Toronto Blue Jays: Taking a Look at the Jays’ Offseason

The Blue Jays went 89-73 in 2016, reaching the postseason once again before falling to the Indians in the ALCS. The offseason departures of Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil and R.A. Dickey left the Blue Jays front office with some holes to fill. Let’s take a look at how team president Mark Shapiro and company fared.

First thing’s first: What roster moves have the Blue Jays made? As previously mentioned, 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion, OF Michael Saunders, RP Brett Cecil and SP R.A. Dickey are the biggest names to depart. Others that won’t be returning include RP Joaquin Benoit, 1B/OF Chris Colabello, C Josh Thole, RP Scott Feldman and C Dioner Navarro. Those are eight roster spots that opened up in the fall.

Edwin Encarnacion was, without question, the biggest hole to fill on the team. His 42 home runs, 134 wRC+ and 3.9 WAR won’t be easy to replicate in 2017. The Blue Jays wasted no time in finding a replacement for him, signing 1B/DH Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million deal just 16 days after the conclusion of the World Series. Morales is no Encarnacion, which compelled the team to sign INF/OF Steve Pearce as well. Pearce is taking over the role that Colabello filled last season, minus the PED suspension.

When R.A. Dickey signed with the Braves, he left one rotation spot open for the Blue Jays. Rather than going after Rich Hill, Jason Hammel or Edinson Volquez in a particularly unimpressive crop of free agent starters, the Jays decided to fill that void internally. Francisco Liriano, who was acquired from the Pirates during the ’16 season, will be the team’s no. 5 starter in 2017. Just the other day, the Jays addressed Brett Cecil’s departure by signing fellow lefty J.P. Howell to solidify the bullpen. Sidearm reliever Joe Smith was also brought on board. Smith is coming off a down season but has been elite in the past.

“I wanted to be here because I enjoyed success here, I’ve been here a long time. This market, this city, this country, you know, wherever you play or live for 10 years almost it ends up becoming a part of you so those were the main reasons I wanted to be back and nothing else.” – Jose Bautista

By retaining Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays managed to keep the face of their franchise without breaking the bank. Despite coming off his worst season since 2008 (1.4 fWAR), Bautista can still provide value at $18 million next year. Should he have any sort of bounce-back season, Joey Bats will easily be a 3-4 win player once again. Losing Joaquin Benoit to the Phillies is going to hurt, though, considering his 2.15 ERA since 2013 ranks 10th in all of baseball, and his 85.1 LOB % places sixth. In fact, Benoit posted a 0.38 ERA with 24 Ks in 23.2 innings after being acquired by the Blue Jays last year.

The Jays are clearly banking on a rebound from Joe Smith to supplement the loss of Benoit. From 2011-2014, Smith recorded a 2.25 ERA with a .251 BABIP and an even better 0.46 HR/9 rate. His highest K/9 rate in that span was only 8.20, making his ability to induce weak contact his biggest strength. In 2016, Smith was a completely different animal. His hard contact rate spiked to 39.4 percent, more than 10 percent higher than his previous career-high. What’s even worse is that Smith’s HR/FB was an astronomical 19.5 percent, more than twice his previous career average (9.2 percent). Smith’s .317 BABIP in ’15 was 47 points higher than his career mark, spelling a two-year stint of back luck with contact. Since he doesn’t miss a lot of bats, his only hope will be to re-master the art of inducing weak contact.

“That off-season planning process is not a simple process. It’s a multi-pronged process that initially just involves internal meetings, meetings with player development, amateur and pro scouts, meeting with our major-league staff and then meeting with our front office to lay out a plan.” – Blue Jays exec Mark Shapiro

The decision to replace Brett Cecil with J.P. Howell comes with almost no risk. Cecil and Howell have been very similar pitchers throughout their careers, including last season. Howell is three years older, and Cecil strikes out more batters, but that’s just about it. Since 2013, both have been dominant lefties in the pen. Cecil’s 2.90 ERA is impressive and looks even better when compared to his xFIP of 2.69 and 11.46 K/9. Though it may not look like much, Cecil’s 3.9 fWAR in that span is actually pretty good for a reliever.

