It has not been the most inspiring winter for Blue Jays, in particular coming off the magical three month run to the cusp of the World Series. David Price is gone to a divisional rival. Payroll looks to be flatish over last year (though up a little over opening day). And the front office has been overhauled after the stunning departure of Alex Anthopoulos.
In my view, what's made this such a dreary or disappointing if not disastrous winter is that the best transactions have been of the solid-to-meh variety, but there hasn't really been any clearly good moves, while everyone can point to a move or two that they don't really like.
For me, that's the Liam Hendriks - Jesse Chavez trade, which exchanged four cheap years of a breakout reliever for one year of Jesse Chavez. But even there, one could discern some strategic rationale even if not liking the value: the Jays had very weak depth at starting pitching, and Chavez bolstered that - especially if one believes Chavez can reasonably manage contact in the AL East (I don't). That's been somewhat undercut by subsequent additions that make it seem likely that Chavez will start in the bullpen and at most be a swingman, but hindsight is 20/20.
The rest fall mostly in the category of solid if unspectacular. Two years and $26-million for Marco Estrada looks decent given his projection as a roughly average pitcher, with a reasonable balance of upside and risk. I'd never have imagined J.A. Happ being worth $36-million, and there's a lot of volatility in potential outcomes, but he also has a reasonable track record of a mid-to-backend starter, and free agent pitching is expensive. Most fans were bullish on the Drew Storen - Ben Revere swap, and it's fine because of needs and surplus, but in general moving two years of an average regular position player for one year of a very-good-but-not-elite 60 inning reliever is value destructive.
But then on Monday evening the news broke that the Jays had a deal in place to acquire Jay Bruce, whom they had apparently been targeting aggressively this winter. We still don't have all the details, most significantly who was sending money and prospects and who they were, and probably won't since it's dead. Despite that incomplete information, it's really hard to see what the Jays were thinking either from a strategic rationale or in terms of value gained and received.
Bruce is not without his merits, namely excellent production from 2010-13, 2016 only just his age-29 season, and an offensive profile suited to the Rogers Centre. But his production has been significantly down and below average for 1,200 plate appearances the last two years, and his $12.5-million salary is a lot to bet on a bounceback. And projection systems are not bullish, with ZiPS projecting 1.7 WAR (108 OPS+) and Steamer just 0.6 WAR (96 wRC+), both in ~600 PA. So basically, maybe a bit above league average hitting over a largely full season, with divergent defensive views.
On the flip side, I can understand why the front office may not be satisfied with Michael Saunders starting in left field, given that he's a holdover from the previous regime who may have been a lot higher on him. There's the injury problems that, beyond wiping out 2015, limited him to averaging 110-120 games a year. Which is why ZiPS and Steamer are projecting him just under 300 PA. Both see him around average offensively (104 OPS+ and 100 wRC+ respectively, which is very similar to Bruce.
So Bruce projects similarly in terms of offensive value, and a little behind Saunders defensively. There's more volatility there, he's a better bet to stay on the field and can be controlled in 2017. But Bruce is over $10-million more expensive (including the 2017 option buyout that is owed regardless). Surely there are better uses for that money (I'll get to this more later) than replacing Saunders with Bruce.
This is particular the case given the Jays have Dalton Pompey waiting in the wings. He struggled in 2015 after being handed the opening day job with all of 226 PA at AA or higher. But he now has close to 800 PA and though he struggled on his initial demotion to Buffalo, he destroyed AA (.351/.405/.545) and in his second stint AAA (.327/.414/.414). All signs point to him being MLB ready in 2016, and able to step him if and when Saunders misses time.
But it gets even worse than that. If the front office doesn't like Saunders as a starting option AND doesn't think Pompey is ready, then they still had Ben Revere. He's not a star and a little questionable defensively in left field, but he's been a consistent average regular who is in his prime and may not be done yet improving offensively. In other words, exactly the type of player one wants on a "win now" team, as opposed to betting on an expensive player to rebound. He's a little more expensive than Saunders at $6.25-million, but still well worth it.
Of course, Revere was used to acquire Storen, who figures to be an important part of the bullpen. But as I stated above, a quality full-time position player will have more impact than a non-elite 60 inning reliever. As a further rejoinder, if having a very good reliever is so important, well, don't trade Hendriks for a swingman (who are not that hard to find). And Saunders could have been instead flipped, as there's clearly some interest, maybe even bringing a bullpen arm back (perhaps requiring getting a third team involved).
So really just the major league component makes little sense. But there's also the report that the deal fell apart over medical issues with a Jays prospect who was in the deal. For this kind of deal with significant major league players to fall apart over a prospect, the obvious conclusion is it was a significant prospect. Given that combination, all signs point to Max Pentecost, the 2014 11th overall pick, who presumably would have gone to Cincinnati as part of their rebuilding effort, and have them eat some salary (or LAA covering the money in exchange for Saunders since their farm system is barren).
To be clear, this last part is speculation. At this point, given the serious injury problems, Pentecost is a lottery ticket far from the big leagues, and a disposable asset in the right deal for a team positioned to win now (and perfect for a rebuilding team). But that's far different than facilitating a deal that isn't an improvement over what they have or could have had. And even the prospect was not Pentecost, the same logic applies: giving up a prospect or prospects for any future assets to make room for Bruce just doesn't make sense.
No matter how I look at it, I can't see what the front office is thinking when it comes to Bruce, other than they're super, super bullish on him rebounding. If they could could make that bet on the cheap, that would be one thing (though even then it's riskier for a contending team). But if there's $10-million of budget room sitting around there were and are much better uses, and it's not worth giving up prospects to induce other teams to balance the salaries otherwise.
More disconcertingly, there's an element of strategic incoherence in what's happened this offseason. They struck early to get rotation depth, at a high cost in Liam Hendriks. That hole was backfilled for 2016 by flipping Revere for Storen. But to some extent, it looks like now they're not satisfied with the left field situation, and are trying backfill that. Meanwhile, even without Chavez the rotation depth looks decent (Stroman-Dickey-Estrada-Happ, Floyd-Hutch-Sanchez-Osuna as 5th starter and depth options), so setting off the lead domino looks increasingly questionable.
There was a lot of ill-will and skepticism of the incoming front office in the wake of Anthopoulos departing and given their lackluster record in Cleveland. I have been willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, but at this point with the winter behind them it's becoming a lot less benefit and a lot more doubt.