Lately, there has been a gloomy feeling surrounding the Blue Jays. In December, the team missed out on both Edwin Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler. Not much has happened since then. With improvements made in Boston, Cleveland, and Houston, some have already decided that 2017 will be a lost season for Toronto. The Jays are undoubtedly a worse team now than they were a few months ago. That said, it is possible that they could turn their offseason around with just one move.
The team’s biggest goal is still to find a corner outfielder. While almost every free agent has been linked to the Jays in some capacity, few appear to be able to turn the ship around. However, the team still has two options which could dramatically change its fortunes. The Jays have been connected to both Jose Bautista and Andrew McCutchen. These players have been icons of their respective teams over the past five years, and still have plenty to offer. While it would be ideal to see both come to Toronto, that is not realistic. Instead, the Jays must decide which of the two would be more beneficial to the team in 2017 and beyond.
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The Case For Bautista
I never thought we would get to this point. Since last winter, I believed that both Bautista and Encarnacion would sign elsewhere this winter. The fact that the Jays still have a legitimate shot at signing one of the two is a big surprise. Even more surprising is that it is not necessarily clear that Bautista is the best option available.
As consistently excellent as Bautista has been for the Jays, he still comes with a degree of uncertainty. The slugger posted a line of .256/.383/.508 over the past three seasons, which was good for a wRC+ of 145. That would have tied Bautista for the 11th best wRC+ in the majors in 2016. However, his performance in 2016 was significantly worse than in recent years.
In 2016, Bautista’s line read .234/.366/.452, which was good for a wRC+ of 122. Those are still respectable numbers, but they are not the same level of excellence that we have come to expect. At the same time, his defence declined substantially, as both his range and his once-intimidating arm are now non-factors. This has raised concerns about the 36-year-old.
Injuries may have had some part to play in last season’s production. Bautista went to the DL twice in 2016. The first time was due to a freak injury, as he jammed his toe in an outfield wall. That resulted in a bad case of turf toe. The second injury was more age-related, as his knee buckled while he tracked down a fly ball. Both of those instances sidelined him for several weeks. Bautista was never able to get into a real groove during the season. His injuries and subsequent time off may explain why his batting average and slugging both dipped. Having said that, there is still reason to be optimistic that a healthy Bautista can be a powerful force next season (Steamer does project a wRC+ of 128 for him).
Last year, a couple of unlucky injuries interrupted what should have otherwise been another productive season. That said, Bautista’s fit on the 2017 Blue Jays’ roster is a little tricky. Ever since he blew out his arm, Bautista has earned the reputation as a poor defender. He also experienced the aforementioned injuries while patrolling the outfield. It appears as though he is better suited to play 1B/DH. However, the Jays have both positions locked down between Steve Pearce, Justin Smoak, and Kendrys Morales. There really isn’t any room to throw Bautista into the mix. As such, if he does return to Toronto, then he will likely have to play in the outfield.
The last thing to look at is what it would cost to acquire Bautista. He is now reportedly willing to consider signing a one-year deal. While that might entice some teams, a one-year deal would not be a good fit for the Jays.
It is hard to believe that Bautista would sign for less than the $17.2M qualifying offer. The Jays would likely have to sign him for at least that amount. At the same time, they would lose the opportunity for draft pick compensation. The real cost of a one-year deal could be in the neighbourhood of $26M+, depending on how they value the pick. That’s a steep price to pay for one year. A two-year deal might make more sense. Ideally, the Jays could offer Bautista a two-year/$30M contract, with a club option for a third year. That would provide him more guaranteed money than he would find elsewhere for one year, with a chance at $45M if he continues to perform at a high level.
The Case For McCutchen
The Pirates are trying to shed payroll, as they begin to enter a rebuild. That is why the Jays were able to acquire Francisco Liriano, Reese McGuire, and Harold Ramirez for Drew Hutchison. As part of Pittsburgh’s retooling, the team is reportedly willing to trade McCutchen. The former NL MVP could be an excellent fit for the Jays.
