With teams finally able to negotiate with free agents from other clubs, the news is soon to be flooded with stories of team interest, contract demands, and the ever-present ‘Mystery Team’. From a Blue Jays standpoint, it will likely mean constant stories about the two big bats, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and endless rumours surrounding their free agency. Heck, it has already started with Rick Westhead reporting that Encarnacion is looking for a five year deal for $125M.
The sad truth is that both Joey Bats and the man who was once derisively nicknamed ‘E5′ are possibly long for other franchises. As such, the attention will likely turn, at least partially, towards potential replacements.
There are some obviously ideal options, such as Dexter Fowler, Yoenis Cespedes, and Justin Turner, but those players will all have plenty of suitors in a free agent market lacking in stars. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want the Blue Jays to go after these players (we absolutely should), but at the same time it would be good to keep other options in mind some options that are cheaper. In no particular order, here are ten under the radar free agent options that the Blue Jays could/should consider to augment the 2017 club (and beyond).
10. Luis Valbuena
I imagine many people reading this were not expecting to see Luis on this list, as this is a man that was once released so the Blue Jays could hold onto the carcass of Omar Vizquel, but Valbuena has turned himself into a very valuable player.
Valbuena’s original “breakout” occurred in 2014 with the Cubs, when he hit .249/.341/.435 in 149 games, with 16 home runs and 33 doubles. He followed that up with an interesting campaign with Houston where he saw a power spike (25 HR), but it was accompanied by a dip in average/on-base, as he ended the season with a line of .224/.310/.438.
Then finally this year, it seemed as though Valbuena was putting things all together. Through the first 90 games, he was hitting .260/.357/.459 with 13 HR. One of the biggest changes for Valbuena was that he lowered his chase rate from 26.1 percent in 2015 to 21.7 in 2016. Not only did this help raise his walk rate to 12.9 percent, but it also got him into more hitters’ counts to do damage. Unfortunately for him, Valbuena’s big year was cut short when he suffered a season-ending hamstring injury that required surgery.
However, Valbuena’s misfortune could be his new team’s gain. With the injury-shortened season, he likely won’t be getting any sort of long term deal. He also offers plenty of position flexibility, as while he played mostly third base the last couple of years, he is more than capable at first base and can even handle second base. Given his athleticism, it also wouldn’t be a shock if Valbuena could handle an outfield corner with regularity. If the Jays sign him to cover first base, he would be more than capable of filling in for Donaldson on days when he needs a rest and his flexibility would also provide the team with more options to filter players through first base and the DH slot.
In addition, as a left-handed batter he would provide the team with a little more left-right balance; something the team has openly said they are targeting in this offseason. He does struggle a bit against left-handed pitching (he’s not AWFUL, just not good), but at what will likely be a very low cost, the team can afford that.
9. Matt Holliday
Holliday is something of an interesting study. Outside of St Louis, many people probably forget that he’s still in the league. He’s not young (he’ll play next season at 37), he gets hurt a bit, and he’s always been somewhat unassuming as a person. But, he can hit.
Holliday is coming off a subpar season that included a broken thumb, but he’s been pretty much a lock for 20 plus home runs, a solid batting average and on-base, and has shown no platoon splits in his career. For a team that leans heavily right-handed, the ability to hit both sides well is of great value.
He can still play the outfield somewhat (after seeing Saunders and Bautista all year, the standards are much lower), but would probably be ideal as a designated hitter. Holliday could also easily shift to first base, which he started playing last year for the first time. If the Jays had Valbuena, this could be done when Donaldson needs a rest day at DH, or when the team is facing a tough left-hander. Either way, Holliday would be the type of bat that can move around just enough to be valuable.
8. Carlos Beltran
It might be a stretch to call Beltran an under the radar pickup, as he’s an acknowledged star, but there’s a reason he fits this list: he’s old.
For a team that wants to get younger, signing a guy who will play next season at 40 may not seem like a wise idea. However, he’s also a switch-hitter with power who takes walks and doesn’t strike out a ton. Without the youth, that’s pretty much exactly what this team is looking for.
He hit .295/.337/.513 in 2016 with New York and Texas, and also hits just as well from the right side as he does from the left. By sticking him into the middle of a lineup, the Jays could avoid platoon matchups that can plague a team late in games if they lean too hard to one side.
The Jays had interest in Beltran back before he signed with St. Louis, but he reportedly turned them down due to an unwillingness to play outfield full time on turf and no desire to be a designated hitter. Obviously neither of those things matter anymore, as Beltran spent more time at DH than in the field two of the last three years. That being said, he has still logged plenty of time in the outfield, and while he’s no longer a good defender (or even an average one), he can still fill in there if necessary.
