The Toronto Blue Jays have been on a great run in the past couple of years. They made it to the ALCS twice and won the AL East in 2015. That year was especially impressive, not only because they had the AL MVP winner in Josh Donaldson, but also because they had a historically good offense that year. Adjusting for era and park effects, they just missed cracking the top ten in best offensive season ever by a team in the live-ball era.
The Blue Jays’ offense dropped 17 points in wOBA in 2016, mostly because of José Bautista’s injuries and struggles, though Russell Martin had a down year too. I do use the term “struggles” loosely with Bautista because he was still a good hitter in in 2016. He hit .234/.366/.452, which equates to a .355 wOBA. That is still a big 44 point drop from the previous season. The guy is still a walks machine, but his strikeout rate increased significantly in 2016, from 15.9 percent to 19.9 percent.
FanGraphs has a stat called pitch values, and if we look at Bautista’s numbers the past few seasons, we see that he used to destroy fastballs, but he struggled against them in 2016. It could be evidence that his bat speed is declining. Pitch values are not very predictive, so we will have to see. He is also having more trouble making contact with pitches on the outside part of the plate.
Bautista’s struggles are not just limited to his bat. It is likely that his poor baserunning this past season was the result of his injuries, so it might be fair to give him a pass on that. However, he has been grounding into a lot of double plays. He has 58 GIDP since 2014.
Bautista can still be productive at the plate, but where to play him is a problem. It is probably best to convert him to a first baseman and/or DH him. He was really bad in right field in 2016. He never had great range out there, but he had a good arm. It is possible that his injuries made him perform so poorly in the field, so it could be worth a shot to try him again there. However, it would be a big risk for a signing team to try him there without an opening at first base or DH in case it does not work out.
Sadly, Bautista’s free agent stock took a big blow in 2016. In such a weak free agent market, players will have more leverage than usual, but Bautista also has the rotten luck of having to compete with Dexter Fowler and Yoenis Céspedes. So to summarize, Bautista is 36 years old, has a significant injury history, might not be able to play the outfield anymore, and has just come off his worst offensive season since 2009.
Worse still, Bautista has a qualifying offer attached to him. Considering that Edwin Encarnación will almost certainly not return, it is definitely worth trying to bring back Bautista for one year and $17.2 million. He turned it down. I believe it would have been in Bautista’s best interests to do so, as it would have allowed him the possibility to reestablish his value. With so much working against him, I would not be surprised if he has to settle for something awful like the Howie Kendrick deal as a result of declining the QO.
The Blue Jays recently signed Kendrys Morales to a 3-year, $33 million deal, effectively pushing Encarnación out the door. Since 2012, he and Bautista have been similar offensively, but Encarnación is about two years younger and has a better track record of health. He is likely going to get three to four years at around $20 million per.
It appears that the Blue Jays believe that they are getting a poor man’s Encarnación. They are both going into their age 34 season and are both primarily DHs. Steamer projects Encarnación to regress further in 2017, which is reasonable given his decline in 2016 and jump in strikeout rate. However, Encarnación can actually handle first base, while Morales has only played 15 games there in the past two years. Also, though Encarnación is not a good baserunner, Morales is one of the slowest, worst baserunners in the game.
Morales will likely be a two-win downgrade over Encarnación. It isn’t much money, but the Blue Jays are committing three years to a below-average player. Furthermore, given his size and body type, I am concerned about him aging poorly. He is projected for 1 WAR in 2016, but I suspect that there is quite a bit of risk in him becoming replacement level or worse.
It is just really odd to give a multi-year contract to somebody who will struggle to crack 1 WAR each year. There are always plenty of those kind of players available for dirt cheap in free agency or the trade market, any of whom don’t require more than a one-year commitment. For example, Pedro Álvarez is almost four years younger than Morales, and had a better 2016 offensively than he did! Morales does have a smaller career platoon split as a result of being a switch-hitter, but Álvarez will likely go for one year and less than $10 million.
The Blue Jays also picked up Cuban prospect Lourdes Gurriel, the younger brother of Astros infielder Yulieski Gurriel. At 23 years old, he is much younger than his brother, and he is also still a prospect. He is expected to start 2017 in Double A. He will be started at shortstop, but he certainly won’t end up there in the majors. Gurriel is currently blocked at shortstop, third, second, and center. He will most likely play in a corner outfield spot, especially if the current big league roster is generally the same at those positions when he’s called up. Whether or not his bat will play there is still up in the air, though. Eric Longenhagen mentioned in his write-up that Gurriel’s “timing against live pitching has come into question” since it has been some time since scouts have seen him in a game. As a result, it is tough to project when he will debut and what kind of impact he will have.
Gurriel likely will not be a star, but there is so little money involved in the deal that he could turn out as a utility bench player and it would be fine. The caveat to that is if he is allowed to opt into arbitration when eligible, an option some Cubans have gotten in their contracts in the past. José Abreu has the option to do so, and coincidentally he just exercised it. Unless Gurriel is a complete bust, he will absolutely opt into arbitration when he becomes eligible, if his contract permits it.
Even if the Jays lose both Bautista and Encarnación, they won’t be in terrible shape. The starting rotation is still pretty strong. They led the AL in RA9 and were second in FIP. It’s not like the remaining position players are scrubs, either. The Red Sox should still be the favorites in the division, but I can see the Blue Jays contending for a Wild Card again. Remember, they got a 2015 Wild Card and won 89 games while getting only 1 WAR from Bautista. Morales is not the answer to their prayers, but as long as he does not revert to the player he was in 2014, the Blue Jays should be fine in 2017.
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.