tomlin, Drew Pomeranz, or Martin Perez are a few bounce-back candidates that could conceivably fit as targets on one-year deals, not to mention a familiar face like Marco Estrada, though Estrada’s own struggles in 2018 may lead the Blue Jays to pursue someone with more upside.
If the Jays looked at pitchers beyond one-year commitments, another old friend like J.A. Happ could be a possibility, should Happ value a familiar environment over a chance to compete for the playoffs in 2019. Pitchers like Anibal Sanchez, Gio Gonzalez, or Lance Lynn could fit. Looking to the future a bit, the Jays could consider Garrett Richards, who will miss 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery but should be ready for 2020 when Toronto is a step closer to contention. Getting even more creative with their starters, the Jays could potentially even use an “opener” for one of the rotation spots, though that is far from a certainty.
Any veteran starter the Jays acquire, of course, could also become a trade candidate at the deadline, and the same goes for any reliever the team might pick up. The Blue Jays have signed and then flipped a number of inexpensive free agent relievers over the last two offseasons (Seunghwan Oh, Joe Smith, John Axford), so expect them to target similar bullpen arms this winter. In terms of in-house relievers that could be traded, incumbent closer Ken Giles is the biggest name, though he might be another player who the Jays wait to properly shop until he improves his value during the season. Giles posted a 4.65 ERA over 50 1/3 total innings with the Astros and Blue Jays in 2018, with some excellent peripherals (9.5 K/9, 7.57 K/BB rate) but also very poor numbers when not pitching in save situations.
The question of “when should an asset be traded?” will certainly linger over Toronto’s offseason, particularly in the wake of the relative lack of return the Jays received for Josh Donaldson last summer, when the former MVP could’ve netted much more prior to his injury-riddled 2018 season. The Jays obviously aren’t going to rush to move a player purely as a reaction to Donaldson’s situation, though selling high on a few players now would make sense given the Blue Jays’ projected timeframe for contention.
Randal Grichuk, for instance, played quite well in his first year in Toronto, though he might not be part of the team’s future since he is eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. Justin Smoak is only under contract through 2019, so it might make sense for the Jays to deal him this winter and create room to give Rowdy Tellez a longer look at first base. Teoscar Hernandez offers five years of control and a lot of power, though his high strikeout totals and near-unplayable outfield glove could make him someone the Jays see as less of a long-term roster piece and more as someone to be dealt in a package for a true long-term asset.
Of course, the Jays would undoubtedly be much more open to dealing Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, or Russell Martin, though these high-priced veterans are each more or less immovable. Morales rebounded from a poor 2017 to post above-average hitting numbers (112 OPS+, 108 wRC+) last year, but it would take more than decent numbers to drum up much trade interest in a DH-only player with a $12MM salary.
Martin has at least a little theoretical trade value, perhaps in a swap of bad contracts with a team that needs a catcher, though even that scenario could be hampered by a larger-than-usual number of decent veteran catchers available in free agency. Danny Jansen is slated for the bulk of catching duties for the Jays next season, leaving Martin as a well-paid backup and veteran mentor to Jansen, Luke Maile, and Reese McGuire (plus maybe some backup infield duty).
After missing all of the 2018 season due to heel injuries, Tulowitzki has no trade value whatsoever, and it remains to be seen exactly what the Jays will do with Tulowitzki if he is able to take the field come Opening Day. The shortstop doesn’t appear open to a position switch, and while Lourdes Gurriel Jr. can play several positions around the diamond, the Jays are obviously interested in giving Gurriel more time at shortstop given his status as a franchise building block. One answer could be to deploy Gurriel at third base until Guerrero is promoted, giving the Jays a few weeks to see if Tulowitzki can still contribute, but there is simply so much uncertainty around Tulowitzki’s health that the Blue Jays will consider anything they can get from him in 2019 as a bonus.
With Gurriel penciled in at shortstop, Aledmys Diaz or Brandon Drury are the favorites to be the pre-Guerrero third baseman, and both players should also vie for playing time with Devon Travis at second base. Travis stayed healthy in 2018 but wasn’t very productive, while Drury only played 26 MLB games last season. The Jays would be selling low on either, and could just keep everyone around to compete for the job in the short-term while keeping second base warm for prospects Bo Bichette or Cavan Biggio (or maybe even Gurriel, depending on who ends up playing where in the future). Toronto already declined a club option on Yangervis Solarte and will likely part ways with him, given their other infield options.
More trade possibilities abound in the outfield, as any of Grichuk, Hernandez, or Kevin Pillar could be playing elsewhere on Opening Day. Pillar’s elite center field glove showed some decline last season, dropping to a negative value (-2) in Defensive Runs Saved with only slightly positive grades from UZR/150 (+2.5) and Statcast’s Outs Above Average (+1). Pillar has never been a productive hitter, so if he isn’t offering excellent defense, he doesn’t bring much to the table as an everyday player. At a projected $5.3MM arbitration salary, a case can be made for Pillar as a non-tender candidate, with some combination of Grichuk, Anthony Alford or Billy McKinney then handling center field. That said, it’s also quite possible that another club would like to take a shot on Pillar at that price, particularly since he has another season of arb eligibility remaining. He’s also a candidate to stay and play in hopes that he’ll be of interest at the trade deadline.
Though the Jays have just under $113MM in payroll commitments in 2019, that number drops to under $21MM the following year, and Gurriel is the only player under contract beyond the 2020 season. This opens up more trade possibilities for the team, as Toronto could absorb a large salary from another team in order to also acquire some prospects or MLB-ready talents.
There’s really no shortage of what the Blue Jays “could” do this winter now that the rebuild is fully on, though it’s probably safer to expect a few deals and modest free agent signings (like last offseason) rather than a huge overhaul. As noted, the Jays have so many possible trade candidates still looking to rebuild value (Stroman, Sanchez, Giles, Travis, Pillar) that much of the real heavy lifting on the trade front might not take place until the middle of the 2019 season.
The Jays have already made one intriguing move this winter, however, in hiring Charlie Montoyo as the team’s new manager. Montoyo is a well-respected baseball man with 22 years of experience in the Rays organization as a minor league manager and a coach on the Major League staff, though he has no prior ties to either the Jays, Atkins, or team president Mark Shapiro. This makes Montoyo a completely fresh voice within the dugout, and thus perhaps a fitting choice to steward the Blue Jays into their new era.