There has been considerable discussion about the Blue Jays’ need for starting pitching and a centre fielder in 2020. But first base could also be a position of upgrade. How might the Jays address this need?
Much has been written about the Blue Jays’ need for an upgrade in the rotation and in the outfield. Almost too much, actually – the articles are starting. to. overlap. So let’s talk about a different area where the Jays might be looking to upgrade – first base.
Now some might argue that Rowdy Tellez has already claimed first (despite his 0.1 fWAR in 2019). Others might believe that Vladimir Guerrero Jr’s transition to first will come sooner rather than later, so looking for a first base solution beyond a year or so is imprudent. But the Jays could badly use another middle of the order bat, and first base might be an easy place to find it.
Toronto Blue Jays
Now, there are conventional places that the Jays might look for a 1B upgrade. They could sign a free agent (Justin Smoak, anyone?) or trade for a decent established starter. But those are not their only options, Here are some more unconventional ideas.
Think outside the [box] continent
"Tsutsugo has long been on the MLB radar. He has been among the most effective hitters in Japanese baseball since fully establishing himself at the nation’s highest level in 2014. Since that time, Tsutsugo has devoured NPB pitching. In over four thousand career plate appearances, he’s a .284/.382/.525 hitter with 205 long balls."
Tsutsugo has been playing in the corner OF, but he also has experience at first and third base. He has been described as “not generally regarded as a quality fielder” – might he be an option for the Jays as a primary first baseman who can sub in the corner OF positions and at 3B in a pinch?
Find a first baseman by default
The Padres are said to be shopping Wil Myers (and his remaining three years and $68.5 million) and are speculated to be looking for a Cano-type trade, where they package Myers with one of their good OF or SP prospects. The Jays need pitching. If they could get a good starter by taking on the Myers contract, might Myers then become (at a minimum) the weak half of a first base platoon (with Rowdy Tellez hitting against right-handed pitching), an above-average (+3 career DRS/1200) defensive replacement, and a solid bat off the bench? And if returning to the AL East could turn 2020 Myers back into something like 2016 Myers (3.5 fWAR, 114 wRC+) there would indeed be joy in Mudville.
If you can’t find a reindeer …
"Grinch: All I need is a reindeer! Narrator: The Grinch looked around, but since reindeer are scarce, there was none to be found. Did that stop the Grinch? Ha! The Grinch simply said… Grinch: If I can’t find a reindeer, I’ll make one instead. [with thanks to Theodore Geisel]"
If the Jays can not find a suitable first baseman, perhaps they could make one instead? Nicholas Castellanos is a free agent and an exceptional hitter, but his outfield defense substantially decreases his value. It has been suggested that a move to DH would help his career, but at 27 years old (and a Boras client) it is unlikely that he would welcome such a move. Might a move to first base be an alternative? His primary issues in the outfield have been his range and his arm – once he gets to the ball, his glove is average or better.
Looking for a good block
The Jays have had some success in the past by targeting young, relatively unproven players in trade talks who were blocked in their own organizations. Trent Thornton, Teoscar Hernandez, and Randal Grichuk are a few examples. Might the same technique apply with a player like Domenic Smith of the Mets? Smith had a good 2019, with a 133 wRC+ in 197 plate appearances, but he is blocked at first base by some fellow named Alonso. The Mets, being an NL team, do not have a DH slot for Smith, and Smith’s defense in the outfield has been [ahem] “disappointing” (i.e. -22.6 UZR/150). Smith is rumoured to be available, and he is still young (24) with five remaining years of team control.
Be it ever so humble
For years, Joey Votto of the Reds has been a beast. From 2016-18, his .436 OBP has been second best in the majors (to some fish in California) and he is one of only a dozen position players to average more than 5 fWAR over those three years. But he had a poor 2019, and the Reds are rumoured to be thinking hard about what they would do when Votto retires. Votto is not only Canadian, but a Toronto boy as well. Notwithstanding his “rat’s ass” comments (for which he apologized) is there any chance that he would waive his no-trade clause to finish his career in his home town? And would the Jays be willing to gamble that 2019 was an aberration – or that Votto would retire (even with money left on his contract) “if I’m dissatisfied or if I don’t feel like I want to play anymore if I’m not having fun“.
The bottom line
First base is clearly not the Blue Jays’ #1 priority this offseason. But it is important that the team be opportunistic, and remain open to all opportunities to improve the team. So if an opportunity came available at first base – even an out-of-the-box one – the team should at least give it strong consideration.