It’s no secret that this has been a trying offseason. After the Jays made their quick strike to sign both Lourdes Gurriel and Kendrys Morales, things ground to a halt. It then wasn’t until the Winter Meetings that the team signed Steve Pearce. While that move was a good one for the club, it was met with disappointment from the fanbase because it meant that Edwin Encarnacion was definitely not coming back, not matter how much his market fell (watching him sign with the team that knocked them out of the ALCS didn’t help). Even when it finally seemed like a ray of light had shone through the darkness with news of a Jose Bautista contract, it’s been accompanied by 36 hours of “when will this actually become official.”
With all of that, it can be hard to look ahead to the next move, but look ahead we must, because this team isn’t quite finished yet. The standard school of thought seems to be that the Jays will now shift their focus to depth and their relief corps, but that seems premature.
The Jays are lucky to have things more or less settled at eight of the nine offensive positions, but the outfield still needs help. Kevin Pillar is locked into centre field, and assuming Bautista eventually signs, he will be safely placed in right. The issue is with the apparent duo in left.
This all stems from the presence of Ezequiel Carrera. Ezequiel Carrera should not be on the big league roster.
This isn’t to disparage the man they call Zeke. He made great strides last year to become a viable major leaguer. He improved his defence dramatically, rating as an above-average outfielder for the first time in his career (by every available metric). There’s also no denying that he was a standout performer in the postseason, hitting .303/.343/.515 when much of the lineup was struggling to do much of anything.
That’s a very good fourth outfielder.
The problem, however, is that Carrera can’t hit against right-handed pitching.
This may seem counter intuitive considering that Carrera hits from the left side, but he hit just .218/.307/.320 against righties in 2016, following a line of .266/.318/.357 in 2015. Now, Upton hasn’t been any better, hitting .235/.281/.379 the last two years against same-side pitching.
The difference is that everything that Carrera does well, Melvin Upton Jr. can do better. Upton hits for more power. He’s a better overall hitter against left-handed pitching. He plays better defense in the corners. He’s a better base stealer. Simply put, Melvin Upton is a better player than Ezequiel Carrera.
If Carrera and Upton’s struggles were against southpaws, it wouldn’t be as big of an issue. Carrera could stick around as an occasional sub and pinch runner and his $1.1625M arbitration-avoiding contract would be a fine value. But approximately 3/4s of all plate appearances for a regular player come against right-handed pitchers. That’s way too many at-bats to give away.
This means that the Blue Jays need another outfielder. Sadly, this also means that Carrera has to go. The roster only holds so many spots and he adds nothing that Upton doesn’t already provide.
The Jays need someone who can hit against right-handed pitching, but they also need someone who can handle the position defensively. With Bautista’s limitations in right field, having a good defender in left would allow the team to shift things around to help mitigate the aging slugger’s lack of range. Steve Pearce can’t really be counted on to be this option, as his outfield range is limited and he has never shown the health to handle everyday work (since he’ll also get every AB vs LHP at first base…and vs RHP if he can stay healthy).
Obviously there aren’t a lot of players on the market who fit that bill. The Jays apparently kicked the tires on Andrew McCutchen, but that went nowhere. They’ve also been rumoured to have expressed interest in Curtis Granderson and Charlie Blackmon.
With the Bautista signing, however, the Jays likely can’t afford to be swimming in those expensive pools. Whether you believe the payroll budget is $160M or $165M, the Jays don’t have enough for a star. Thankfully, there are a couple of players that could fit the bill.
The first guy this team should be going after is Angel Pagan. The former Giants centre fielder has had his troubles staying healthy the last few years, but he wouldn’t be asked to shoulder a starter’s workload. He’s not young by any stretch (he’ll play the entire year at 35), and he can’t play centre anymore, but the metrics liked his work in left field. More importantly, he can more than handle his own against righties; He hit .282/.352/.414 against them last year, with a .286/.339/.412 line for his career.
Additionally, Pagan is a switch-hitter, which helps if Bautista or Pillar needs a day off against a left-hander, or if the opposing team is bringing in specialists late in the game. And because of his health issues, Pagan shouldn’t cost too much money.
If the Jays can’t get Pagan or anyone like him, they should still try to trade Carrera (he seems unlikely to clear waivers). That’s because they potentially have someone better sitting in AAA: Dalton Pompey.
Pompey hasn’t exactly shown much during his brief MLB career, with a line of just .218/.282/.416 against righties (though that’s still better than Carrera thanks to the slugging), but because he was rushed to the majors in 2014, we tend to forget that Pompey is only 24 years (and will be for the entire season). Throughout his minor league career he has shown himself to be a very patient hitter who can make solid contact, even showing a little pop every now and then. He has also turned into a weapon on the basepaths and he has the range of a plus centre fielder (with +5 DRS in just 21 games) in a corner. You’re getting a player with Ezequiel Carrera as his floor, with a ceiling of so much more.
Ideally Pompey would be playing every day in Buffalo (which is why going outside the organization is the better play), but it has reached a point in his development that it’s time to weigh the needs of the big league club against his future prospects. This club is built to win now and if he can help, Pompey needs to be with the major league team.
Whether it’s Pagan, Pompey, or someone we don’t even know is available, the simple truth is that the Jays cannot enter the season with the status quo in the outfield. This lineup is oh-so-close to being very, very good again, and to stop short would be a disservice.
Go get it done, Messrs. Atkins and Shapiro.
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