As Jays get to work on roster, it's another glove-first vibe
TORONTO — It took nearly eight weeks and some eggnog to get going, but the Toronto Blue Jays have finally kickstarted the process of rebuilding their roster for 2024.
To the dismay of many on the heels of a punchless postseason exit back in October, the roster, so far, looks very similar to the one that was ousted, with Kevin Kiermaier deciding to run it back on another one-year deal and glove-first utilityman Isiah Kiner-Falefa in agreement on a two-year contract, pending a physical, according to a source.
The reunion with the soon-to-be 34-year-old Kiermaier is surprising in a way simply because the veteran centre fielder was expected to command a multi-year deal after a bounceback 2.2 fWAR season, playing in 129 games, his most since 2019.
Without an additional move to shake things up, that would bring back one of the best defensive outfields in the game alongside Daulton Varsho and George Springer, as that trio combined to help the Jays to a plus-21 Outs Above Average rating on the grass, second to only Milwaukee’s plus-24 mark.
That’s undoubtedly a good thing. Pitching and defence were the strengths of an 89-win club in 2023, and that’s usually a fine recipe for success.
The issue for the fan base and anyone who watched last year’s club is offence was clearly the area for improvement this winter, and that has not happened as of yet.
And the real issue is many of the easy ways to make that happen — aka high-end, needle-moving players — are now off the table.
Kiermaier is a quality player overall and he proved he can hit a bit with a 104 wRC+ in addition to still being a world-class defender in his mid-30s, but the outfield was seen as a route to adding a big bat.
Maybe it still is with Cody Bellinger available, but odds seem to be in the Chicago Cubs’ favour at this point and Kiermaier’s return would mean an additional move unless the plan is to DH Springer more and more.
Now, it would seem Varsho and his elite glove are stuck in left field, where some of the value is sapped, and there are still obvious health risks with Kiermaier and Springer as the mileage continues to add up.
For a reported $10.5 million, it’s likely he’s worth that sum and more in the end, but it shuts down one way to make needed offensive improvements.
The likely line of thinking inside the Jays front office is that will come internally, with Varsho rebounding from an utterly disappointing .220/.285/.389 slash line in his first season in Toronto.
They will also attempt to rectify last year’s mistake of not adding a right-handed bat of significance, allowing Varsho and Kiermaier to sit regularly against left-handed pitching, something both lefties saw way too much of at times in 2023.
After two glove-first signings, how the Jays fill the rest of their lineup holes will need to skew towards the offensive side.
If he’s not running it back like Kiermaier, the Jays will either have to look to the trade market, or count on internal options.
That’s where Kiner-Falefa comes in, and also where his addition seems a bit redundant with multi-positional options like Santiago Espinal, Davis Schneider and Cavan Biggio, as well as some nearly-ready Triple-A options on the verge of contributing, in-house.
There’s no arguing IKF’s defensive resume at the hot corner — he won a Gold Glove in 2020 at third base — far outweighs any of the aforementioned names, but he’s the owner of a well-below average 81 wRC+ and career .346 slugging percentage.
Even his career year of 1.6 fWAR wouldn’t equal Espinal’s 2021 and 2022 campaigns where he posted marks of 1.9 and 2.3, respectively.
IKF’s ability to play shortstop, second base, third, all three outfield spots, as well as catch in an emergency, will come in handy, but will he hit enough for it to matter?
As a super-sub utility guy, you can definitely do worse.
If he’s pencilled in as a starter on opening day, however, that’s another story.
There is more to come in the days and weeks ahead for the Jays, a club that has money to spend, but just not a lot of obvious fits to throw those resources at this winter.
The Jays front office has swung and missed far more than they’ve connected so far, and when a splashy move is the expectation, that’s a tough combination in terms of public perception.
Just like it wouldn’t make sense to review a Broadway play at intermission, judgment will be reserved until all the dominos are down and spring training is gearing up in the second week of February.
But coming off a second-straight bitter finish in October, it’s hard to feel overly inspired by the opening act to the roster-building process heading into the New Year.