It’s no surprise that Toronto is looking for another middle of the order bat to add to their lineup. Despite ranking 5th in the AL in runs scored, the Blue Jays are more than 100 runs behind the top 3 offenses in the league. Not only that, but in every high leverage spot Jose Bautista was pitched around, leaving inferior hitters like Adam Lind or Edwin Encarnacion with the task of driving everybody in. More often than not those two failed in these spots, with Encarnacion hitting more than 200 points of OPS worse with runners on (668 OPS) compared to with the bases empty (887). Small sample size or not, it’s clear the Jays wasted a ton of opportunities in 2011.
The biggest question marks for the Jays are surprisingly the easiest offensive positions to fill – 1B, DH and LF. While most fans and writers (myself included) have argued that Prince Fielder would be an excellent option to improve the lineup, there is another player in free agency who would fit into the Jays short term plans without breaking the budget. So who is this mystery player?
Beltran isn’t capable of playing CF anymore, but the Jays wouldn’t need him there anyways. He’s still capable of producing like an elite hitter, posting a 910 OPS with 22 HR, earning 4.7 WAR while playing in 142 games. So the bat would clearly play anywhere. He’s not going to break the bank, as Danny Knobler reports he’s been offered a contract of nearly $10 million per year. Beltran is going to be 35 next season, so there’s clearly some risk, but that also means he wouldn’t require a long term deal like Fielder would.
So where would Beltran play? Ideally, the Jays could slot him in as the DH, ensuring that Beltran stays rested and healthy. The Jays wouldn’t need to use him strictly as a DH, as they could rotate some of their outfielders to the DH position and allow Beltran to play in the field. Giving Bautista an opportunity to DH would keep his body fresher throughout the season, allowing him to produce while taking as little time off as possible.
Beltran also provides insurance in case Eric Thames or Travis Snider struggles. Snider remains the player with the higher upside, but he has yet to translate that potential at the major league level. Thames had a solid rookie season with a 769 OPS, but if the Jays are looking to compete in 2012 they’ll need more production than that. With Beltran in the fold, the Jays can make him their everyday Left Fielder and give Encarancion a shot to be the DH.
Make no mistake though – the Jays offense will be better in 2012. Even if Kelly Johnson hits like he did in Arizona, he’d still be more productive than Aaron Hill was for the Jays. And I’d bet on Johnson producing like he did in Toronto, which would be a huge upgrade for the Jays. Center field was a black hole for the Jays, and while Colby Rasmus struggled in his Toronto debut, his upside is undeniable. It was only a year ago that the 23 year old Rasmus led all Center Fielders in OPS, so there’s clearly room for improvement. Even a 700 OPS would be better than what the Jays had last in year in Corey Patterson or Rajai Davis.
The biggest upgrade is likely to come at the hot corner, where Brett Lawrie will have a full season under his belt. It’s unlikely he posts a 950 OPS over a full season, but he should be capable of producing as a top 5 third basemen as early as next season. Barring some sort of injury, his floor would have to be 280/360/500, which would have ranked 3rd among qualifying third basemen.
With several high ceiling players just a few years away from the majors, it might not make sense for the Jays to sign a player to a long term deal. Adding a veteran like Beltran who is cheap and productive will help the Jays in the short term, while allowing them to give their prospects all the time they need in the minors to properly develop.