Toronto Blue Jays free agent options: Under-the-radar outfielders
The Toronto Blue Jays enter free agency with at least one starting corner outfield job available
Shortly following the conclusion of the World Series, the Toronto Blue Jays will begin the daunting task of retooling a roster with numerous openings.
Calling them ‘holes’ would be a disservice given the talent of the existing roster and the potential for several of the Blue Jays’ own free agents to return, but Ross Atkins, Mark Shapiro and co. have their work cut out for them.
A primary area of need comes in the corner outfield — perhaps both of them. With Michael Saunders and Jose Bautista hitting the open market, at least one starting outfield job has been left vacant. Either player could return, of course, and the Blue Jays do have the trio of Melvin Upton Jr., Ezequiel Carrera, and Dalton Pompey ready to compete for increased roles on the 2017 roster.
If free agency is Toronto’s route of choice, their options are plentiful. Whereas the starting pitching market is worryingly thin, the outfield market presents opportunity at several different levels. This lines up well for the Blue Jays.
Last week, we explored some of the big-name options that will be on Toronto’s radar in free agency or trade. This week, it’s time to take a look at the options more grounded in reality.
If the Blue Jays choose to address other areas with greater aggression — be it their bullpen, first base (Edwin Encarnacion), or general depth — the outfield market could make better sense to them financially at the ‘B’ level. Here are some names that you can expect to hear:
Brandon Moss – 33 years old
2016 team: St. Louis Cardinals
The Blue Jays corner outfield decisions could hinge largely on their confidence in re-signing Edwin Encarnacion, and someone like Moss could embody that.
While he may not offer much value with his defence or speed on the bases, Moss does represent affordable power if the Blue Jays front office deems that to be desirable. Moss is not longer be the offensive force he was with the Oakland Athletics from 2012 to 2014, where he posted a 2.0+ fWAR and 20+ home runs each season, but he’s not far off.
One of the foremost appeals of Moss is that he is a left-handed hitter. Outside of the switch-hitting Justin Smoak, whose role remains uncertain in 2017, the Blue Jays are lacking when it comes to lefty bats.
The question is, can Moss do enough against left-handed pitching to remain an everyday impact in the lineup? He posted an .828 OPS versus right-handed pitching in 2016, but lefties held him to a .664 mark with a poor K:BB ratio. His career splits are much closer, however, and his 2015 splits are actually reversed in terms of OPS, so 2016 could be an outlier.
Defensively, Moss has split his time between the corner outfields and first base. His metrics suggest that he’s stronger in the outfield, where he posted a 5.3 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) compared to a -3.3 mark at first. His career numbers balance out to suggest the same, so while he’s not necessarily Kevin Pillar, he’s not Jose Bautista, either.
Moss’ 28 home runs this season were the second-most of his career, but did come alongside a low .225 batting average and .300 on-base percentage. Therein lies a problem for Toronto, as his 141 strikeouts in 128 games don’t necessarily align with their goal to become a stronger contact team.
Up Next: The outfield market’s ultimate wild card
Carlos Gomez – 30 years old
2016: Houston Astros, Texas Rangers
Carlos Gomez is an immensely talented baseball player. Sometimes.
Gomez was one of the premiere outfielders in all of baseball as recently as 2014, and at just 30 years old, his recent decline has not been due to age alone. In 2013 Gomez was named an All-Star, earned a Gold Glove Award, and posted a whopping 7.4 Wins Above Replacement for the Milwaukee Brewers.
(Throwback: Gomez was a centrepiece in the 2008 deal that brought Johan Santana to the New York Mets from the Minnesota Twins. He was traded from Minnesota to Milwaukee one year later for J.J. Hardy).
After a relatively quiet opening to 2015, Gomez was shipped to Houston in a multi-player deal and it was there that his career really stalled out. This year with the Astros, Gomez hit .210 with a .594 OPS in 85 games and was released in August.
The Texas Rangers scooped him up quickly and overnight he was back to being Carlos Gomez. In 33 regular season games with the Rangers he hit .284 with a .905 OPS and eight home runs, quickly reestablishing himself as a legitimate MLB option before his free agency. The Texas Rangers would like to have him back, but an interesting (and unpredictable) open market could await him.