Like Bautista, McCutchen comes with a few question marks. Although he has been among the best players in baseball in recent years, he experienced a steep decline in 2016. Over the past three seasons, he has posted a line of .286/.382/.485, which was good for a wRC+ of 140. However, in 2016, McCutchen’s line was .256/.336/.430, for a wRC+ of 106.
Although McCutchen took a step back last year, there is reason to believe that he will regain his form next season. As we wrote in November:
Teams don’t typically look for players who appear to be regressing. However, it’s not clear that McCutchen has suddenly fallen off of the earth. The first thing that stands out from 2016 is his BABIP. He averaged .297 on balls in play, which is near the league average. Yet, over the course of his career, his BABIP is .331. You don’t get an irregularly high BABIP over 1,200 games through sheer luck. McCutchen is a good hitter who ran into some tough luck last year. The same happened to his ISO, which dipped from an average of .195 to .174. Even so, he was able to produce 24 home runs, which was in line with his career norm. McCutchen’s soft contact rate also crept up by 5% to 19.7%. Finally, his popups increased by more than 4%, to 12.6%.
Is it possible that this is the new Andrew McCutchen? Perhaps. But it is more likely that a perennial MVP candidate will adjust in 2017, and push his numbers back toward his career averages. That appears to have already started. Over the course of 244 plate appearances during the last two months of the year, McCutchen’s wRC+ jumped back to 131. With it, his BABIP rose to .303, his ISO to .188, and his OBP to .381. That’s more in line with what his next team should expect. McCutchen might never be an 8+ WAR player again, but he still profiles to be worth more than 0.7.
In terms of roster construction, McCutchen would address several needs. Although his fielding was poor in 2016, that was believed to be due to his positioning in centre field. In Toronto, McCutchen could take over a corner spot, alongside Kevin Pillar. That should minimize his defensive shortcomings. On offence, McCutchen could be the team’s new leadoff man. His speed and career .381 OBP would play nicely in front of Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, and Devon Travis.
While the Pirates are motivated to shed payroll, it’s not as though McCutchen is being paid like a superstar. He will only earn $28.5M over the next two years. In that sense, he is actually a more affordable option than Bautista, from a payroll perspective. The question is who would have to be sent back to Pittsburgh. Early indications suggested that the Pirates were looking for a young MLB player, a lottery-ticket prospect, and a two-tier prospect.
More recently, Jeff Blair reported that the starting point for any trade talks is Vlad Guerrero Jr. While Guerrero has plenty of potential, he is still only 17 years old. There are countless examples of highly touted prospects who don’t pan out (just ask Justin Smoak). If the Jays think that McCutchen can help them contend in the playoffs over the next two years, then they will likely consider Guerrero. Throw in Dalton Pompey, and they might move towards what Pittsburgh is looking for. It is difficult to value a perennial MVP candidate with two years of control, who is coming off of a disappointing season.
Why Not Both?
In an ideal world, the Jays would bring in both Bautista and McCutchen. The pair would likely cost no more than $30M per season, and could still provide upwards of 10 WAR. That would be a tremendous value move. As much as these two would strengthen the lineup, the Jays don’t seem to have room for both of them on the payroll.
The Blue Jays have approximately $25M left to spend this season. Even if the Jays decide to go with A.J. Jimenez as the backup catcher, they would still have to spend in other areas. The team needs at least one more bullpen arm (and more likely two). If they could sign a left-hander like Jerry Blevins to a team-friendly $6M deal, then that would leave ~$19M. That simply wouldn’t be enough to bring in both outfielders.
Unless ownership is willing to increase payroll by $10M+, there isn’t a way to adequately address all of the remaining holes, with both Bautista and McCutchen under control. As such, they would have to decide which player could provide more value over the next two seasons at the most reasonable price.
Who would you like to see the Jays acquire? Would it be better to see Bautista return to Toronto, or would a change of scenery bring McCutchen back to his prime years? Sound off in the comments below!