Free Agency Primer – Part 1

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The business of baseball never stops.

Though most Blue Jay fans wouldn’t mind a month or two to catch our breaths – after the unbelievable high of the second half and the epic Game 5 win over Texas, and the unbelievable low of the ALCS loss and the departure of Alex Anthopoulos – it’s not going to happen.

It’s time to move on.

A total of 139 players officially became free agents after the World Series ended, and 132 of them are available for any team to sign (seven players officially retired).  Nine members of the Jays are in that group (Buehrle, Estrada, Francis, Hawkins, Kawasaki, Lowe, Navarro, Pennington, Price), and while it would be great to bring them all back, it’s obvious that most (if not all) will be gone for the 2016 season.

So what should interim GM Tony LaCava and new president Mark Shapiro do to replace those who are departing?  With the majority of the offense returning next year, the obvious need is pitching – both starting and relief.  But there are other questions as well: do the Jays need another strong left-handed bat?  What will happen with LF? Is there enough depth in the infield?

Jon Heyman from CBS Sports recently posted a top-50 free agent power rankings, listing the most desirable players available.  I thought I’d take a look through the list and see what players the Blue Jays might be interested in as free agents, and what the realistic chance is that they come to Toronto.

Infield

Elite Free Agents: Chris Davis

Next Tier: Ian Desmond, Ben Zobrist, Matt Wieters, Daniel Murphy

With the infield core of Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Travis, Goins, Smoak, Colabello, and Encarnacion returning it doesn’t seem like there is much room for additions.  But questions remain: will Tulo and Travis stay healthy?  Was 2015 a realistic water mark (especially offensively) for Goins and Colabello? Is Smoak’s bat reliable enough to be the only lefty?

13 of the 50 players listed by Heyman can be classified as IF/C.  Several can immediately be scratched off the list, guys such as Jimmy Rollins, Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Desmond, and Matt Wieters.  But there are a few options that are intriguing, especially these two:

Chris Davis

Pros – premier power hitter (126 HR since 2013); left-handed bat; massive 1.129 career OPS at the Rogers Centre; can play 1B and DH; will only be 30 as of Opening Day

Cons – will be very expensive; would give the Jays a glut of 1B/DH type players (with EE, Smoak, and Colabello)

Interest Level – 9/10.  Toronto should have huge interest in Davis, even at the expense of Smoak or Colabello, as he gives them the left-handed power they sorely lack.

Realistic Chance – 1/10.  Heyman predicts $182-million over 7-years, and other sites have Davis hitting the $200-million range.  If the Jays are going to spend that much, it’s going to be on pitching.

Ben Zobrist

Pros – he can play pretty much anywhere, meaning he could provide coverage at 3B and 2B and even replace Revere in LF; crushes the ball in the Rogers Centre (.915 career OPS, 1.375 OPS in 2015); can likely be signed for a shorter term; switch hitter

Cons – age (turns 35 in May); strong postseason likely increased his demand

Interest Level – 7/10.  The thought of having a guy who can play multiple positions and actually hit is appetizing.

Realistic Chance – 2/10.  Heyman predicts $60-million over 4-years, and I can’t see Toronto spending that much.

Outfield

Elite Free Agents: Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon

Next Tier: Colby Rasmus, Dexter Fowler, Denard  Span, Austin Jackson, Gerardo Parra

Bautista will be back, Pillar seems locked into CF, and with Revere heading into his second year of arbitration, he will most likely return (barring a non-tender).  Plus Dalton Pompey is waiting in the wings.  Seems like a strong group.  But Bautista showed signs of breaking down with injury last year, Pillar came out of nowhere and carries serious regression risk, and the jury is still out on whether Pompey can hit in the majors.

So who’s out there?  14 of the top-50 are outfielders, but none of them seem like good fits.  There are ex-Jays who are definitely not coming back (Rios, Rajai Davis, Colby), older or injury-prone players (Span, Chris Young, Nori Aoki), or superstars who will attract huge money (Jason Heyward, Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton).  A guy like Gerardo Parra might be worth a look, but doesn’t offer a huge improvement over Revere and would likely be more expensive.  In a perfect world the Jays would take a run at Heyward or Gordon (interest level 10/10), but the former will possibly exceed $200-million, and I can’t see the latter leaving his hometown Royals (realistic chance 0/10).

Relief Pitching

Elite Free Agents: None

This is where things get interesting.  At the end of the year the Jays bullpen put up pretty solid numbers, but it sure seemed like a wild rollercoaster ride for much of the season.  The ‘pen seemed to settle down after the trade deadline after five guys cemented themselves into key roles: Osuna as closer, Sanchez and Cecil as set-up men, and Lowe and Hawkins as shutdown guys.  In 2016, Cecil might be the only one left, with Sanchez and Osuna possibly moved to the rotation, Lowe a free agent, and Hawkins retired.  On top of that mess, the Jays are short on lefties, something that was exposed in the playoffs when only Aaron Loup was available.  So unless a host of internal guys really turn things around (Loup, Delabar, Schultz, Tepera, etc.), external help is needed.

And therein lies the problem.  Take a look at Heyman’s top-50 and you will only see four relievers.  All four are right-handed and on the wrong side of 30, and all four have had a wide array of success and failure in recent years.  Worse, because they are deemed the four best, each of Darren O’Day, Tyler Clippard, Joakim Soria, and Ryan Madson are going to be overpaid.  Would any help the Jays?  Potentially, but not for a 3+ year deal.

The Jays might be best to look at the next tier of guys, but to be honest none of those names are too sexy either.  The list includes Tony Sipp, Shawn Kelley, Antonio Bastardo, Trevor Cahill, and Blaine Boyer.

Best bet?  Who knows!

Tomorrow we tackle the granddaddy of free agency – the starting pitchers.

 

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