The Benchwarmer Report: Jays Fall Short in ALCS; Require Offseason Upgrades to Advance

Jays fans—as you are undoubtedly painfully aware, the Jays dropped the ALCS to the Cleveland Indians in just five games about two weeks back. The games were close, with Cleveland taking the first two games by a score of only 2-0. With the exception of game 4, neither team scored more than four runs in a game. Both teams’ starting pitching was excellent. The killer for the Jays was their lack of hitting and Cleveland’s shutdown bullpen.

Looking back on the past two years, the Jays were most successful when they hit a lot of home runs. Case in point: sweeping Texas in the ALDS. In a sport where it’s considered good to get a hit around 30% of the time, this is really not ideal. If you hit home runs for all 30%, but don’t get on base the rest of the time, there’s going to be a big problem. This is of course, to extreme and simplistic to describe the Jays, so let’s extend it further. Suppose you get men on base, say first and second, a couple base hits. But then you fail to knock ‘em in. This was consistently a huge issue for the Jays all season. They’d get a couple guys aboard on first and second and then hit into a double play. Or they’d finally get guys aboard, but with two outs. The ability to “manufacture” runs and come up with timely hits is essential, particularly in the playoffs when facing your opponent’s best pitching.

With this in mind, the Jays require some offseason upgrades to advance beyond the final four. Heading into next season, the team has several free agents, including big names Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. During spring training, rumour has it that Bautista (age 36) hinted at a five-year deal worth $250-million over five years to stay with the Jays. Though he is arguably the face of the franchise, this is simply unreasonable for a player beyond his prime. Shapiro seems to think so too, following the signing of Melvin Upton at the trade deadline. Bautista’s production fell off considerably this year, witha .234 batting average and only 22 home runs (compared to 40 and 35 over his last two seasons).

As for Encarnacion (age 33), he made it crystal clear that he wanted a deal before spring training. Shapiro et al. failed to do to get it done. As a result, Edwin will likely take his reliable bat elsewhere. This is a body blow for the Jays, since Justin Smoak is currently the only 1B/DH alternative. Finding a replacement for Eddy won’t be easy, particularly since Rogers and Shapiro are so unwilling to open their preciously fat cash coffers. I’d be willing to bet they’d pay more for an equally good hitter now than they would have to re-sign Eddy at the beginning of the year.

Finally, it is unlikely outfielder/DH Michael Saunders (age 29) will return to the Jays next year.  After an impressive first half, hitting just shy of .300, he slumped badly after the All-star break, hitting only .178 over the second half. For a team with “a small budget” Saunders is not considered worth signing. Another team (with an actual budget) will though, but likely for more than he’s actually worth.

Position-player wise, the Jays need 2 outfielders, a reasonably well-hitting first baseman (or short-stop—in which case they would move Tulowitzki to first) and a DH. That’s a long wish list given the allegedly small coffers at Rogers, unless Ryan Goins has a career year at the plate of course. Dalton Pompey will likely occupy one of the outfield positions. But inevitably, one is still empty and hitting is an issue. Open the coffers, Rogers.

As for pitching, the starting rotation is pretty much set. R.A. Dickey and his liability personal catcher Josh Thole will not return next year. Do not fear though, as Francisco Liriano was signed at the deadline for the same money to take his place. Between him, Estrada, Happ, Stroman and Sanchez, the Jays are set.

The bullpen, however, is an area of improvement, as shown in this year’s playoffs. After Roberto Osuna, there’s not much there. Brett Cecil (Mr. Gasoline, 2016) is a free agent. After a phenomenal year in 2015, Cecil failed to repeat that performance in 2016. Expectations were tough since he was the only decent lefty in the ‘pen, but the decision on whether to sign him is a tough call. That being said, it would not surprise me to see the Jays sign him for one or two years at around the same amount he got this year, 3.8 million. Jason Grilli (age 39) likely will not return, despite a good stint with the Jays over the second half. He makes only $250,000 next year, and barring a surprise, will get bought out. The Jays are likely to re-sign offseason acquisition and free-agent Joaquin Benoit, who provided solid sixth and seventh inning relief before getting injured.

Still, the Jays need an eighth-inning set-up man, and another good arm on top of that wouldn’t hurt. The Indians clearly demonstrated the critical role of a shutdown bullpen to win in the playoffs, signing Andrew Miller at the deadline– and he wasn’t even their closer. Now they’re off to the World Series. Go figure.

Overall, Rogers will need to open the coffers or get really creative. It is difficult to get anything good without giving up anything good, and the prospect shelf is pretty empty right now. The Jays still have most of the core of the team, and could feasibly contend next year and even the year after if they patch up some of these holes. It would be a real waste to start losing with reigning MVP Josh Donaldson,Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin all signed through the next two years. All we can do now is wait and see…

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