Winter Report Card: Blue Jays add key pieces
With one week left before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Toronto Blue Jays. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
93–69 (.543), first place in American League East (Hot Stove Preview)
LHP Mark Buehrle*, LHP Jeff Francis^, RHP LaTroy Hawkins^, IF Munenori Kawasaki, RHP Mark Lowe, C Dioner Navarro, LHP David Price, OF Ben Revere
RHP David Aardsma, RHP Joe Biagini+, OF Darrell Ceciliani, RHP Jesse Chavez, RHP Gavin Floyd, LHP J.A. Happ, OF Junior Lake, RHP Drew Storen
(*free agent, still unsigned; ^retired; +Rule 5 draft pick)
Off-season In Review
Twenty-two years after Joe Carter's World Series-clinching home run, the Blue Jays finally made it back to the postseason, winning the AL East and then a thrilling Division Series against the Rangers before falling to the Royals in a hard-fought ALCS. Over the winter, Toronto lost David Price, the centerpiece of its midseason overhaul—he signed a record-setting nine-year, $217 million deal with the division rival Red Sox—but the Jays have added a couple of key pieces to the remaining nucleus of that squad in hopes of another chance at October baseball.
Mind you, it's not as though the new regime of president/CEO Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins—replacing Paul Beeston and Alex Anthopoulos in a messy sequence of events—is expecting J.A. Happ, whom they signed to a three-year, $36 million deal, to replicate Price’s production. No, the hope is that Happ plus full seasons of Marcus Stroman (who made just four regular-season starts due to a torn ACL) and Aaron Sanchez (who made 11 starts, missed time due to a lat strain and then returned as a reliever) can offset the mixed bag provided by Price (2.30 ERA in 74 1/3 innings), the unofficially retired Mark Buehrle (3.81 ERA in 198 2/3 innings) and Drew Hutchison (5.57 ERA in 150 1/3 innings).
The 33-year-old Happ, who was a Blue Jay from mid-2012 through '14, was seared for a 4.64 ERA in 108 2/3 innings as a Mariner but then got the Ray Searage makeover for a 1.85 ERA in 63 1/3 innings as a Pirate in the second half. Pittsburgh's pitching guru overhauled Happ's delivery to provide more deception, increase his velocity and improve his control, and the proof was in the pudding: Happ's strikeout, walk and homer rates all improved markedly. A three-year, $36 million deal isn't couch cushion money along the lines of the Dodgers throwing $4 million at veteran righty Joe Blanton, a fellow Searage beneficiary, but it makes much more sense than the Royals giving $70 million to ex-Padres righthander Ian Kennedy and his 85 ERA+ last season.
Elsewhere in the rotation, the Jays made two other moderate investments by picking up R.A. Dickey's $12 million option and retaining Marco Estrada via a two-year, $26 million deal. Dickey, who turned 41 in October, delivered 2.3 Wins Above Replacement via a 3.91 ERA over 24 1/3 innings, his fifth straight year above 200 innings and his third straight right around league average. It's a far cry from his 2012 NL Cy Young-winning campaign, and it won't bring back Noah Syndergaard and Travis d'Arnaud (who were sent to the Mets in exchange for Dickey), but he still provides value for the money. As for Estrada, he's coming off a career-best season in which he posted a 3.13 ERA in 181 innings en route to 3.6 WAR even while his home run rate remained elevated (1.2 per nine) and his strikeout and walk rates both moved in the wrong direction for the third straight season, yielding a 4.40 FIP. But even if he regresses somewhat, the deal is hardly exorbitant.
Meanwhile, Toronto also added a decent swingman in 32-year-old righty Jesse Chavez, who was acquired from the Athletics for 2015 bullpen breakout Liam Hendriks. Chavez pitched to a 4.18 ERA and 3.85 FIP in 157 innings for the A's, making 26 starts and four relief appearances; barring further additions, he could be the one who starts the year in the rotation if the team ultimately decides Sanchez is best left in the bullpen. A longer shot is 33-year-old Gavin Floyd, who threw 13 1/3 innings of relief last year for the Indians and has managed just 92 innings over the past three seasons for the White Sox, Braves and Indians due to 2013 Tommy John/flexor tendon surgeries plus separate '14 and '15 surgeries to repair fractures of the olecranon bone in his elbow. The former owner of IsGavinFloydaBlueJay.com might want to reregister that domain now that it's finally relevant.
The bullpen has received a substantial facelift with the acquisition of setup man Drew Storen from the Nationals in exchange for outfielder Ben Revere. The 28-year-old Storen was humming along with 29 saves and a 1.64 ERA in 36 1/3 innings before being pushed back into a setup role when Washington traded for Jonathan Papelbon. Storen took umbrage, was thumped for 16 runs in 18 2/3 innings after the deal and then broke his right thumb in September by slamming a locker, ending his season. While that might hint that he lacks the ability to roll with the punches that come with high-leverage relief work, he's a change-of-scenery type if there ever were one. It's not a foregone conclusion that he'll close in Toronto, though, given the success of rookie Robert Osuna in that role last year.
