Let’s try to make sense of the Toronto Blue Jays’ crowded depth chart
On Thursday, the Toronto Blue Jays parted ways with their most valuable asset, sending left-hander J.A. Happ to the New York Yankees for infielder Brandon Drury, along with outfield prospect Billy McKinney.
At first glance, the return doesn’t look like much, especially since many (including myself) expected the Blue Jays to get a little more for the talented veteran. Maybe it was wishful thinking to assume the front office would be able to land a league-wide, top-50 prospect, but there’s no denying that Happ was one of, if not the best rental pitcher available. So what gives?
What to expect from Drury
For the Blue Jays, the departure of Happ brings with it a ton of question marks. Now with Drury in the mix, unless they flip him (more on that shortly), or trade someone else, the infield is extremely crowded this season, and next.
Here’s what I gather from Drury. Before being acquired by the Yankees this winter, the soon-to-be-26-year-old managed 92 wRC+, with a 20.7 strikeout rate and a .330 wOBA in two seasons in Arizona. On a positive note, he was an extra base machine, hitting 31 and 37 doubles in that span. He also has intriguing power, reaching double-digit home run totals (16 and 13), while carrying a .178 ISO, which, for a young infielder, is pretty good. The Yankees wanted him for a reason, and though his tenure in New York was short lived, the organization was, and still is, incredibly high on Drury and his ability. In fact, they liked him so much, that general manager Brian Cashman was reluctant to part with the versatile infielder. So, while Drury has produced slightly below league-average numbers to date, he’s done so battling through separate vision and migraine issues caused from an injury to his neck. Now fully healthy, Drury has been hitting very well in Triple-A.
It appears the Blue Jays are going to hang onto Drury and not flip him elsewhere. He’s arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, and he’s under contract until 2022. If you compare that to Yangervis Solarte (also more on him soon), Drury, without taking his new-found vision into account, projects to be marginally better offensively, is younger, and is likely to come cheaper.
So… about the rest of that infield?
As of right now, it’s very crowded. I mentioned Solarte, who could be on the move in the coming days. After a solid first month with the Blue Jays, Solarte has cooled down significantly at the dish. Entering Friday’s game, the 31-year-old has hit .232/.270/.392 with minus-1.45 WPA (Win Probability Added). Still, his contract is friendly enough to warrant some interest on the open market and he’s already hit 17 home runs this year, which could bode well for a contending team in a hitter-friendly park (looking at you Milwaukee and Colorado).
If Solarte gets traded, things will become more clear, if only for the rest of the season. Drury will get starts at third base, Aledmys Diaz will continue to see time at shortstop, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Devon Travis will split time at second base.
I’m forgetting someone important.
Josh Donaldson is still around, though?
He sure is. Donaldson hasn’t played since May 28. When he was on the field, he could barely throw the baseball from third to first, and his production (two home runs and a line of .231/.324/.407 in May) was lacking. In short, 2018 has been a disastrous outcome for Donaldson and the Blue Jays. On his end, he’s failed to build up value heading into free agency and for the front office, having a former MVP out of the lineup for an extended period is devastating. Something has to give, though.
The Drury move signals, to me at least, that Donaldson’s time in Toronto is coming to an end. It sure looks like he won’t be back in the lineup until the second week of August, at the earliest. If Donaldson can put together a string of solid outings and remain healthy, a trade in late August, ahead of the waiver deadline, is the most likely outcome. The return won’t be nearly as good as it could have been last winter or if he had stayed healthy, but it’s decent compensation.
At this point, it would surprise me to see the Blue Jays hold onto Donaldson. That would mean offering him a $17.4-million qualifying offer to get draft pick compensation this offseason. Crazier things have happened, so I suppose it’s possible the Blue Jays and Donaldson could come to an agreement and go that route in hopes of trying again on a one-year, prove it deal. With Russell Martin, Kendrys Morales and Troy Tulowitzki’s salaries still on the books for 2019, however, paying Donaldson $17.4 million for one season, instead of trying to get something for return in August, seems unlikely.
The Vlad and Bo factor
This is where it gets a little complicated. Even if the Blue Jays move Solarte and Donaldson, the infield for next season is still a question mark. Baseball’s top prospect, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., should be with the team in 2019. Bo Bichette has a great chance, too. The same goes for Cavan Biggio; another infield prospect that has blossomed playing alongside Guerrero Jr. and Bichette this season in Double-A.
Of the big three, Guerrero and Bichette are likely to graduate to the majors next season. Despite questions about his range at the position, Guerrero Jr. should see time at third base when he comes up. Assuming the Blue Jays do in fact trade Solarte and move on from Donaldson, then Drury would, presumably, split time with Guerrero Jr. at the hot corner next year. At shortstop, Diaz, who hasn’t recaptured his rookie-season magic, should back up Bichette. Tulowitzki is a major wildcard. If he comes back and is fit to play, one would assume Diaz will be relegated to backup duties while Bichette continues to develop in Triple-A.
At second base, Gurriel Jr. and Travis should remain in the mix. The Blue Jays could always try and move Travis if they feel Biggio is major-league ready but at this point, it looks there won’t be much change at second. Let’s not forget, Drury can also play there if need be. In a more unlikely scenario, the front office could entertain the idea of signing one of Ian Kinsler, Daniel Murphy, or Jed Lowrie on a short-term deal this winter in an effort to improve at the position.
Projected 2019 depth chart
This is a very early example as to what the Blue Jays could look like next season. A lot would need to change for this to happen. As is evident from the table, Donaldson and Solarte would no longer be around. If I were to guess, I think the front office will do whatever it can to move Pillar in August, or this offseason. Alford, the Blue Jays’ fifth-ranked prospect, has struggled to stay on the field, but he’s not far from the majors. Dalton Pompey is also not in the mix based on my depth chart. The extra outfield spot will likely go to Smith, Pompey, or McKinney. At catcher, Jansen is more than deserving of a roster spot next season. Moving Martin will prove to be difficult, and he’d be one hell of an expensive backup, but there’s certainly no harm in having a veteran like him teach Jansen the ropes. This should also end the experiment of playing Martin all over the field.
For the Blue Jays, this has the looks of a decent and much younger team. I didn’t even touch on the future of the starting rotation, which should also look a whole lot different come 2019. The return for Happ might not have been what we all expected, but this should give us an early indication of what the Blue Jays could aim for next year.