From the outside, it appears that this offseason hasn’t been kind to the Blue Jays – who are currently farther away from 2018 contention than they were at the beginning of it. Unless Shapiro, Atkins & Co. are willing to blow up their plans for the future (which they almost certainly, and rightfully, will not), there will need to be a lot that breaks right for the Jays to return to the playoffs in 2018.
At a quick scan of the roster, the presence of core pieces such as Josh Donaldson, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Roberto Osuna, and Justin Smoak is promising. While an extra addition or two will still likely need to be made (cue the “Lo-ren-zo!” chants), there is enough talent on the roster to reasonably squint and see the foundation of a winner in 2018. Some nice complementary pieces are also present, as good and relatively healthy seasons from Troy Tulowitzki, Marco Estrada, and Devon Travis will go a long way in pushing this team over the top, to say nothing of steady contributions from J.A. Happ, Russell Martin, and Kevin Pillar.
‘Healthy’ is an excruciatingly important qualifier for a lot of these players. With so many key contributors unable to step on the field at any given time throughout the 2017 season, reaching the playoffs seemed like a goal that was always just out reach. While it’s probable that less time will be lost due to injury this season, health is never a given and it would be nice to take some proactive measures against the disabled list in 2018.
One way to do this would be to utilize the DH as a sort of roving lineup spot, given to players who could use a day off from the field while still getting their at bats in. In order for this to work, the Blue Jays need to focus some offseason additions on players who can help spell time in the field for their regulars. The team accomplished this to an extent with the acquisition of Aledmys Diaz, who will be used almost as a third starter behind Tulowitzki and Travis up the middle.
Players such as Jose Ramirez and Marwin Gonzalez, coined as super-utility players, are the types that will provide the most value for an oft-injured and aging team such as the Blue Jays and should be prioritized in off-season acquisitions. While Ramirez and Gonzalez will not be on the market themselves, there are plenty of other options available.
A weight that will hold down this plan is current designated hitter Kendrys Morales. While he is a reasonably good hitter, sporting a .250/.308/.445 line in 2017 with 28 home runs in a down year last season, his value is extremely suppressed by his base-clogging tendencies and his positional inflexibility at DH and first. When Morales produces at the plate at a rate that is less than middle-of-the-order caliber, he becomes a below replacement-level player. This was evidenced last year, when Morales was worth -0.5 WARP even though he hit at a just slightly below league-average rate.
By ridding themselves of Morales’ contract, the Blue Jays would acquire a great amount of flexibility, allowing them to cycle through the DH spot to rest some players after hard games on the Rogers Centre turf. However, it is not very easy to find takers for a 34-year old designated hitter owed $23 million over the next two years.
One team that may be willing to take on Morales’ contract is the New York Mets. The team said recently that they were more inclined to take on salary than to part with prospects in trade, potentially making them a fit for Morales. Dumping Morales’ contract to another team would be the ideal move for the Jays, allowing for more dollars to allocate to other needs. A big factor any potential deal, however, would be how convinced the Mets are that Morales could play the field. He played over 100 innings at first for the Blue Jays this year, but hasn’t played more than 300 innings at the position since 2010, the year he tore his ACL.
Asides from the Mets, it is tough to find a team that would be willing to take on Morales’ entire contract. Given this, the only way the Blue Jays may be able to ship out the DH is by taking on another bad contract themselves. While this option seems like it moves further away from the solution, taking on more money in exchange for Morales could potentially fill another of Toronto’s needs, while also having less of a financial impact than keeping Morales and signing a similar free agent to a market-price deal.
A good example of the framework of a trade that could work for both sides would be sending Morales back to the Kansas City Royals for Alex Gordon. Gordon is owed $40 million over the next two seasons, with a $23 million club option for 2020 and a $4 million buyout. Taking on Morales in a Gordon trade would likely be a good move for the Royals, as it would open up space in the outfield for one of their young players such as Jorge Soler, give them a familiar face to split time at first base and DH with Brandon Moss, and shed salary at the same time.
From a Blue Jays perspective, if it becomes clear to the front office that Morales’ contract is unshakable, then the addition of Gordon only adds $21 million to the payroll if Morales goes the other way. At $10 million per season with a certain $4 million buyout of the soon-to-be 34 year old’s $23 million option in 2020, this would be a reasonably-priced deal in today’s free agent market, with the Jays not having to send anything back in a trade other than Morales.
While Gordon hit abysmally with a tAV of .223 last season, this was by far the lowest mark of his career, giving him some room to bounce back slightly. In addition, his floor remains a lot higher than that of Morales, due to his plus (and former Gold Glove-caliber) fielding. If both players’ production value at the plate are on the decline in their age-34 seasons, Gordon will likely still be able to field the outfield, making him a more valuable piece than Morales. This will also open up the DH spot for the Blue Jays, allowing them to utilize a more cyclical approach to their lineup by pursuing players such as Josh Harrison.
If Gordon doesn’t work out for Toronto, there are other options that could present themselves. Ian Desmond of the Rockies has $62 million left over the four guaranteed years of his contract. The Rockies, who have multi-positional top prospect Ryan McMahon blocked by Nolan Arenado and DJ Lemahieu, may be willing to ship Desmond out for a player such as Morales on a shorter term to make room for him. Given the $39 million dollar difference between the two players, the Rockies would likely package a prospect in return in this type of deal as well, allowing the Blue Jays to use some financial muscle to obtain pieces for their present and future.
As mentioned above with the Mets, the Rockies would need to be confident in Morales’ ability to play first base. In addition, the Blue Jays would need to assess Desmond’s ability to play in the outfield, or to be able to return to a middle infield role. After a dismal year at the plate slashing .274/.326/.375, Desmond would also be in need of a bounce back year, but his experience playing multiple positions would be a benefit for the Blue Jays. In addition, his contract is front loaded, meaning that the additional salary paid to him (after removing Morales’ portion paid) would be $11 million in 2018, $3 million in 2019, $15 million in 2020, $8 million in 2021 and a $15 million option in 2022 with a $2 million buyout.
The two players listed above, Gordon and Desmond, represent two players that the Blue Jays could acquire to help improve their roster’s flexibility. By sending Kendrys Morales the other way in deals for these players, Toronto will lessen the impact of these additions on their bottom line, and in return receive both a flexible DH spot as well as a potentially serviceable fit for the 2018 roster.
Given their comparative budget constraints to teams like the the Yankees and Red Sox, Toronto will need to maximize the value of the players that they do have in order to compete this season. By becoming more flexible and allocating for more rest days without a severe talent drop in replacement players, the Blue Jays can be more proactive in managing their players’ health. Building a multi-layered platoon of utility players might be able to compete with the suddenly larger number of superstars present in the AL playoff race, and the first step in the direction of a flexible roster structure is trading away the inflexibility of Kendrys Morales.
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