Positionally, Gomez has spent nearly his entire career as a centre-fielder. There have been some corner outfield innings sprinkled in, of course, and he did primarily play in left while briefly with the Rangers, so there is some recent precedent there. At his best — or even at his average — Gomez is a valuable defender and a notable upgrade on Toronto’s 2016 corner outfields.
While not a left-handed bat, his speed brings another appealing asset to the table for a team like Toronto looking to improve in that area. Gomez had three consecutive seasons of 30+ steals from 2012 to 2014, and could conceivably still hit that mark. His strikeout rates can climb, which is a factor for the Blue Jays, but his talent has offset that in the past.
With even career splits and the raw tools his still possesses, Gomez is an attractive free agent. He does require a high appetite for risk, though, which is something the Blue Jays may not have with an everyday outfield position. It’s also worth noting that Gomez is a Scott Boras client.
Next Up: The former Ray bounces back
Matt Joyce – 32 years old
2016: Pittsburgh Pirates
Matt Joyce’s one-year, $1 million free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates last offseason turned out to be one of baseball’s best small deals. With it, the veteran Joyce has set himself up for a much nicer salary.
Blue Jays fans will be familiar with Joyce from his time with the Tampa Bay Rays from 2009 to 2014. Over the past three seasons, however, Joyce has been three different versions of himself.
2014: Joyce’s final season in Tampa Bay may represent his truest value in terms of what teams can expect from their investment. His nine home runs that season represent the bottom end of his realistic power potential (10-to-16 home runs), but his very strong on-base tool helped to balloon his offensive value.
2015: After being dealt from Tampa Bay to Los Angeles in exchange for reliever Kevin Jepsen, Joyce hit a wall. A BABIP of just .215 certainly didn’t help, but his Wins Above Replacement quickly plummeted from 1.7 the year prior to an ugly -1.4.
2016: With Pittsburgh, Joyce became an on-base machine with a .403 OBP. One of the least-discussed values of an Encarnacion or Bautista is their ability to reach base when they’re not hitting for power, which is a tool Joyce certainly offers. This resulted in a 1.3 WAR and his home run power was present enough.
It’s extremely unlikely that Joyce’s on-base percentage from 2016 maintains, of course, and for the Blue Jays, ideally a speed of defensive tool accompanies that. With Joyce, that isn’t necessarily the case.
Joyce had an outlier season of 13 stolen bases in 2011 but otherwise will sit around five per season. He’s graded out negatively in Base Running Runs Above Average the past two seasons, as well, so there is little value to be found there.
In the field, Joyce has graded out better in left field than in right over his career. He did post some positive UZR seasons earlier in his career, but his cumulative outfield UZRs from the past two seasons have come in at -3.5 and -6.9.
Up Next: The former Gold Glover from Seattle
Franklin Gutierrez – 33 years old
2016: Seattle Mariners
Off the top, Gutierrez is an interesting case due to his long-ago Cleveland connection. The outfielder was traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers to Cleveland in a deal for Milton Bradley in 2004.
After parts of four seasons with Cleveland, Gutierrez was involved in a multi-player, three-team deal that sent him to the Seattle Mariners where he’s been ever since. The Cleveland general manager at the time of both trades, of course, was Mark Shapiro.
Gutierrez has made a home for himself in Seattle, and over the past several seasons has continued to re-sign with the Mariners after being granted free agency multiple times. With Seattle now facing several free agent decisions, perhaps this is the time Gutierrez walks.
If so, he enters the market as a tough player to get a firm read on. Gutierrez was forced to miss the entire 2014 season as he dealt with serious gastrointestinal problems, an issue that had forced him to miss time in the past. Between that and a mixed bag of other injuries, Gutierrez has not appeared in 100 games since 2010 as a 27-year-old.
Among other things, groin and neck injuries have limited him since returning in 2015. His results have been encouraging when he’s on the field, though. Blue Jays fans will remember Gutierrez most fondly for this July, 2015 walk-off against Aaron Loup:
Back in 2009, Gutierrez was one of baseball’s truly elite defenders in centre field. He posted an incredible 33 Defensive Runs Saved and 31.0 UZR en route to a 6.0 Wins Above Replacement. Since returning in 2015 he’s been inconsistent, but may still have a ceiling of being an above-average defender league-wide.
