Breaking Up is Hard to Do: can Jays survive departure of big 3 bats?
As the champagne starts to dry in Cleveland and the Cubs are crowned champions, it is now time for MLB’s 29 other teams (the Cubs can have a few extra days) to start looking to the future. The Jays are coming off a second straight successful campaign but now find themselves at a crossroad. Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, Michael Saunders (and their combined 88 homeruns) are set to become free agents and Mark Shapiro and Co. must decide how they will build this team moving forward.
Over the last two seasons, the Jays have lived and died by the long ball making them at times the most electrifying team in baseball and other times the most frustrating. Both Toronto’s 2015 and 2016 post seasons ended with runners in scoring positions, a recurring theme throughout this era. And during this offseason, Jays’ management must figure out how to diversify Toronto’s one-dimensional offense.
So could letting the sluggers walk be beneficial to the 2017 Jays’ bottom line? The reality is Toronto needs to diversify their lineup and if this means reallocating dollars and resources from their sluggers to more well-rounded players that is just a price they will have to pay.
Why do the Jays need change?
Since the last two seasons have been Toronto’s best in decades, people may wonder why management would change directions? Well if you look at the overall stats and records of the ’15 and ’16 Jays, they do indeed appear to be perennial contenders. But if you dig a little deeper you discover that this feast or famine offense was wildly inconsistent over the full season. Here are a few examples of Toronto’s ups and downs in that two-year span.
Toronto was under .500 for the first two months of both the 2015 and 2016 season. The ’15 edition seemed destined to miss the playoffs again but was saved by an absurd 40-18 run after the trade deadline. In 2016 the Jays again had a big summer that put them back in contention.
Toronto seemed posed for another AL East title this season until the floor fell out from under them in September. Their inconsistent offense almost cost them the playoffs, barely clinching a Wild Card spot on the final day of the season.
And of course in the ALCS saw Toronto bamboozled by a depleted Indians rotation. Although Andrew Miller was a one-man wrecking crew, it was the Jays inability to plate runs against inexperienced starters like Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt that saw them lose winnable games.
And although the Jays led the league in HRs in 2015 and were fourth this season, that was the extent of their offensive repertoire. The team was 12th in the AL in batting average (.248), 12th in average with runners in scoring position RISP (.249) and 13th in stolen bases (54) all areas that will need to be addressed this off-season. And Saunders, Bautista and Encarnacion don’t bring much to the table in any of those categories.
And when it comes to the post-season we’ve seen heavy hitting teams rarely go deep into October. The crafty, well-managed, small ball clubs (like the ‘16 Indians, ’15 Royals) tend to sneak their way past the flashy power clubs and leave their opponents scratching their heads. In the last 10 World Series, only one team that led the league in homeruns (the 2009 New York Yankees) has won. And if we take the last 10 winners and calculate their average rank in homeruns it comes out at a less than impressive 12.7, right in the middle of the pack.
This is not to say that power is not helpful. If Shapiro could resign Bautista and Edwin and find the funds to fill their various other needs, then surely there would be no complaints. But when slugging comes at the expense of the team’s overall hitting, change is needed.
What changes would be made?
Speculating about next season’s budget and what various free agents will sign for is fruitless, so I won’t.
But radical changes to the Jays offensive philosophy may be just what the doctor ordered. Has Toronto’s homerun heavy offense created a ‘lazy batters’ mentality? The numbers show the current team lacks serious fundamental baseball skills. In game seven of the World Series, the Indians’ backup catcher (Roberto Hernandez) laid down a “perfect bunt” to move up the runner, who eventually scored. In a close game, in a close Series, having lesser players step up with heads up baseball is crucial, and this was something the 2016 Jays either refused to do, or were not able to do.
