Bats the clear focus for Blue Jays front office this winter
TORONTO — The Coles Notes version of the off-season plan put together by the Toronto Blue Jays front office group is mostly an open secret.
If you boiled it down to two words, it would say “find bats.”
Who those players ultimately end up being remains to be seen, but after putting together one of the best pitching staffs in baseball arm No. 1 through arm No. 13 last season and then watching the offence regress, the needs are obvious.
Ross Atkins, now heading into his ninth full season at the helm as GM, is already on record saying the Jays could add as many as four position players this winter.
With Matt Chapman, Kevin Kiermaier, Brandon Belt and Whit Merrifield — four players who combined for 1,985 plate appearances in 2023 — all hitting free agency, there are both resources and playing time available.
A year ago, the front office was focused on evening out the lineup with a couple of lefty bats, which is exactly what they were able to do.
The issue, however, was that after being one of the highest-scoring groups in baseball in 2021 and 2022, the lineup as a whole took a step back and the Jays finished just 15th in runs scored at 4.6 per game, just slightly under league average.
Under the hood, it was a significant drop off in power production — going from a league-leading 262 homers in 2021 to 200 in 2022 to 188 in 2023 — that was the most glaring aspect of what went wrong.
It’s not about left-handed hitter or right-handed hitter this winter, it’s simply about finding bats that can do damage and produce, hopefully via some over-the-fence pop.
With that said, there are four clear holes to patch — third base, second base, left field, and DH.
After taking a look at some trade options the other day, here are 18 free-agent bats — non-Shohei division, because he fits all 30 teams in baseball — that would help the Jays in various ways.
3B Matt Chapman, TOR
We’ll start with the in-house option first.
At this point, it seems likely that Chapman walks after his two seasons in Toronto, but at this stage of the off-season that’s not yet a foregone conclusion, and the Jays have been interested in a reunion for a while.
It likely depends where Chapman’s market ends up.
If it’s sky-high like many expect in a market lacking impact options, Chapman will take his Gold Glove defence elsewhere on a five- or six-year deal.
If it’s suppressed after a tough five months from May on, maybe the Jays can plug a glaring hole with one of their own and make things simple.
Despite Chapman’s ugly finish to 2023, he’s clearly the best third baseman available and he brings a lot of analytical value that may be overlooked by outsiders thanks to the swing-and-miss frustration.
3B Jeimer Candelario, CHC
If Chapman doesn’t return, the only other option on the free agent market that could be considered an everyday option at the hot corner — sorry, Justin Turner, you’re not a full-time third baseman anymore — is this switch-hitter, who just put up a career season in his walk year at the age of 29.
After being non-tendered a year ago, Candelario timed this up perfectly, and now he’ll cash in.
The glove isn’t in Chapman’s realm, but what Candelario brings that Chapman does not is a bit more of a well-rounded contact profile and a bit of pop, as well.
He’s a pretty good consolation prize but expectations should probably be tempered.
LF Jung Hoo Lee, KBO
If upside is what the front office seeks, Lee is the player to target.
With middling power, there’s a chance Lee ends up as a fourth outfielder type with a light bat and good defence, but there’s also the chance he’s Ha-Seong Kim 2.0 from the left side of the plate.
Lee simply does not swing and miss, with sky-high in-zone contact rates and the tiny strikeout numbers to match.
A good fit in centre field if Daulton Varsho’s elite glove wasn’t around, Lee would give the Jays tremendous defence in left once again and at the very least make for an annoying at-bat for pitchers at the bottom of the lineup.
The Jays have been investigating the Asian market on position players for years — Yoshi Tsutsugo and Masataka Yoshida were both on the radar — so it won’t be surprising at all when they finally land one of the top imports.
There are risks with KBO bats, but Lee’s floor and expected price tag make him a great upside bet.
LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr., AZ
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. Arizona Diamondbacks
One of two former Jays outfielders available that conceivably would fit with what the club needs a year after shipping them out, Gurriel is one of my favourite targets simply because I think there’s still a career year waiting to happen.
