Salvaging the Blue Jays’ Winter

To this point, the Blue Jays’ winter hasn’t really gone as they had hoped. The team made a strong push to re-sign Edwin Encarnacion right out of the gates, but when he turned down a reported $80 million over four years in order to test the market, they decided that they needed to make sure they didn’t get left without an alternative option, and so they pounced on the worse-but-cheaper Kendrys Morales, giving him $33 million over three years instead.

When the news leaked, I explained why I wasn’t a big fan of the signing.

With Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista, the Jays have two DH-type players that they could have signed to much more lucrative long-term deals, but Morales presents a much cheaper option, giving the team the flexibility to spend the extra $40 or $50 million on an outfielder, bullpen upgrades, or both. Instead of putting their money into one better player, the Jays look like they’re again going to bet on depth.

In general, I think that plan can often work out, especially if you have some serious holes on the roster that need addressing, as the Jays do. In practice, though, I’m not sure if I’m as excited about spending $33 million on Kendrys Morales as part of a spread-things-around approach.

So, yeah, $33 million for the age 34-36 seasons of a decent hitter who can’t run seems like not a great use of funds to me. The team could still make this plan worthwhile if they spend the savings on a quality regular or a couple of good role players, but Morales himself just isn’t that good.

By giving Morales just a portion of what the team had allocated for Encarnacion, the Jays should still have some money to spend in order to round out the roster. Just the difference between their DH offers total $47 million, which should be enough to get them an upgrade (or two) over Ezequiel Carrera and Melvin Upton in the outfield. Of course, you won’t get a superstar for that kind of money — Josh Reddick got $52 million, for reference — but there’s at least enough money left to make the decision to not let Encarnacion’s market play itself out look a little less awkward.

After all, it’s easy to crush the Blue Jays for giving Morales $33 million when Encarnacion ended up signing for $60 million, but that is using information not available at the time to say that the Jays should have anticipated that Encarnacion’s market was going to crater. I don’t know that it was something that should have been reasonably forecasted, given his consistency, durability, and the fact that MLB teams have generally paid well for his skillset. I projected Encarnacion would get 4/$84M this winter; the crowd projected 4/$90M. It’s fair to say that the Jays perhaps should not have seen Morales as a target so good they couldn’t let him get away, limiting their options in the process, but I think once Encarnacion turned down 4/$80M, they probably were correct to think that they were better off going another direction, since similar players to Encarnacion have not aged particularly well.

But right now, with Encarnacion in Cleveland on a contract the Jays clearly would have signed in a heartbeat at the start of the winter, the series of decisions that led to this point are easy to take issue with. Sure, they have some money to spend, but they now have a worse old DH, a 1B platoon of a bad player and a frequently injured guy, and they still haven’t found any corner outfielders. On January 3rd, this all doesn’t look great.

But in looking forward, I wonder if this isn’t actually going to work out just fine for the Blue Jays. Because, barring some unforeseen new bidder for Jose Bautista, the Jays might end up getting the better of their two star sluggers back, with perhaps enough money left over to make their team better than if they had been able to re-sign Encarnacion to begin with.

As Jeff Passan wrote recently, Jose Bautista (at his original asking price, anyway) has been essentially rejected by the league, and has found himself without any real serious suitors through the first two months of the winter, and is reportedly now open to talking about a one year deal. If he has a bounce back 2017 season and hits free agency next winter without a qualifying offer attached — the new CBA states that players can’t be offered a QO more than once in their career — he could very likely do better overall than by taking a discounted multi-year deal this winter, even though he’ll be another year older.

And a one year deal with Bautista is just about the perfect option for the Jays. For all the talk of Bautista aging and his skills declining, he just put up a 122 wRC+ in a down year, which is still pretty good. For context, the Jays have been frequently mentioned as a possible landing spot for Jay Bruce, since they tried to trade for him last spring, and as a corner outfielder with one year left on his deal, he’d fit what the Jays are looking for. Except in the best offensive season of his career (2010), Bruce put up a 124 wRC+, the only time he’s ever put up a better offensive season than what Bautista did last year. A broken-down, playing-through-injury Bautista was basically as good a hitter as Bruce at his absolute best.

If the Jays can really get Bautista for something like $20-$25 million on a one-year deal, they’ll likely be better off than if they had re-signed Encarnacion and traded for Bruce (or someone of his ilk) to fill the hole in RF. The Jays were never going to bring back both of their star sluggers, so if they had landed Encarnacion at that $20 million a year price tag, the replacement outfielder would probably have ended up being roughly equal in price and value to Morales. Landing Bautista for something close to the Encarnacion salary for 2017, without the multi-year commitment on the more expensive player, would give the Jays similar expected performance without nearly as much long-term risk.

While his poor-for-him 2016 season and the league’s muted interest in his services might help push the narrative that Bautista is reaching the end of his career, both ZIPS and Steamer see Bautista as roughly a +3 WAR player next year, with similar offensive projections as Encarnacion. While reasonable people could certainly prefer Encarnacion, and it’s fine to wish the team had gotten him for the 3/$60M that Cleveland ended up paying, it’s hard to argue that Bautista at 1/~$20M is not an even better option. Even if it’s closer to $25 million, that’s still a reasonable price for a high-level hitter.

And then, with another year of information about how well his body is actually holding up, the Jays could decide whether to keep him in Toronto for the end of his career, or allocate that significant chunk of their budget elsewhere next winter; an option they would not have had if they had re-signed Encarnacion.

Right now, it’s easy to look at the Jays’ winter and say that they should have done things differently. And some of us were even saying that the Morales signing was questionable when it happened, not just after Encarnacion’s price ended up coming down. But whether by good fortune or because they anticipated that Bautista might have a tough road in free agency, the Jays might end up in a better position for both 2017 and long-term than if Encarnacion had taken their original offer. If they get Joey Bats back on a one year deal, we might still question some of the decisions that got them to this point, but the end result might just be better than if they had gotten their way from the start.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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