Howell, on other hand, has been more of a finesse pitcher. He didn’t even throw his fastball once in 2016, and has an average velocity in the low-mid 80s. Since 2013, Howell has a 2.54 ERA, allowing just 0.48 HR/9 and a .287 BABIP. His fWAR of 1.8 is much less impressive than Cecil’s in that time, though it can be explained by a less impressive 8.10 K/9 and pedestrian 3.53 xFIP. Both walk about three batters per nine innings (Cecil’s 3.12 to Howell’s 3.37) and have pitched almost an identical number of innings. Cecil has pitched 205 innings since ’13, while Howell has accumulated 205.2.

What makes this comparison even more complete is that both Cecil and Howell struggled in 2016. Both recorded an ERA above 3.90, allowing opposing batters to hit above .330. A torn lat muscle limited Cecil to just 36.2 innings last season, while Howell pitched 50.2 innings on the year. In some ways this is a lateral move for Toronto; in others it’s a slight improvement. I expect Howell to rebound for the Blue Jays in 2017, posting an ERA in the 2.80 range across 50-60 innings.

“You can have a ton of talent, but if you don’t have some toughness, some gamers and some guys that are really motivated every day to win, you know, you come up empty.” – Blue Jays manager John Gibbons

Dioner Navarro isn’t likely to return, as the Jays have already signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia to serve as a backup. Josh Thole was only on the team to catch R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball. With Dickey’s departure to Atlanta, Thole no longer has a role on this team. Of course with Russell Martin capable of starting 130 games behind the plate, there is little need for the Jays to make any drastic moves at catcher. The front office also made the choice not to replace Michael Saunders. Instead, I suspect the lion’s share of playing time in left will go to Melvin Upton Jr.

Swapping out R.A. Dickey for Francisco Liriano shouldn’t have much impact on the team, at least on paper. Liriano has a better chance of being productive, and Dickey has a better chance of pitching 200+ innings. Dickey’s knuckleball doesn’t seem to be very effective anymore, so this is a good time for the team to move on. Liriano’s problem could solve itself, as his only significant difference last year was an uptick in home runs surrendered. Oftentimes this is chalked up to bad luck, and has the potential to correct itself more-or-less naturally.

Now it’s time to address the biggest loss for the Blue Jays: Edwin Encarnacion. As I mentioned before, Encarnacion’s bat was 34 percent better than the league average in ’16. In fact, he’s been a fixture of Toronto’s lineup since 2012, blasting 193 homers with a 146 wRC+ to go along with 20.2 fWAR. Encarnacion’s .273 ISO ranks second across that five-season span, behind only David Ortiz and Giancarlo Stanton‘s mark of .277. The Indians seemingly stole him from the league at three years and $60 million (plus an option for 2020). Of course, that wasn’t until after the Blue Jays had already replaced him.

Although neither of them is superior to the longtime Blue Jays slugger, Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce combined for 43 home runs last year (one more than EE) in 920 plate appearances. Both recorded an ISO above .200, and should at least help make up for the loss of Encarnacion. They combined for 2.7 fWAR last season, which is actually higher than Steamer’s projection of 2.1 for Encarnacion in 2017. For what it’s worth, Steamer projects a combined 2.1 fWAR for Morales and Pearce next season.

The Blue Jays’ success in 2017 may have more to do with the health and progress of their pitching staff than anything else. The continued growth of Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman could do wonders for a Blue Jays pitching staff that already ranked sixth in the league in fWAR last year. Roberto Osuna has been an ace out of the bullpen so far and appears to just be getting started. Assuming the rest of the league doesn’t look too different next season, the Blue Jays should be bound for another postseason run.

Rather than breaking out the checkbooks for an offseason shopping spree, the Blue Jays played it safe. They didn’t make high-risk/high-reward signings; they replaced their outgoing production. There were small, incremental improvements, but the team will look very much the same in 2017. A rebound from Bautista, maturation from Sanchez and Stroman, and a full season of Devon Travis are all possibilities. If any or all of those events come true, the Blue Jays will be a better team in 2017.

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