Maybe a couple of them if a team is really lucky.
His brother Yuli’s career arc into his mid-30s is a pretty good blueprint for what LGJ could potentially do, and there have been intermittent signs of him putting it all together over his career.
A free swinger who’s never going to walk much, I’ll go out on a limb and say Gurriel ends up being one of the better values from this free agent class and he hits 25-plus homers multiple times.
DH/LF Jorge Soler, MIA
Jorge Soler Miami Marlins
The Jays are looking for pop and Soler brings that in spades.
If you close your eyes and dream, you really can envision the 32-year-old Cuban hitting fourth behind Bo & Co. and bashing 35 home runs.
With the reconfigured Rogers Centre strangely being overly nice to pitchers in 2023 and suppressing power overall a little bit, signing Soler would provide evidence if it was actually the ballpark or just a punchless lineup at fault.
The real issue with Soler is he’s a full-time DH and you don’t really want him even picking up a glove and trotting out to left field more than 20 times per year.
He’d bring a presence to the middle of the Jays order, and that’s important.
DH/1B Rhys Hoskins, PHI
If Chapman, Candelario, Lee, Gurriel and Soler all fall into the category of free agents coming off good platform seasons that will land multi-year deals, the next half of this list is the opposite.
Starting with Hoskins, the next nine names are either reclamation projects coming off lost seasons or platoon players who are either aging out or simply haven’t been able to stay healthy.
Hoskins is the former, as the 31-year-old tore his ACL last spring and missed the entire campaign.
That sets him up to take a one-year deal, go out and bash 30 homers, then reset and hit the market once again this time next year.
To Toronto fans, it’ll be known as the Marcus Semien blueprint, and that blueprint is one that could really interest the Jays at a couple of positions.
Hoskins, a right-handed hitter, would step into Brandon Belt’s vacated DH role and play almost every day.
2B Tim Anderson, CWS
Tim Anderson Chicago White Sox
Another player who will likely be fine with a one-year prove-it contract, Anderson cratered last season and was one of the worst hitters in baseball.
It was a strange sequence of events for a player who had been a consistent offensive producer, especially against left-handed pitching, and over the 2021-22 seasons he slashed an impressive .306/.338/.440 with 23 homers and 31 steals.
It’s a bit of a different profile, but it’s impossible not to compare Semien and Anderson, who’s open to switching to second base after spending his entire career at shortstop.
A solid defender at the 6-spot, it’s easy to project Anderson as a plus glove at second base — just like Semien — and that upgrades the middle infield defence in a big way.
No disrespect to Cavan Biggio and Davis Schneider, who look like a potential in-house platoon duo if the Jays don’t add to the second base mix from the outside, but Anderson would be on another level athletically.
If he’s willing to bet on himself, I’d be fully willing to bet on the outspoken Anderson.
Some have character concerns, but he also might bring some much-needed fire and swagger to a clubhouse and dugout atmosphere that could probably use it.
DH/C Mitch Garver, TEX
When Garver is healthy, he rakes.
A career .252/.342/.483 slash line and 123 wRC+ will attest to that, and in just 87 games for the Rangers this season Garver was mighty productive once again with 19 bombs and a 138 wRC+.
Like a number of names on this list, his best defensive position is sitting on the bench with a bat in his hands waiting to hit, but as a full-time DH and third catcher he could provide a lot of value.
Garver would be nice to have around for a lot of reasons.
DH JD Martinez, LAD and DH/3B Justin Turner, BOS
J.D. Martinez Los Angeles Dodgers
Two of Steve Phillips’ favourite Jays targets when we did our top 50 piece, I don’t need to say much here.
Clearly two very productive players over their careers, both would fit as designated hitters on short-term deals and give the offence a significant boost.
Unlike Martinez, Turner would give manager John Schneider some day-to-day options at first, second and third base, but both would be paid to hit, and hit a lot, from the DH spot.