In addition to Storen (and possibly Chavez), the other new faces to know for the bullpen are those of 34-year-old David Aardsma and 25-year-old Joe Biagini. Aardsma, who whiffed 35 in 30 2/3 innings for the Braves last year but yielded six homers en route to a 4.70 ERA and 4.86 FIP, signed a minor-league deal. Biagini, a Rule 5 pick from the Giants, posted a 2.42 ERA with 5.8 strikeouts per nine in 130 1/3 innings at Double A Richmond. He's worked primarily as a starter in the minors, but the Jays are looking to see how much his 87–92 mph fastball plays up in shorter stints. Gone from the picture are late July acquisitions LaTroy Hawkins (2.77 ERA in 16 1/3 innings) and Mark Lowe (3.79 ERA in 19 innings); the former retired after 21 years in the majors, and the latter signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Tigers. Also gone (with far less impact) is mop-and-bucket-man Jeff Francis, who had to know it was time to retire when he couldn't get his ERA below 5.00 outside of Colorado.
As for the position players: Picking up the options of rightfielder Jose Bautista and designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion ($14 million and $10 million, respectively) was a no-brainer, and via ESPN's Jayson Stark, the team is said to be exploring extensions with both sluggers, who combined for 79 homers last year. Via SportsNet's Ben Nicholson-Smith, they're also said to be working on a longer-term deal for reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, more on which below.
Beyond that, the winter has been more about departures than arrivals. Backup catcher Dioner Navarro (.246/.307/.374 in 192 plate appearances) signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the White Sox, leaving lighter-hitting Josh Thole (.249/.319/.314 career and worse than that in 52 PA in 2015) behind Russell Martin. Infielder/mascot Munenori Kawasaki, who took just 34 plate appearances last year after nearly 600 in the previous two seasons, signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs. The trade of Revere—who produced at a better-than-league-average clip (104 OPS+ via a .319/.354/.381 line) for the first time in his career, albeit in just a 56-game fragment of the season—leaves lefty-swinging 29-year-old Michael Saunders and switch-hitting 23-year-old Dalton Pompey to battle for regular work in leftfield. Saunders played just nine games last year due to left knee woes. Pompey, who began the year ranked among the game's top 50 prospects on multiple lists, spent most of the year at Double and Triple A after failing to hold down the starting centerfield job in April.
Elsewhere in the outfield, Toronto brought in lefty-swinging Darren Ceciliani. The 25-year-old former fourth-round draft pick, who hit .345/.398/.581 in 255 plate appearances at hitter-friendly Triple A Las Vegas but just .206/.270/.279 in 75 PA for the Mets, arrived earlier this month via a cash deal after getting squeezed off New York's 40-man roster by the surprise return of Yoenis Cespedes. Both Pompey and Ceciliani can play centerfield as well as left, but Kevin Pillar's outstanding glovework appears to have secured him the starting job for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the addition of Junior Lake is nothing to get excited about; since his 14-for-27 start in the majors in 2013, he's hit all of .224/.267/.355 with 202 strikeouts in 635 PA.
Unfinished Business: Multiyear deal for Josh Donaldson
(Update: Late Monday night, Donaldson and the Blue Jays reportedly agreed to a two-year, $29 million deal, avoiding the scheduled arbitration hearing.)
At this writing, the Blue Jays are scheduled for a Feb. 15 arbitration hearing with the 30-year-old Donaldson, whom they stole from the A’s in November 2014 and who hit .291/.371/.568 and set career highs with 41 homers (third in the league) and 8.8 WAR (second), winning MVP honors over the Angels' Mike Trout. It’s Donaldson’s first year of arbitration eligibility, and the two sides are so close ($11.8 million versus $11.35 million, a difference that amounts to less than the league minimum salary) that it seems like a waste of time to do anything but settle.
Rather than go to trial with their star third baseman, the Jays would do well to sign Donaldson to a longer-term deal, ideally one that buys out at least one year of free agency (i.e., a four-year deal). Even if they can’t get that far, locking in cost certainty for the next three years for a player whose 23.9 WAR over the last three years trails only Trout’s 26.5 would be a boon. Unlike Bautista and Encarnacion, Donaldson won’t be due a market-rate salary during his arbitration years; as he’s younger and more valuable given both his offense and defense, signing him has to take priority over retaining the aging sluggers.
Preliminary Grade: B
Ideally, the Blue Jays would have gone out and acquired a name-brand frontline pitcher to offset the loss of Price, but given the number of moving parts and the quality of their young pitching (Stroman, Sanchez and even Osuna, who could possible be in the mix as a starter), the route they’ve chosen isn’t unreasonable. With a deep lineup and a fortified bullpen, Toronto has got a shot at returning to the postseason in 2016.