The Blue Jays are playing some musical chairs this offseason, especially with the recent Vernon Wells trade, and they’re largely moving in the right direction. Gone are free agents John Buck, Lyle Overbay, and Fred Lewis. So is Wells, who went to Anaheim for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. Buck led the Blue Jays in games at catcher, as did Overbay at first, Lewis in left, and Wells in center. Rivera will take the lion’s share of games in left, and Napoli will take over behind the plate, while possibly filling in at first. Adam Lind will move back into the field after starting 120 games at DH last year, becoming the everyday first baseman, and Rajai Davis will slot in at center while Edwin Encarnacion will take over DH duties.
Encarnacion’s career wRC+ of 105 would make him a very pedestrian DH, and Lind’s only had 8 career starts at first, all in 2010. Though the early returns aren’t bad, I’d prefer to keep Lind in the dugout defensively and Encarnacion out of the lineup altogether. Lind has had one fairly good season in the bigs, in 2009, putting up 3.5 WAR while splitting time between DH and leftfield. Encarnacion, however, has never put up a season with better than 2 WAR, and at age 27 he’ll have to start producing soon if he ever wants to live up to his ranking as the best positional prospect in the Reds organization for 2005.
Keeping Lind at DH would require picking up a first baseman, but in this year’s free agent market features a strong 1B market with several options for GM Alex Anthopoulos, at least in the short-term. If they’re looking to become a long-term competitor in the AL East, they’re going to need a bit of starpower to stack up against fellow AL East first basemen Mark Texieira and Adrian Gonzalez, but that’s more of a project for next season, when Prince Fielder and possibly even Albert Pujols will hit the market. So if I were Alex Anthopoulos, I’d be looking for a first baseman who can fill in for a year before making a run at one of the big prizes of next year’s free agent class.
The strongest one-year candidate on the market is probably Lance Berkman. Berkman signed a $8 million deal with the Cardinals to play the outfield, but if his career numbers are any indicator he’d be better suited to a team where he could stick at first. Berkman’s put up a career 3.1 UZR/150 at first, including 3.7 UZR in 93 games at first last season. However, he hasn’t played in the outfield since 2007, and had a brutal –8.0 UZR in 32 games in the outfield that season. Berkman’s still going strong with the bat, as the 34-year old put up a 117 wRC+ despite a dip in BABIP (his .282 was by far his career low for a full season) as well as a career-low 12.1% HR/FB. Though some deterioration of the veteran’s skill certainly comes into play, especially considering his 16% LD% was his worst as a pro, I’m expecting somewhat of a bounce-back from Berkman. If he puts up 2.1 WAR, as he did last season, he’s a value buy for the Cardinals. If he matches his three-year average of 4.3 WAR/year, he’d be in the conversation for the best signing of the offseason. Keeping Berkman at first, and occasionally switching him with Lind to keep both fresh, would give Berkman a much better chance to do just that.
The Blue Jays’ Perfect Pickup is Lance Berkman, although they’ve still done extremely well for themselves in the aftermath of the Wells deal. They can move Napoli to first to achieve basically the same goals, and with Wells’ huge contract gone the Jays have much more money with which to make a run at one of the big fish in next year’s free agent pool. However, if they do decide to go with Lind and Encarnacion at first and DH, I don’t think they’ll be happy with the results, and with a low-risk free agent signing they could set themselves up for more productivity from both positions.
That said, the Blue Jays’ real perfect pickup may have happened in the recent trade. Napoli and Rivera are good pieces, sure. But the real win is the $75 million they’ll save over the next four years. Finding a taker for Wells’ albatross of a contract is going to be far bigger for the long-term future of this club than any improvement they can make in the present.