The corner outfield spots are not foreign to Gutierrez, and while he stole just one base last season, he did grade out positively when it came to base running.
If Gutierrez can post numbers similar to his 2016 campaign and keep his defence above water, theres certainly starter-quality value left in his game. There are several variables at play, however, and his long history of injuries should give any potential suitor plenty of reason for pause.
Next Up: Speaking of Seattle…
Norichika (Nori) Aoki – 34 years old
2016: Seattle Mariners
Aoki made the move to Major League Baseball in 2012 after an extremely successful career in the Japan Central League with the Yakult Swallows. With Yakult (based in Tokyo), Aoki hit .329 with a .403 on-base percentage over seven seasons.
He’s now played for four teams in five years and the Mariners understandably have interest in bringing him back as their leadoff hitter. With both he and Gutierrez facing free agency and moving pieces elsewhere on the roster, however, something has to give. If that’s Aoki, the 34-year-old veteran still presents value to the right team.
What jumps out about Aoki immediately is his incredible consistency. Over the past three seasons his batting average and on-base percentages have a variance of just .004. Even among veteran hitters, that’s a very uncommon level of predictability.
Predictability is only half the battle, though. Aoki did have some inconsistencies within his 2016 season and, at one point, was even optioned to triple-A for a stretch. While his numbers are comfortable, in the big picture, are they impactful enough for the Toronto Blue Jays?
It depends on role, first and foremost. Aoki’s on-base tool would make him a logical candidate for Toronto’s leadoff spot, thus allowing Devon Travis to hit elsewhere in the lineup and produce runs. Aoki no longer owns the 30-steal speed that he broke into the league with a half-decade ago, but he also won’t be a liability when asked to go from first to third.
Aoki is very skilled at avoiding empty at-bats — strikeouts — which is an area the Blue Jays are looking to improve in. Being a left-handed bat only helps him. For his MLB career, Aoki has 214 strikeouts and 203 walks.
With Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki waiting in the heart of Toronto’s lineup, not to mention Russell Martin and the potential return of Encarnacion, someone with the on-base potential of Aoki becomes slightly more valuable.
His 1.2 Wins Above Replacement last season represent a career low, but if he’s able to maintain this level for one year, Aoki makes for a fine placeholder.
Defensively, Aoki has been used mostly as a left-fielder for the past two seasons but did break in as a right-fielder, where the numbers suggest he may be better suited. Regardless, he doesn’t profile as a ‘plus’ defender on either side.
Up Next: Buying low on an injury rebound
Austin Jackson – 29 years old
2016: Chicago White Sox
Austin Jackson has had quite the ride through his still-young career.
In the middle of a few seasons spent as a top-100 MLB prospect for the New York Yankees, Jackson was included in the three-way blockbuster that landed Max Scherzer with the Detroit Tigers. In 2014 Jackson was part of another three-team deal, landing in Seattle as part of the trade that sent David Price to Detroit.
Jackson is coming off a difficult 2016 season that was cut short by a right knee surgery to repair a medial meniscus tear. In the 54 games he did manage to appear in under his one-year, $5 million contract, Jackson posted below average numbers and was valued at -0.1 WAR.
This was a far cry from his mid-20s which were highlighted by his 2012 season. That year, Jackson broke out with a slash line of .300 / .377 / .479 including 16 home runs and 66 RBI. He was also playing much stronger defence at that time, leaving him with an excellent 5.4 WAR.
Jackson is a career centre-fielder but did play 22 games in right for the Chicago Cubs in 2015. He broke into the league as a very good defender, became more of a league-average defender from 2013 to 2015, and regressed further in his abbreviated 2016. Will this trend continue, or can a healthy Jackson regain some of his old form?
As is the case for all of the outfielders discussed here, it is not a daunting task to improve upon Toronto’s 2016 defence in the corner outfields.
While Jackson does not offer the Blue Jays a left-handed bat, he does come with relatively even platoon splits and a career .332 on-base percentage. His athleticism has made him a plus-value base runner, too, even when his stolen base percentage has bottomed out over the past two seasons.
Perhaps even more than other outfielders mentioned, Jackson would likely be interested in taking an affordable one-year deal focused on playing time opportunities to rebuild his value.
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