Free agent frenzy

Blue Jays will be active this year in the free agent market

Graphic by Caroline Norman.

Tt’s the end of an era for the Blue Jays. José Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion declined their qualifying offers and elected to go to free agency. It is assumed that they will both sign elsewhere as they are both in demand, especially with Encarnacion at 33 years old coming off another spectacular season in which he led the American League in RBIs with 127. Bautista, at 36 years old, showed signs of aging the past two seasons with injuries and so the demand for his help in the outfield may not be as high, but he still provides some pop in the batting lineup.

That leaves some holes for Jays management to deal with. They patched the open DH spot left behind by Encarnacion and signed Kendrys Morales to a three-year, USD$33 million contract. The switch-hitting Morales played for the Kansas City Royals last year and in 154 games slashed .263/.327/.468. He hit 30 home runs and batted in 93 runs. He’ll fit well with a team that is known to rely on the long ball and has a batting lineup dominated by right-hands.

With that, there’s some added flexibility. There is still a hole in the outfield that could potentially be filled by the speedy Dalton Pompey or Darrell Ceciliani, but those options are less than desirable. Relief pitching has also been somewhat a topic as of late for the Jays. Joe Biagini was a fantastic rule five pick as shown in 2016, Jason Grilli added depth and a veteran presence and so his option was picked up for 2017, and Roberto Osuna has shown no signs of stopping. Still, the lefty Brett Cecil signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, and besides the aforementioned three, if you saw anyone else come into the game in 2016 it was usually followed with a groan. First base will likely be platooned by Justin Smoak and possibly Chris Colabello. Their poor batting may tempt management to look for some help at that position.

The Manitoban takes a look at some of the players the Jays should pursue this off-season. There will be a brief look at the defensive side as well using “Total Defensive Runs Saved” (DRS). DRS measures how many runs the player has saved above or below the average for that position.


Dexter Fowler, outfielder

With Josh Reddick signed by the Houston Astros, the pool of outfield free agents suitable for the Jays has thinned. Fowler is one to look at, although it comes with a price, and not just salary-wise. Fowler rejected a qualifying offer from the Cubs, and so any team that does sign Fowler must surrender a first-round pick. This might be a bit of a turn-off for the Jays, as their farm system has been depleted through the trades for Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, and David Price.

They are surely looking to rebuild that system, but this is a question of balancing costs. With Fowler, you get a premier lead-off man who had an on-base percentage of .393 in 2016 with the Cubs. Overall, he hit .276/.393/.447 for the season with a DRS of one. As well, should Encarnacion and Bautista both sign elsewhere, as a result of the qualifying offer system, the Jays will be compensated with picks at the end of the first round in the 2017 MLB draft. At the age of 30, Fowler would probably look for a similar contract that the 29-year-old Reddick signed: a four-year, $52 million deal.


Koji Uehara, relief pitcher

The Jays seem to have a knack for taking old pitchers and getting whatever life they have left in them: first LaTroy Hawkins in 2015, followed by Joaquin Benoit and Jason Grilli in 2016. So why not try with Uehara?

The 41-year-old had a decent 2016 campaign, garnering a 3.45 ERA and 12.06 strikeouts per nine innings in 47 innings pitched. Though the velocity has dipped recently, he still carries a nasty splitter and has not been known to be a hard hurler. What works for him is the spin rate he gets on his pitches that deceives batters, much like starting pitcher Marco Estrada.

He also won the World Series with the Red Sox in 2013 and was named MVP in the American League Championship Series of that year. He could provide some depth and experience for a Jays bullpen that has been trying to find answers the past couple seasons.


Dae-ho Lee, first base

Signed away from overseas in 2016 by the Seattle Mariners, Lee appeared in 104 games for the Mariners. Though he was sent down to the minors late in the season due to poor performance, there is still some potential here if you compare the numbers with the current first basemen the Jays might roll with in 2017:

Lee (317 plate appearances): .253/.312/.428, 14 home runs, 49 RBIs; strikeout percentage, 23.3; DRS (622 innings), -3

Smoak (341 plate appearances): .217/.314/.391, 14 home runs, 33 RBIs; strikeout percentage, 32.8; DRS (737.2 innings), -5

Colabello, 2015 (360 plate appearances): .321/.367/.520, 15 home runs, 54 RBIS; strikeout percentage, 26.7; DRS (365 innings), -14

Colabello’s 2015 stats were used since his 2016 season was cut short due to suspension. It’s also important to note that he absolutely turned it up in the second half of the 2015 season and hit .315/.360/.551, which definitely inflated his stats. In 2016 he completely crashed, and in his lone 32 plate appearances he hit .069/.156/.069 and had one RBI to his name. He had no DRS to measure, as he spent one inning in the outfield and the rest as DH.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see that Lee would be somewhat of an upgrade compared to the two possible candidates at first base. Anyone who kept up with the Jays in the second half of the season knows how painful it was to watch Smoak chase pitches and strikeout. Though Lee is 34 years old, the Jays could get him at a bargain to help hold down the fort until something else comes along. Having him in a hitter-friendly park like the Skydome also helps, rather than the outfield abyss that is Safeco Field. It would be a low-risk, high-reward situation, especially for a man who might be looking to redeem himself after a mediocre 2016 season.