DH/LF Michael Brantley, HOU
Brantley missed most of the season with his ongoing shoulder issues, but when the wily veteran returned he quickly proved he could still swing it, producing typically strong exit velocities and showing there could be a lot left in his 37-year-old bat with another off-season to recover.
The Jays have been interested in his lefty contact bat and veteran clubhouse presence before, so it stands to reason they’d love to circle back and add Brantley to the DH/left field mix for a season.
DH/LF Joc Pederson, SF
Joc Pederson San Francisco Giants
Another player the Jays have looked into in the past, Pederson kind of is what he is at this point.
You don’t want him in the lineup against lefties and you’d prefer to keep him at DH at this stage of his career, but what Pederson continues to do well is hit right-handed pitching with authority.
Pederson is a dangerous bat when deployed in the right situations and at the age of 32 you can always dream that there’s still a career year coming where everything just clicks.
DH/1B Joey Votto, CIN
Joey Votto Cincinnati Reds
The Etobicoke, Ont., product is on his last legs at the age of 40, but there would likely be value to having him around the batting cage in spring training as he battles for a job with his hometown team.
Maybe it doesn’t end well for the Cincinnati Reds legend, but it really does seem like both sides might want this to happen just on the off chance Votto can pen a storybook ending to a borderline hall of fame career in front of friends and family.
The numbers have been ugly for two straight years now, leaving Votto faced with the prospect of accepting just a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training.
I do hope it happens, simply because he’s an interview legend.
3B Evan Longoria, AZ
Let’s stick with the long-time star theme here.
If it’s not Candelario or Chapman at third next year, the options get murky after that.
Longoria, at the age of 38, would be a good place to start after hitting left-handed pitching well and posting strong batted ball data for the surprising Arizona Diamondbacks last season.
It’s not a recommended route, and who they’d find to eat up the majority of the at-bats and face right-handers would then be the question.
3B Gio Urshela, LAA
Another former Blue Jay, Urshela’s leather is world class, but other than that the switch-hitter doesn’t provide much with the bat.
Longoria and Urshela’s inclusion on this list highlights just how thin the third base market is past the top couple of options and if the Jays don’t sign Chapman or Candelario, things are going to get very interesting at a pretty important position.
Urshela would simply be a placeholder until they found a true upgrade, maybe at the trade deadline in July.
C Tom Murphy, SEA
With Jansen slated for free agency at the end of the 2024 season, maybe the Jays shake up their catching situation for the second straight winter.
Trading Gabriel Moreno last December is making a lot of people both inside and outside the Jays organization very nervous these days, but Jansen’s contractual status and constant injury issues may push them into getting creative.
Garver is already on this list as a potential backup with a DH bat, while Murphy is quietly my favourite personal option on a backstop market that’s light on impact.
Well, in addition to being a reasonable defender, Murphy slashed .290/.335/.538 and hit eight homers in just 159 trips to the plate last year and could flourish with a regular role, even at the age of 33.
Murphy’s career wRC+ is an above average 106.
2B/3B Adalberto Mondesi, BOS
He missed all of 2023 after being unable to bounce back from a torn ACL, so this would be an extreme upside play on one of the fastest players in baseball.
Or at least he was prior to the knee injury, stealing 133 bases across his 358 MLB games.
To get an up-close look at a formerly dynamic up-the-middle athlete, it would be worth whatever tiny amount of monetary risk is involved because a healthy Mondesi at the age of 28 would be at worst a good utility player and maybe an everyday infielder if you get lucky.
Word is Mondesi is expected to be healthy for spring training 2024, and he’s one of the more intriguing infield options available for teams looking for upside.
DH/LF Jesse Winker, MIL
It’s getting ugly down here, right?
Winker absolutely cratered and hasn’t shown any power for two straight seasons now, but this is a hitter who slashed .288/.385/.504 for a gaudy .888 OPS over his five seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, including an all-star year in 2001.
He’s only 30 and I’d be happy handing him a minor-league deal and throwing him into the DH mix with a promise of legitimately competing, hoping the big lefty can rediscover that magic with the bat.