Blue Jays may only shop for one outfielder

With the expected free agent departures of Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders, the Blue Jays will be facing a significant turnover in their outfield for 2017

Jose Bautista has been a staple in the Blue Jays outfield for 8+ seasons, but his tenure north of the border may have just come to an end. The 36-year-old free agent joins Michael Saunders and several other Jays on the free agent list, and is available to any of baseball’s 30 teams.

At the end of 2015, it seemed highly likely the Blue Jays would try to lock up Bautista until the end of his career, but a lot can happen in a year. It’s looking much more likely that he’ll be playing in another jersey next season, and the same could likely be said for Saunders, despite openly expressing a desire to return.

With their possible/likely departures on the horizon, the Blue Jays are left with just Kevin Pillar from their opening day outfield. They do have Ezequiel Carrera returning, who started throughout the playoffs, as well as deadline acquisition Melvin Upton. Dalton Pompey is also waiting for another opportunity since failing to seize his 2015 opening day role as the centre fielder.

That said, the Blue Jays have more than just bodies to replace in the outfield. Bautista has been a team leader and elite hitter for many years, and the above-mentioned names can’t be expected to fill his shoes. The same could be said for Saunders, who was an AL All-Star last season before crashing back to earth in the second half. Despite missing 68 games combined, the pair still managed 46 home runs.

The front office is going to have some tough decisions, and only so many dollars to allocate to free agency. Both Bautista and fellow slugging free agent Edwin Encarnacion, were bargains last season (Bautista- 14 million, Encarnacion- 10 million), so it’s not as easy as keeping the gang together. They will also drop R.A. Dickey‘s 12 million from the books as well, but with salary increases coming to Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin and more, there’s only so much room, even with increased attendance revenue.

Manager John Gibbons and the front office have already expressed a desire to become less reliant on power, and hopefully make strides in other areas. The Bluebirds struggled to get on base throughout the ALCS, and relied heavily on the long ball to get there in the first place.

Both Bautista and Saunders are plus hitters, but have each slipped defensively and on the bases in recent seasons. By the time the playoffs came around, Gibbons rolled Carrera out as a starter in nearly every game, leaving Saunders as a platoon DH and Bautista splitting time between there and right field.

With the in-house options present, it seems like a stretch to think the Jays will acquire two new outfielders for 2017. Carrera isn’t a sexy option, but he was one of the Jays’ best contact hitters throughout the playoffs, and is capable of playing all 3 spots in the outfield. He’s not elite in any one area, but his more balanced skill set could find it’s way into the lineup a lot next season.

One also has to wonder if this isn’t the chance Pompey has been waiting for? As mentioned earlier, he was given the chance to stick as the starting centre fielder on opening day in 2015, but he struggled with the bat and was eventually sent back to AAA. He’s still a highly rated prospect, but he’ll be 24 by opening day, and the Jays will have to make a move with him sooner than later.

If he doesn’t end up in the starting conversation, it’s entirely possible he could end up traded while his value is still reasonably high. They also have Upton in the fold, who hit 20 home runs last season, but he seems best suited as a platoon option for a contending club.

If I were a betting man, I’d guess the Jays will give Pompey the chance to win one of the two open spots, knowing they have Carrera/Upton to fall back on. That will leave one spot (and more payroll) to fill through free agency or trade, which could offer plenty of options. Ideally, the front office would love to add more left-handed hitters to the lineup, so free agents like Josh Reddick, Dexter Fowler (expected to decline option), Norichika Aoki, or Jon Jay could be considered, as well as any trade candidates.

With a solid core including Donaldson, Martin, Troy Tulowitzki and the AL’s best starting staff in 2016, the Blue Jays have the pieces to withstand the significant losses coming their way. This will be an important offseason for Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins’, as the Jays have a chance to contend again for several more years.

The Jays are expected to give the qualifying offer to Encarnacion, Bautista, and are still weighing the choice with Saunders, but regardless, change is coming.

We’ll find out in the coming weeks and months just how significant the turnover will be.

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