How the winter can warm up for the Blue Jays
Blue Jays fans are likely getting restless after president Mark Shapiro (left) and GM Ross Atkins (right) signed Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce and Brett Oberholtzer in the off-season so far. (Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun)
A city that has bled feathered blue for the past two seasons is a little bit restless these days.
Blue Jays fans desperately want to trust the Ross Atkins/Mark Shapiro-led front office — they do — but the still-relatively-new brass hasn’t exactly made that an easy thing to do over the first six weeks of the off-season, as fan favourites Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista remain on the market, while the signings of Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce and Brett Oberholtzer fail to seem like any sort of tangible improvement.
As other teams around the American League have improved by leaps and bounds — we’re looking at you Boston and Houston — the Jays are treading water at the very best, and the current roster construction isn’t exactly screaming 90-win ball club, let alone AL East contender.
Atkins has eight weeks to finish the 2017 jigsaw puzzle, though, and there are a few ways he can still turn this into a productive winter.
Market for Encarnacion turns in the Jays' favour
Atkins has already said he’s not sure he sees a fit for the longtime DH, one who’s trying to convince everyone he can play first base full-time throughout his mid-30s, but it looks like the market for soon-to-be 34-year-old slugger isn’t what it was expected to be.
At this point the Jays seem to be spectators, but there’s no reason Atkins couldn’t swoop in if the reports of Encarnacion’s offers being in the range of three years at $20 per season are accurate.
With Morales already inked, it would force Encarnacion to prove he could spend a full season in the field without it affecting his production at the plate, but it’s a gamble they might be willing to take at a certain price.
Bautista returns on a team-friendly deal
It was a rough season on the field for the 36-year-old, but the off-season hasn’t been any less sobering.
The Baltimore Orioles have already publicly stated they have no interest in Bautista because their fans don’t like him, while the market has been decidedly cool for the former 40-home-run threat who’s coming off an injury-riddled 22-home-run campaign.
Considering the Jays are currently set up to start the season with Melvin Upton Jr., Pearce and maybe Dalton Pompey playing significant roles in the corner outfield spots, a Bautista reunion might be the most-likely quick-fix scenario.
General manager Atkins gets creative
The free-agent market this off-season could be described as uninspiring at best, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the Jays have been sitting on their wallets and allowing things to unfold. After all, committing significant dollars to aging corner bats and closers isn’t exactly a recipe for success these days.
Maybe Joey Votto has a change of heart and wants to escape Cincinnati. Chicago White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier and his 40 home runs are on the market. He can play first base, too. Andrew McCutchen, perhaps? Dare to dream.
Even though every single one of those trades would deplete a so-so farm system further, maybe Atkins can make hay via the trade route.
Money gets invested in the bullpen
Bullpens are en vogue right now, and there’s no doubt Atkins has work to do on his.
They’ve lost lefty Brett Cecil from an already-thin ’pen, so something has to give here shortly.
The Jays have been connected to many low-cost southpaw options, as well as a more intriguing name in right-hander Neftali Feliz and the rehabbing Greg Holland, both former closers at prior American League stops.
There are gaping holes elsewhere, specifically in the outfield, but you could have said the same about the Cleveland Indians roster last winter, before some of their low-cost signings proved to be much more productive than the original sticker cost.
Perhaps their patience actually pays off
It’s not going to sell tickets, but a strong bullpen backing the starting rotation the Jays will boast could conceivably keep them in the race until July, which could allow Atkins to go all “Anthopoulos 2015” on the second half of 2017.
With the addition of the second wild-card spot now giving teams destined for 85 wins hope until the final week of September, a team simply keeping its head above water leading into the trade deadline could be in position to use their money or prospect cupboard to make a run then.
Dexter Fowler falling back into the Chicago Cubs’ lap last February for a fraction of the price he ended up being worth is more evidence that the most-important additions don’t always happen in November and December.
Atkins and the Jays better hope they’re in for the same type of good fortune.