When experts were pressed on why the Jays struggled with the non-slugging aspects of the game, the general response was a shrug of the shoulders and a generic unhelpful commentary like “you don’t pay these guys to bunt.” Before the ALCS, Gibbons was asked if he was concerned at all about his team’s lack of small ball he said in classic Gibby-style:
“Generally, a guy on second, no outs, guys are going to try to get him over anyway… Usually. There are guys you don’t want trying to do that.”
Saying everything and absolutely nothing all at once.
This might explain why in Game 3 of the ALDS with runners on first and second, with no outs, Jose Bautista was allowed to swing for the fences. Bautista struck out, Russell Martin hit in to what should have been a routine double play but Odor threw the ball away and all was forgiven. But was Bautista “trying” to move the runner over? Or maybe Bautista qualified as one of those bats Gibbons wouldn’t want to sacrifice to move over the runners. But in the post-season with the winning run in scoring position, should there really be any player that is above the goal of victory?
After being acquired at the 2015 deadline, speedster Ben Revere stated, "I just come over here, just try my best, just get on base for the big hammer guys…If I get on base, nine out of 10 times I'm probably scoring."
Jays’ fans were thrilled that Revere, a stolen base specialist, would bring a new tool to Toronto’s offense. But the results never materialized. In 366 at bats in Philadelphia he managed 24 stolen bases in 29 tries, in Toronto he had 226 ABs and only 7 SB in 9 attempts. Now whether this was Revere’s decision or whether it came from above is unknown but upon arriving in Toronto Revere’s most effective skillset seemed to disappear. Did the Blue Jays’ big bats make Revere change his approach? It certainly seems so.
After being handed the leadoff spot this spring Kevin Pillar made a similar statement, suggesting that batting in front of Toronto’s big-3 would be easy.
“I promise you, with Josh hitting behind me, if he’s in the two-hole I’ll get some better pitches to hit. . . We always talk about walks, and yeah walks are going to happen. But I’m out there to hit. If I get a good pitch, I’m not going to sit around and try to walk.
The Pillar leadoff experiment was a disaster, as he managed just a .198 average and one walk in 86 ABs before being moved down in the order. But again Pillar’s comments suggested that the homerun hitters would carry the team, relieving him of the pressures of leading off.
Now letting Bautista swing away in a playoff game (when a single would do) may not be a huge problem. But the fact is when you have a leadoff man who doesn’t believe in walks, a stolen base artist who suddenly stops stealing and a coach who doesn’t understand why he’s players can’t move runners over - something is fundamentally wrong.
Change is coming in BJ Nation. For the last several years the potential departure of Encarnacion and Bautista has been portrayed as the end of the “competitive window.” Lingering over the fan base as an impending doom. But much like last off-season Jays’ management has a choice. Last year the Jays decided to pass on David Price and eventually he signed a record 7-year/$217 million deal with the Red Sox (making $30 million in 2016). Instead Toronto decided to spread the wealth re-signing RA Dickey, Marco Estrada and JA Happ (who made a combined $33 million in 2016) to round out their rotation. The results have so far favoured the Jays, as both Happ and Estrada had Cy Young type seasons and Price had arguably his worse season since his rookie year. So if re-upping on Saunders, Bautista and Edwin, handicaps you from addressing other areas of concerns then Shapiro should feel no hesitation to pass up on these big ticket guys.
Toronto has a history of bad and awkward breakups. You look around the Wall of Excellence at Rogers Centre, you’ll find a bunch of stars that either left for greener pastures or were shipped off. Career Jays just aren’t a thing. It’s hard not to get sentimental when thinking about Edwin and Bautista. Both men made their name in this town, making this team relevant once more, so it’s hard to envision either of them dawning an opposing team’s jersey. But as we learned last year the emotional move is not always the best. Toronto does stand at a crossroad this off-season but it is not the doomsday scenario that it seemed a few years back. It would certainly be nice to see Encarnacion and/or Bautista ride off into the sunset wearing Blue Jays blue (much like David Ortiz did this season) but life rarely has such fairytale endings.