In choosing a free agent target, I start with an assumption and a premise. First, I'm assuming that there's not much money, so we're looking at a budget pick. The Blue Jays currently figure to have about $120 million currently committed to 2015, with a stated intention to go above last year's $138 million or so payroll. Ostensibly, that leaves plenty of room to go shopping, but I don't really think so. Even if one takes Beeston at his word, there are a lot of holes to fill, Basically everywhere but the starting rotation. It appears that the focus is on retaining Melky Cabrera or maybe even Russell Martin, either of whom would put a pretty big dent in the remaining budget.
Which leads to me my premise: that the overriding priority this offseason must be upgrading the infield, particularly at second base where the term black hole is insufficient to describe how little production the Jays have got from their keystone sacker the last two years. Unfortunately the current options look worse now than they did going into last season. A year ago, there was reason to think (or hope in any event) that Ryan Goins could hit enough to let his defensively ability carry the strong side of a platoon. But his 2014 extinguished such hopes. Maicer Izturis will be 34, coming off a ligament injury that wiped out most of 2014 and of course the complete collapse that was 2013. We can hope for the best, but counting on much of anything is folly. Munenori Kawasaki may prefer to go back to Japan, and he doesn't hit enough to even be a platoon option. Steve Tolleson could be the weak side of a platoon, but that's it.
The recently acquired Devon Travis presents an intriguing possibility for the future, but promoting him from double-A to presumptive major league opening day starter would be quite aggressive and quite risky--unduly so, especially coming off surgery this offseason. There's also the option of using Brett Lawrie at second base. That opens up a hole at third, but that could potentially be easier to fill either externally or internally (Juan Francisco-Danny Valencia platoon, anyone?). Of course, there's still the issue of him staying healthy, and I think his defensive value is optimized at the hot corner. So my free agent pick will be a second baseman.
The first candidate is Jed Lowrie, who Nick chose earlier as his pick. My primary issue production-wise is how he'll fare defensively. DRS has never rated him particularly well, with negative values the last couple years. Maybe it's a blip, but at his age and with his injury history, it could also indicate a permanent impairment of skill, the last thing the Blue Jays need. Then there's the potential contract
, and the lost draft pick (see comments below). The three-year $30 million crowdsourced at FanGraphs would likely be reasonable value, but in this market I think he gets an extra year or higher average annual value. Plus, he could potentially block the newly-acquired Travis.
Rickie Weeks would be an interesting option if not for the fact that both UZR and DRS indicate that defensively he's about as good at second base as Melky Cabrera probably would be. I can't imagine that putting him on turf at age 32 would either improve that or help preserve his health. Similarly, Asdrubal Cabrera does not rate well defensively, which disqualifies him as a target. Emilio Bonifacio has had a nice run in the three stops since the Toronto moved him 15 months ago, but I can't imagine the one-time Futility Man would be a consideration for a second go-around. Alberto Callaspo could be an interesting bounceback candidate, but he's graded out significantly better defensively at third base than second.
And so, we come to Stephen Drew, who is coming off a disastrous 2014 which began with him not finding a team willing to forfeit a draft pick to sign him to a contract he liked, leading him not to sign until May. From there, things went further downhill, as Drew posted a 57 wRC+ in 39 games with Boston before being traded to the Yankees for whom he posted a 32 wRC+ in 46 games. Despite solid defensive ratings at second and shortstop, he finished with -1.1 WAR.
A major culprit for his awful 2014 was a .194 BABIP, over 100 points below his career mark of .299. That can be expected to rebound significantly. On the positive side, his 2014 plate discipline was in line with the last couple years, though the longer term is negative. His power (.137 ISO) also slumped below his career average (.168) so some upwards regression could be expected there too.
Overall, his production should rebound a lot closer to his career average 93 wRC+. FanGraphs projects him at a mediocre 1.1 WAR next year, which would be below-average production. But it's worth remembering how big an upgrade that would actually have been for the Jays the last couple years. That point estimate masks a wide range of outcomes. At 32 next year, there is a real chance that last season represents a fundamental decline, and Drew is done as a useful MLB regular or even player. We think of aging as a gradual process along a curve, but for many players it's more like falling off a cliff.
So why is he my target? Admittedly, I'm not wild about Drew, but he's a solid rebound candidate and coming off last year he's not going to have a ton of suitors, and will likely to looking for a pillow contract to rebuild his value. The hitter-friendly confines of the Rogers Centre may be an ideal venue to spark his bat, as it did a few years back for Alex Gonzalez. Moreover, he can also cover short in the event of Jose Reyes being injured, or when they give him days off of the turf.
The crowdsourcers at FanGraphs project a one-year contact at $6 or 7 million, which seems realistic to me given the market rate for wins and his 2015 projections. Alternatively, a contract with a lower base and significant incentives could be preferable for both sides. This fulfils the goal of solidifying the middle infield without busting the budget. Additionally, though not an initial rationale, it also avoids blocking Devon Travis long term if he merits the opportunity.
One obvious hang-up is that Drew is a Scott Boras client, and the Blue Jays have avoided doing business with his clients in recent memory. On top of that, Boras has publicly criticized the club for their spending policies, so there's likely no love lost on that side. Is this a deal breaker? Perhaps, but I'll bet that the Jays' desperate need for a major league second baseman and Drew's desperate need to revive his career will be enough to overcome that.
So there you have it: my low-conviction, bargain-budget 2015 free agent pick: Stephen Drew for one-year at $6 million and not a penny more. And if that doesn't get it done, well, I guess Blue Jays fans will have to hope that Lawrie stays healthy and either find a third baseman or run some platoons.