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Complaining about the Toronto Blue Jays’ free agent inactivity is a yearly tradition for the team’s fanbase, and this year is no exception.
Sometimes these complaints aren’t rooted in an understanding of where the team is and where it’s going, but rather a venting of frustration over an owner with selectively tight pursestrings. Signing the biggest names often means taking on players over 30 on deals with a lot of back-end downside – meaning you have to be ready to win this second or else you risk not reaching the mountaintop and suffering a lengthy decline phase like the Detroit Tigers.
This offseason in particular, there is one name that has captured the imagination of the Blue Jays fanbase by the name of Bryce Harper – which has popularized the phrase “Sign Bryce Harper you cowards” in certain circles. The fascination with the idea of Harper in Toronto makes sense on the most basic level because he’s incredibly good and somehow still available with one week until pitchers and catchers report.
Unlike other instances of this fanbase lusting after the biggest name available it also just makes sense, period. While it’s important to acknowledge the chances of Harper coming north of the border are astronomically low, bordering on literally non-existent, the fit is very real for reasons that include but are not limited to:
The reason a rebuilding Blue Jays team would avoid free agents is that the most team-friendly years of their contract are generally the first two and those years seem unlikely to be competitive for Toronto. So, paying a veteran handsomely to contribute to a losing 2019 and dubious 2020 isn’t attractive, especially if his age-related decline sets in soon after.
In Harper’s case he has so many great years left that he fits neatly in the team’s planned competitive window. Sure, having him make top dollar in 2019 isn’t ideal, but he could complement Vlad Guerrero Jr. into the 2020’s with very little chance of falling off a cliff. There’s a reason teams like the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres who aren’t very good today have sniffed around Harper and Manny Machado – they are rare enough commodities that a not-ideal 2019 with them is a reasonable cost of doing business. Sometimes the player you want to build around doesn’t come available the exact year you’re looking to start building.
The Blue Jays outfield picture
Because the Blue Jays have quite a few outfielders on the 40-man roster, it creates the illusion that it’s an area where they have an embarrassment of viable options. Billy McKinney and Teoscar Hernandez can compete for left field time, Anthony Alford could get healthy and take off, Dalton Pompey is still around, etc.
The reality is that they’ve got two outfielders in place – Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk – who are only under team control for two more seasons. Both are fine starters, neither is a star. Everyone else is both unproven and too old to be a prospect. McKinney and Alford are 24 (although the latter is a bit of a special case because he’s played less baseball that most players his age). Hernandez, Pompey, and Dwight Smith Jr. were all born within a month of Harper and have combined for 1.0 career WAR in 950 plate appearances. It’s not a rosy picture.
From a prospect perspective, the Blue Jays aren’t strong here either. Beyond Alford, who is probably riskier than most team’s fifth-ranked prospect (by MLB Pipeline), their next highest-ranked outfield prospect is Griffin Conine, who has one so-so half season of pro ball under his belt with a PED suspension. Cavan Biggio could figure into the picture here too, but when you imagine the Vlad Jr.-Bo Bichette Blue Jays there isn’t an outfielder you know will be there.
Harper could be that guy.
A lack of impact left-handed bats
Lineup balance is a small detail, but it is handy – especially late in games when opposing teams are using matchup relievers. There’s a reason why Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins pointed out how Harper could fit in the team’s future lineup in a TSN 1050 interview.
He would fit well in between Bichette and Vladdy at some point, there’s no question. He’s an intriguing player.
It wasn’t a statement of intent by any means, but Atkins observed that it would be nice to have a left-handed power bat to slide between the future Blue Jays’ dynamic duo. This is certainly the case, and that bat doesn’t really exist in the organization now. Here are all the left-handed or switch hitting position players on the 40-man roster:
Reese McGuire: Backup catcher profile with the bat to match
Freddy Galvis: Light-hitting middle infielder who is under team control for a maximum of two years
Justin Smoak: Under team control for 2019 only
Rowdy Tellez: Far from a sure thing as a future 1B starter
Richard Urena: Utility infielder type
Bill McKinney: Maybe a league-average bat, maybe
Dalton Pompey: Never looked like an impact bat, even when he was more of a prospect
Kendrys Morales: Only around for one more year and just-above average hitter at DH
The only players there who could be provide the left-handed power the Blue Jays will need in the middle of the lineup are Tellez and McKinney, and either would have to develop way beyond expectations for that to happen. Even if Smoak re-signs he’d be well into his decline as Vladdy and Bo ascend.
On the prospect side there isn’t a tonne more reason for optimism. The Blue Jays’ top six position player prospects are all right-handed with Biggio being the only left-hander who profiles as an above-average bat. Even with the optimism surrounding him, it’s worth noting he turns 24 in April and hasn’t played in Triple-A yet.
The culture fit
Considering he’s never been suspended, arrested, or considered ‘dirty’, it’s odd to think of Harper as a controversial player. That said, because of his showmanship and inclination to give a real quote from time to time there are probably some teams that worry about the effect he might have on their culture.
There’s no reason to think the Blue Jays would be among them, though. This city and franchise embraced Jose Bautista, whose antics arguably made him the top villain in baseball for a time. There isn’t an engrained regressive baseball culture here, or a bunch of veterans insisting on playing the game “the right way”.
As Guerrero Jr. becomes the centrepiece in Toronto and fans get to know him more, it’ll be clear he’s not a guy hurting for confidence. The same could be said of Bichette. If a team built around those two has any success it would be as a swaggy outfit that some other clubs don’t like – not the type of team disdainful of Harper’s audacity.
Ultimately, the chances of the Blue Jays bringing Harper aboard remain minuscule, but there’s a real fit in Toronto. Whether it’s due to the team’s owner’s being “cowards” or Harper’s own preferences he looks like he’ll never be a Blue Jay – but in this case the armchair GM-ing of the fanbase is spot on.
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