Despite back-to-back ALCS appearances, Toronto's front office looks destined for a busy offseason. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista were two of the best hitters in franchise history, and Ross Atkins will have to work overtime to replace their offensive production. The Blue Jays may have to get creative, but with a strong offseason, there's no reason this team cannot field a playoff-calibre roster once again.
Barring an unexpected trade, Toronto's rotation appears to be set. The back-end of the bullpen also remains largely in tact, so the main focus will be bolstering the lineup. It will be next to impossible to match the production of Bautista and Encarnacion, but the team can help offset this loss by upgrading at multiple positions throughout the roster.
Toronto's Offseason Game Plan:
1) Do not offer a Qualifying Offer to Michael Saunders:
He's a fine player, but simply not worth the $17.2 million investment. An extensive injury history, poor defensive numbers, and a horrible second half should keep the Blue Jays from taking this risk. This should be a no-brainer, but the Blue Jays can keep an eye on him in case his price drops significantly. Is there any doubt that he would accept a qualifying offer?
2) "Keep Calm And Carry On"- The Blue Jays Can Contend Without Encarnacion and Bautista:
Let's make one thing clear: the team can afford to bring back at least one of the two players. The real question is: that the best use of available funds?
The Blue Jays decided to spread the money around last offseason, which sure looks like a smart decision right now. Replacing the 2016-version of Jose Bautista is not overly difficult, and Toronto still made it to the ALCS despite his down year. It would be nice to get him back, especially if he can boast a bounce-back season, but the front office must account for a possible decline.
Encarnacion's bat is almost impossible to replace, but it's not overly difficult to acquire decent production out of the DH spot. If he departs, the Blue Jays can offset the offensive drop off by spreading the money around to upgrade at other positions. Toronto will surely keep an eye on his asking price, but a return does not appear to be likely at this time.
3) Platoon, Platoon, Platoon:
It's an easy way to boost offensive production, yet the Blue Jays did not run many platoons last season. Toronto could use a left-handed bat or two in their lineup, and platoon players tend to come at a cheaper price. The Jays already have an effective bat against lefties in Melvin Upton Jr., so finding him a left-handed hitting partner could help to replace Michael Saunders in left field.
Darrell Ceciliani crushed right-handed pitching in AAA this year and could challenge for a spot in spring training.
4) Acquire a Left-Handed Reliever:
If Brett Cecil departs, Toronto will be in desperate need of a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen. It's unclear if Aaron Loup will return, and there doesn't seem to be much depth in this area throughout the minors. Joe Biagini and Dan Barnes can help to retire tough left-handed hitters, but it would be nice to have at least one southpaw in the bullpen.
One name to keep an eye on: Brad Hand of the San Diego Padres.
5) Improve the Outfield Defence:
Kevin Pillar is a gold-glove calibre defender, but that does not mean that the team should settle for mediocre corner outfielders. It will be extremely difficult to match the offensive production of Bautista and Saunders, but the front office can help mitigate this gap by improving defensively.
The last two World Series Champions boasted incredible outfield defences, and the division rival Boston Red Sox will surely be strong in this area. Toronto nearly acquired Jay Bruce last offseason, but the team should put a stronger emphasis on defence this time around.
6) Upgrade Over Justin Smoak At First Base:
Wikipedia can teach us a few valuable lessons about sunk costs. Sure, his extension hasn't even started yet, but he is simply not worth the roster spot at this time. Toronto's front office may try to save face, but they'd be better off upgrading at first base and chalking this one up as a loss.
Toronto should look to trade Smoak, even if it means retaining a fair amount of salary in a deal. Otherwise, go into the offseason looking for an upgrade, and keep him around in case a spot opens up in Spring Training. If Bautista and Encarnacion depart, the Jays cannot afford to get minimal production at such a key offensive position.
7) Acquire Starting Pitching Depth:
Say what you want about R.A. Dickey, but the knuckleballer was extremely effective at taking the mound every 5th day. Dickey made 130 starts over a four year span, and Toronto's front office will need to find a way to replace those innings. After trading Drew Hutchison, the roster lacks quality starting pitching depth in the upper minors, and losing Scott Feldman in free agency would hurt matters even further.
Mike Bolsinger is out of options and is just one season removed from posting a 3.62 ERA across 21 starts with the Dodgers. However, after his poor 2016 season, Toronto will surely want to create some competition in this area. The starting pitching market is bare, but Toronto could use one of their excess outfielders to make a trade for a swingman.
The Big Picture
Toronto should have $20+ million to spend this offseason, and that is enough to build a contender once again. The roster still boasts a MVP candidate in Josh Donaldson, plus the rotation is one of the best in the American League. Let's hope the Blue Jays can accomplish these seven goals, and create a team that can get back to the playoffs for the third consecutive season. Keep an eye out for the annual "Free Agent Wish List" post, which will be out later this week.