Toronto Blue Jays News

Blue Jays: 3 Free Agents You Might Not Have Considered

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Free agent season is almost upon us, and the internet is humming with talk of the Blue Jays signing David Price, Marco Estrada, Jeff Samardzija, and pretty much every other high-quality starting pitcher on the market.  But sometimes the most interesting acquisitions are the lesser signs – the players that fill a particular need without costing nine figures on a multi-year deal.

The following are three players, all free agents in 2015-16, in whom the Jays might have an interest.  None of these would be a mega-sign: in fact, the average salary of all of them combined should be less than one decent starting pitcher.  But, as the song goes, it is all about the base(s).

#1:  Justin Morneau

As Keegan pointed out in his very good article, Justin’s strengths – when healthy – fit the Jays very well.  I would go further and say that his weaknesses also fit the Jays.

As for example – Morneau has a history of concussions which have limited his playing time,  Even in his NL Batting Title 2014 year, he only played 135 games.  But that works for the Jays, who have Edwin as a primary DH but looking for some games at first, and Chris Colabello on the bench also looking for ABs.

Justin also has extreme splits.  From 2012-2014, Justin’s 135 wRC+ against right handed pitching was the 23rd best in baseball – tied with Paul Goldschmidt and three points behind Bryce Harper.  But he struggled against left-handed pitchers, with only a 53 wRC+ over that same period.  Again, that fits with the Jays – Colabello hit lefties better than righties, and the Jays see fewer lefthanders than average anyway (22.8% of Jays ABs in 2015 came against LHP, as compared to 29.6% for the AL as a whole).

And Justin’s batting style is also a good fit. He hits 15-20 HRs in a good year, but is primarily a high-average high-OBP left-handed hitter.  Perfect to lead into (or break up) the Jays’ Murderer’s Row.

On the subject of his defense:  Morneau has a lifetime UZR/150 at first of +2.9 and in 2014, his last ~healthy season, he had a +7.2 WAR and was a finalist for the NL Gold Glove at first base.

And last but definitely not least, Justin’s struggles should make him a relative bargain. Writers have speculated that, given his injury history, the best that he can hope to receive in 2016 is a modest one year contract with incentives, and possibly with an option year or two.

I see Justin as a gamble, but potentially a highly intelligent one.

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#2 – Tyler Clippard

The Jays discovered in 2014 and early 2015 how much a poor bullpen – particularly at the back end – could hurt a team’s performance.  The good news?  In 2015, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna largely solved that problem.  The bad news?  At least one of the two, and possible both, are expected to graduate to the starting rotation in 2016.  So the Jays will likely need a new closer, or at a minimum a new late-innings high-leverage guy.

So why is Clippard a dark horse candidate?  He has a lifetime ERA of 2.88 and closing experience as recently as 2015, and he will only be 31 years old on opening day.  A perfect fit, no?

The knock against Clippard is that he is an extreme fly-ball pitcher.  His 2015 ground ball percentage of 21.2% was the lowest in baseball among 60+ inning pitchers.  And conventional wisdom has it that flyball pitchers do very poorly at the Rogers Centre, and in the AL East in general.  But this is not the whole story, as Neil Weinberg of fangraphs pointed out.  There are certain pitchers who can use fly balls to their advantage, even in a difficult park (can you say Marco Estrada?)  Clippard’s stuff is good enough that his lifetime ERA of 2.88 is more than a full run below his 4.03 career xFIP.  And with plus-plus defence from Kevin Pillar, and plus defense from Pompey or Saunders, the 2016 Jays outfield might be where fly balls go to die.

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#3 – Darwin Barney

Yes, I know that the Jays outrighted Barney last week, and that he elected free agency.  And I know that the Jays already have Tulo, Devo, and Gogo fighting for middle infield spots.  But I see Barney as a Justin Smoak-like release and re-sign in 2016.

Hear me out.

First, about the logjam.  I predict (!) that the Jays will be trading one their middle infielders for pitching in the offseason.  Possibly something like Tulo for Harvey.  Possibly Devo II in a Zack Wheeler deal?  In either case, the Jays would move Ryan “Gogo” Goins into the vacated spot and they would need a new Goins on the bench.  Barney is one of the few middle IF in baseball who is actually a better defender than Goins, and he would fit a bench role very nicely, with upside.

Second, about the Morneau sign discussed above.  The problem with a Morneau 1B and a Colabello bench corner infielder is … that Colabello is not a CI.  At least, he has not had a chance to show that he can play 3B at the major league level.  Barney has played excellent defence at third (admittedly in a small sample) and so he could be Josh Donaldson‘s primary backup, in addition to backing up at short and second.

Next: Blue Jays: Anthopoulos drafts misjudged position players

The bottom line?  Some might argue that, after the Donaldson deal, the biggest move that the Jays made in the 2014-15 offseason was not the signing of Martin but the trade for Marco Estrada.  Sometimes the acquisitions that appear minor at the time prove to have far more value than expected.  Let’s hope that is true about the upcoming offseason as well!

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