Winter Report Card: Blue Jays keep Bautista but lose Encarnacion in big blow
Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Toronto Blue Jays.
89–73 (.549), second place in American League East; lost ALCS to Indians
RHP Joaquin Benoit, LHP Brett Cecil, RHP R.A. Dickey, 1B Edwin Encarnacion, RHP Scott Feldman, OF Michael Saunders
LHP J.P. Howell, DH Kendrys Morales, 1B/OF Steve Pearce, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, RHP Joe Smith
Offseason In Review
The Jays lost one big fish and kept another this off-season, with Encarnacion taking his power bat to Cleveland but veteran rightfielder Jose Bautista staying in the Great White North. Back on a one-year, $18 million deal with a pair of options (one mutual, one vesting), Bautista returns to Toronto after finding the free-agent market not to his liking thanks to his age (36), recent injury issues and a relatively down 2016 that saw him post his lowest slugging percentage, OPS+ and WAR since he joined the Jays in 2010. But while Bautista will bring his bat-flipping thump back to Toronto's lineup, the Jays opted against a reunion with Encarnacion, who signed a three-year, $60 million deal with Cleveland. Last season, Encarnacion batted .263/.357/.529 with 42 home runs and a league-leading 127 RBIs, and the burly Dominican slugger has cracked 34 or more home runs each of the last five years, earning All-Star honors three times. It’s a huge loss for Toronto's offense, and one that hasn’t been sufficiently replaced.
Tasked with the job of taking the majority of Encarnacion's at-bats at DH will be Morales, a sort of Encarnacion-lite. Last year with Kansas City, the 33-year-old batted .263/.347/.468 with 30 home runs and 93 RBIs, but his OPS+ was a relatively meager 108; Encarnacion’s was 133. Morales is a good player, but he doesn’t bring anywhere close to the impact that Encarnacion does, especially considering his total inability to play the field (Encarnacion played 75 games at first base last year). His absence will also mean more at-bats for Justin Smoak, who struggled to an 87 OPS+ last year and turned 30 in the off-season. Once one of the game's top prospects, he's a far cry from both his potential and the likes of Encarnacion.
The Jays also lost Saunders, who put together his first healthy season in three years and hit .253/.338/.478 with 24 home runs and 57 RBIs, earning an All-Star nod. He took his bat to the Phillies on a one-year deal, but his departure might not hurt too much. In his stead in leftfield will be Ezequiel Carrera (just .248/.323/.346 last year, but a far superior defender to the gimpy Saunders), Melvin Upton (.196/.261/.318 in 57 games with Toronto but an .874 OPS against lefties last season between the Padres and Jays) and the newly signed Pearce, who hit 13 home runs in just 85 games between the Rays and Orioles across five positions, including second base. The three should form a more than serviceable platoon, with Pearce likely also chipping in at first base and DH as needed.
Gone from the rotation are Dickey and Feldman, but those losses shouldn't be felt too much. Dickey was average at best in an up-and-down 2016, posting a 4.46 ERA and limited to just 169 2/3 innings due to injury, and Feldman was tagged for 14 runs across 15 innings after coming over from Houston in a late-season trade. The former will become the knuckleballer-in-residence for the Braves, and the latter has joined the pitching-starved Reds. In the bullpen, veteran righty Benoit (0.38 ERA in 23 2/3 innings) and lefty Cecil (3.93 ERA) have been replaced with veteran righty Smith (3.46 ERA) and lefty specialist Howell (4.09 ERA). Benoit’s absence might hurt, but the 39-year-old was coming off a 5.18 ERA with the Mariners earlier in 2016 before turning back the clock in Canada, and it's hard to imagine a sub-0.50 ERA would be sustainable; he's now with Philadelphia. Cecil is likely the bigger loss: The 30-year-old managed just 36 2/3 innings last year due to injury, but over the last four years, he posted a strikeout rate of 11.5 per nine. That was enough to earn him a four-year deal from St. Louis. Smith, signed to a minor league deal, is a ground-balling righty who briefly served as the Angels' closer a few years ago despite his total lack of velocity and was last seen as a viable middle-relief piece for the Cubs (15 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings). Should he make the team, that's the role he'll likely fill again. Howell, who reportedly has a one-year deal with Toronto, will probably step in for Cecil; the bearded veteran is coming off a rough 2016 for the Dodgers but has functioned as a top-flight lefty specialist in Los Angeles since 2013.
One last addition of note: Saltalamacchia, who will take over as the Jays' new backup catcher. Boasting a swing almost as long as his last name, Saltalamacchia cranked 12 home runs in part-time duty for the Tigers last season, though that came with a staggering 104 strikeouts in 292 plate appearances. He'll spell veteran Russell Martin behind the plate and be a headache for the clubhouse attendant in charge of stitching names on jerseys.
Unfinished Business: Bullpen, bench help
With Cecil gone, manager John Gibbons has lost a trusted veteran arm, and the depth behind flame-throwing young closer Roberto Osuna and righthanders Jason Grilli and Joe Biagini is relatively untested (Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes) or generally uninspiring (Smith, Aaron Loup). Another hard thrower wouldn't hurt, nor would a swingman given the general unreliability of current fifth starter Francisco Liriano. The reliever market has been heavily picked over, though; any help may have to come through a trade.
Also thin is Toronto's bench beyond Pearce. Saltalamacchia is wildly strikeout prone; Upton is more or less a platoon hitter; and backup infielder Darwin Barney is there for his glove, not his bat. The departure of Encarnacion and further possible age- or injury-related decline from Bautista or Morales will stretch an offense already forced to carry Carrera's weak bat in left and Smoak's mediocre offense at first. Adding someone like Pedro Alvarez, who hit 22 home runs in 109 games with the Orioles, might be a cheap option, though like Morales, he's a DH and nothing more, limiting his flexibility.
Preliminary Grade: C+
If anything, the Blue Jays took a step back this off-season. Losing Encarnacion creates a hole in the middle of the lineup that Morales and Pearce can only paper over. There are still quality hitters—Bautista, Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki still form an imposing middle of the order—but there will be a decline from the smash-and-bash ways of the past few years. Whether the Jays can keep slugging their way to the playoffs is in serious doubt.