More speed. More versatility. More left-handers. More depth. Those were the talking points from the winter of 2016/17, as the Blue Jays tried to navigate an offseason full of change.
The highest-profile signings that followed?
Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, Joe Smith, J.P. Howell, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jeff Beliveau, Mat Latos and Chris Coghlan.
Of course, there was also the fairly strong connection to Dexter Fowler, as well as the evergreen Jay Bruce rumors and apparent interest in Sean Rodriguez. What a time it was. But for all the scuttlebutt, the Jays came away with the players in the list above. There’s not a lot in that list that seemed to correspond with the team’s obvious and publicized list of desires. And while most of these signings were of the minimal-risk variety, the lack of perceived impact acquisitions drew frustration from a good chunk of the fanbase. Toronto decided to slow-play the offseason, and while they came away with a decent batch of players on contracts that were hard to hate, it wasn’t clear that the team had checked any of their own boxes.
The Jays’ signings this winter, though? Aledmys Diaz, Curtis Granderson, Yangervis Solarte, Randal Grichuk, Jaime Garcia, Seung-Hwan Oh, Jake Petricka, John Axford and Al Albuquerque.
That’s infield versatility. That’s legitimate depth, improved athleticism and some lefty bats. It’s depth in the starting rotation and in the bullpen at minimal cost. If you squint, it looks like someone’s shopping list from January 2017 — only this time, the grocery store had all the right ingredients.
The Jays dipped into the trade market this time around, whereas last season’s additions all came in free agency. Still, it’s safe to say that they took a patient approach to the offseason again, and while the rest of the league seemed to do the same, they were still able to add plenty of potential value relatively cheaply.
Per PECOTA projections, the new position players and Garcia are projected to accrue 5.1 WARP this season. That’s 5.1 WARP (theoretically, and without the relief corps) that the team has picked up since December 1st without having to dish out major money. According to PECOTA, only the Brewers (8.0) have a batch of new players that account for more projected WARP while only the Cubs (3.9), Yankees (3.9) and Angels (3.6) are near the same ballpark.
Chicago spent $205 million on their bunch (I’ve taken Drew Smyly out of the equation for now), and Milwaukee spent $105 million plus major prospects on theirs. The Angels’ arrivals cost them around $45 million, though 2.8 of their projected WARP is coming from the outrageously underpriced Shohei Ohtani. And the Yankees are basically getting all of that increase from Giancarlo Stanton, who was somehow acquired for an old metrocard and a song. The Jays spent just under $18 million on their signings (ignoring the deals of the minor league variety at the moment), though they did have to give up a useful player in Dominic Leone and a former top prospect in Conner Greene for Grichuk.
That’s just an on-paper exercise to take a look at how this winter has unfolded, and things can certainly deviate from those projections in a big way. But by staying patient, the Jays have been able to assemble a very solid group that doesn’t have nearly as many holes as last season’s squad. That they’ve been able to accomplish this while maximizing their dollars in an offseason where everyone has been hesitant to throw money around is a testament to their ability to execute the strategy of taking things slowly.
And really, that’s the approach that best suited the Jays when the current front office took over. 2015 was carried by a historic offensive performance that was unlikely to repeat itself, while 2016 was built on the back of great starting pitching that had an incredible run of good health. The team was destined for a step back. That step back, in the form of a sub-.500 2017 season, has allowed them to reassess their standing and pivot, slowly but surely, into the type of organization that Shapiro and company want to create. In the meantime, they’ve assembled a nice stockpile of young players who could soon be kicking down the door, and by collecting a group of unspectacular but helpful players on shorter-term deals they’ve avoided potential logjams down the line. No need to block those paths with someone who’ll be overpaid and potentially in decline when the minor leaguers are ready to graduate. In the short-term, it also saves some of the players on the edges from being thrown into the deep end before they’re ready. If Teoscar Hernandez dominates in Dunedin, he’ll find his way onto the roster. If not, he can be safely returned to the minors for a little more seasoning without forcing the team to change their plans at the last minute.
While the approach lacks sizzle and doesn’t move the needle like emptying the wallet would have, the Jays’ floor continues to rise and they’re now firmly in the Wild Card conversation – especially if they get some better fortune on the injury front. Your mileage may vary there, but the team has done pretty well to stay relevant while killing time until Vlad, Bo, et al arrive.
Realistically, both last season and this season, the Jays are in the Wild Card pack. It just doesn’t make sense for this team to make a ton of moves with potential overpays unless they can land a big fish that’s a perfect fit. Signing Fowler last winter would’ve been a tremendous get, but there was no need to dole out bushels of money for a lesser fit considering the outfielders who are likely to kiss Buffalo goodbye in the next year or two. Going after a top-tier pitcher like Yu Darvish is another conversation, but it just doesn’t seem like it’s in the team’s DNA to go after a player who’ll require a big commitment, in either dollars or years, unless it’s a complete slam dunk. (Buckle up for the Josh Donaldson talks, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.)
It keeps with the underlying theme of flexibility that’s emerged since Shapiro and Atkins took the helm. The Jays have operated carefully so as to have their bases covered with moderate-cost alternatives should their initial, “big idea” plans fail. They were a team at a major decision point and the organization decided to move in a new direction, though they couldn’t fill all of their needs in 2017. The Jays took two offseasons to address their biggest needs, but they’re most certainly more versatile, faster and deeper than they were before. To have done it without creating huge, burdensome future commitments suggests that their patience has paid off, even if 2017 was a year to forget.
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