7. Kendrys Morales
Like Beltran, Morales’ best defensive days are behind him. Once a viable option at 1B and the OF, he is now strictly a DH. But, like Beltran, it doesn’t really matter. Morales is paid to hit, and he’s quite good at it.
He’s not the star people thought he’d become before an unlucky broken leg (on a walk-off grand slam celebration) took away over a year of his career, but he can still provide plenty of value at the plate. Morales hit .290/.362/.485 in 2015, and then .263/.327/.468 this year, which included a .296/.357/.531 line from June 1st until the end of the year. Keep in mind that half of those games were at Kaufmann Stadium, a notorious pitchers’ park.
Morales also still has plenty of power, hitting 30 home runs in 2016, following a season of 22 home runs and 41 doubles in 2015. Most of that power this year came against left-handers, but it was the reverse last year. In fact, like Beltran again, Morales has no real platoon split throughout his career.
The difference between the two power switch-hitters is that Morales is fully confined to designated hitter, but also younger and less at risk of missing time for injury. He declined his half of an $11.5M option and didn’t receive a qualifying offer. As a result, he won’t be overly cheap, but also won’t be super pricey.
6. Neil Walker
Walker is something of an out-of-the-box suggestion in that he is a primary second baseman, and has been for his entire career. The Jays are pretty set in that area (assuming Travis recovers from his postseason injury).
However, Walker does have power and has been an above average hitter for his entire career. The 31 year old was also on the way to career season in 2016 with 23 home runs and a .282/.347/.476 line through 113 games before a back injury forced him to the 60-day DL. If he is fully recovered and would be willing to move to first base, Walker would provide a solid switch-hitting bat who once again shows no real heavy platoon splits (though is slightly better from the left side)
He would also provide nice insurance if Travis can’t stay healthy at second base, with Justin Smoak in the lineup instead of Darwin Barney or Ryan Goins.
The hiccup here is that the Mets gave Walker a qualifying offer, so his signing would cost the Jays a draft pick. But, if they’re playing in this water, they’ve probably already gained two picks from EE and Bautista, so it shouldn’t be a huge problem.
5. Wilson Ramos
Signing Ramos would have seemed outlandish as recently as mid-September; Ramos was set to hit the market as an elite-level catcher at age 29. Instead, his right ACL gave out for the second time, and he is now talking about needing to find a team that can let him DH from time to time.
When healthy this year, Ramos seemed to be put it all together. He hit .307/.354/.496 in 132 games, while continuing to be a solid receiver who shuts down the running game (40% CS). He may miss some early season time, but Ramos would make a perfect DH and part-time catcher while he prepares for a return to full-time catching duties in 2018. That would solve both the DH and backup catcher holes in one go.
The biggest downside is that Ramos may not be ready in time for spring training due to his surgery.
3. and 4. Brandon Moss/Pedro Alvarez
When it comes to lefties with platoon issues, these two hitters offer very similar production. They are going to hit a lot of homers, as they hit 50 long balls between them in 790 PA this season. Neither fits the apparent overall doctrine of getting faster, but when used optimally, the two thumpers can give teams fits. In a strict platoon last year, Alvarez hit .249/.322/.504. Moss saw more PA vs LHPs (against whom he posted a .664 OPS), but did plenty of damage against RHPs with a .223/.303/.525 line.
Each has advantages over the other. Alvarez is younger, but Moss is actually a passable corner outfielder in small doses. As such, Moss is probably the more suitable candidate.
Both of these men would require a platoon partner of some kind…
2. Steve Pearce
That platoon partner? Right here. Pearce would be a perfect fit with the Jays. He owns left-handed pitching (.263/.359/.499 for his career), and he can play first, second, third, left, and right. This versatility is important, as Justin Smoak’s presence on the roster as a 1B-only backup necessitates the need for platoon options to play multiple positions.
Pearce is also serviceable enough against righties that he can spell players all over the diamond and still end up playing 100-120 games if he stays healthy. He’s currently recovering from a major surgery, which could hurt his market and make him more likely to accept a part time role.
1. Mike Napoli
Napoli is sort of the right-handed version of the Alvarez/Moss duo (though he’s not hopeless against same-sided pitchers). He won’t hit for average and takes plenty of walks, but his main calling card is power. He is coming off a season in which he set career highs in many offensive categories (including home runs with 34), and played 150 games for the first time in his career.
A one-time catcher, Napoli has proven himself average as a first baseman, but is also very comfortable in the DH-role. However, with the Cleveland World Series run and his big season, look for Napoli to command dollars that are beyond some of the others on this list. If he comes cheap, though, the Blue Jays should absolutely be involved.
None of these players is going to replicate what the Jays got from Encarnacion, and only some will match Bautista’s 2016 contribution, but all of them would represent upgrades to the roster and can help this team. If Toronto can sign two or three of them, the lineup should be strong again in 2017.
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