With the Blue Jays floating mostly around the peripheries of the Winter Meetings as of Tuesday morning, fans were starved for action. Even beyond the Jays, all the forecasted moving and shaking that these meetings were supposed to bring has yet to go down. Perhaps it’s not all that surprising, considering how swiftly and drastically the MLB landscape has changed over the last week or two. But still, it’d be nice to see the Jays get out of the “checking in” and “mystery team” territory, if nothing else than to get a sense of the organization’s direction for the near future.
Although if dropping $9 million annually on Tommy Hunter is what it takes to stay in the conversation, anonymity is pretty good.
The Jays are looking to add infielders, outfielders, relievers and some starting depth. Sources say they’ll be looking for Baseball Players. Pat Tabler weeps with joy. You can rank those needs in any way you like, but the Jays will have lots of irons in various fires this winter.
Yes, the company line all along has been that they’re competing in 2018. There’s too much talent on this roster to insist otherwise, even if the team’s odds of true, meaningful competition rest just on the borderlines of slim and none. Actively pursuing a rebuild seems like a path that’s pretty low on the front office’s list of desired outcomes at the moment, though their hands may be forced if the Jays occupy a basement spot approaching the trade deadline.
That sort of gradual acceptance is probably the easiest to sell to the casual fans that make up the bulk of any base, especially one with as many newcomers as this one. That’s not a shot at anybody – generally ‘we tried and it didn’t quite work, so let’s change course’ is better to hear for someone who isn’t deeply, foolishly emotionally invested like the rest of us suckers. ‘We’re trading the players who just hooked you on baseball for guys who might pan out in a couple years, but stick around anyway’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. The organization is loathe to waste their positive momentum from the past three years, and even though the situation is far more nuanced than that, that’s how it’s going to look.
Mark Shapiro’s Wednesday comments probably ruffled some feathers, but it does point to the idea that they’re committed to adding pieces to fix the team rather than start all over. “If we were running this team without a fan base, we probably would’ve started a rebuild a year ago. We’re trying to remain competitive for those fans.” Quite frankly, I admire the honesty, and I don’t think there are many GMs of fringe contenders or under the thumb of meddlesome ownership who wouldn’t say the same off the record.
So the word is competition, and whether that’s halfhearted or not that’s how this offseason will be framed. That’s what makes the late day news about the team meeting with CC Sabathia fairly compelling.
CC Sabathia met with Blue Jays on Tuesday
— George A. King III (@GeorgeAKingIII) December 13, 2017
While it’s a bit out of left field as far as rumors go, Sabathia makes some sense for the Jays. He checks a lot of boxes for a team that’s one foot in, one foot out that may need to adjust on the fly. On a larger scale, the fact that they’re interested in Sabathia gives us a little window into how the team may be approaching free agency in general.
Firstly, the most Sabathia-specific and likely the least important in any discussion, is the fact that the big southpaw is familiar with dealing in the AL East. Things will be a bit different now that the Yankees have the two best power hitters in the game, but he certainly knows how to navigate his way through the division’s hitter-friendly ballparks and has some knowledge about each team’s familiar faces. There’s also, of course, the Cleveland connection between Sabathia and the front office. Say what you will about that – I don’t think it’s particularly meaningful once real negotiations begin but it probably wouldn’t hurt at all.
Secondly, Sabathia has been pretty solid over the last two seasons. He’s collected 1.7 and 2.1 WAR over the last two years following three lackluster seasons where he looked to be running out of steam. That downswing was aided by injuries and BABIPs that were above .308 and pointed to a few tough breaks –his career BABIP is .294, and he was at .288 and .276 in 2016 and 2017. One other thing that might help him is the fact that his general decline coincides with a jump in HR/9. It’s fair to question whether that’s a cause or effect of his dropping numbers, but getting out of Yankee stadium for half of his starts might help out regardless. Sabathia has surrendered at least 1.0 HR/9 in six consecutive seasons after achieving the feat just twice in his first 11 campaigns, with only the 11th and final one coming in New York. He’s obviously a different pitcher now than he was 15 years ago and the Rogers Center isn’t exactly cavernous, but Sabathia still has something to give.
He’s still racking up strikeouts at a decent clip and has his ground ball rate hovering in the 50 percent neighborhood. His ERA might not dip under 4.00 again but Sabathia would be asked to fill one of the final rotation spots and makes for a solid addition in that regard.
Thirdly, Sabathia has emerged as a pretty consistent option. He’s made 29, 30 and 27 starts over his past three seasons and can probably be penciled in for around 165 innings. Last year, Sabathia’s 148.2 innings would’ve placed him third on the team behind Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada. Obviously that was sort of a nightmare scenario, but pitching depth in the form of an adequate veteran who can eat innings is most definitely something that the Jays should be interested in. This is a team that handed starts to Mat Latos, Casey Lawrence, Cesar Valdez and Nick Tepesch, among others. No team is completely healthy but the Jays didn’t have any potential long term solutions from AAA that were ready to step up. Their lack of MLB caliber depth was exposed in a bad way, and someone like Sabathia would go a long way towards patching that hole in the immediate future.
Lastly, and most importantly, is the fact that Sabathia and his presumed contract would allow the Jays to embrace all outcomes. He’s going to someone on a moderate salary with not a lot of years attached that can either function as a back-end starter on a good team or someone to soak up work and bridge the gap from one core to the next.
It allows them to take their time with Joe Biagini, who is currently penciled in as the team’s fifth starter. He’s been asked to prepare himself for the rigors of starting, though beginning the year in Buffalo might do him some good. If the Jays really want to contend, taking Biagini out for a test drive isn’t probably where they want to be every fifth game to start the year. They could also stick him back in the bullpen, where he’s been pretty successful. That would also remove the need to pursue someone on the reliever market, though simply waiting for a few weeks will probably turn up some potential gems. For every J.P. Howell, there’s a Joe Smith.
If the Jays do become sellers at the trade deadline, J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada are likely to be popular names, if not Sabathia himself. Again, he’d provide tons of value in just making starts in that scenario. If a tear down becomes inevitable you can imagine that the organization wouldn’t want to rush any of their young pitchers into big league action. An additional reliable, major league pitcher means that the team can lose parts without throwing younger players to the wolves.
So while there are definitely more pressing needs at other spots and Sabathia may not be the eventual signing here, you can see why the Jays are pursuing someone vaguely Sabathia-shaped, in track record and role.
In short, why not? Toronto is going to be operating in this tier in free agency, hunting players who look like complementary pieces on a team in the playoff chase without attaching themselves to long term risk. The real impact additions here won’t be for the pitching staff and will probably cost a lot more, either in dollars or term or prospects, than the team is likely willing to spend. The CC types will help the team in one way or another without hamstringing them down the line. There’s plenty of variance here, between the team’s age, thin lineup and injury history, and any option that creates a little bit of certainty helps draw the map no matter what. Is it true competing? Maybe, if a bunch of things go right. Does it leave all options on the table? You bet, and that’s probably the safest choice right now from a combined business and baseball perspective.
Lead Photo: Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports