Predicting What the Toronto Blue Jays' Lineup Will Look Like Next Year

James O'DonnellContributor IIAugust 20, 2013

Predicting What the Toronto Blue Jays' Lineup Will Look Like Next Year

0 of 10

    Although the Toronto Blue Jays have been extremely disappointing in 2013, it is very likely that the 2014 version of the franchise will look very similar to this year's team. In particular, many—if not all—of the team's primary position players could be back at their respective positions next season.

    After an offseason of change, the Blue Jays will likely have a much quieter winter this time around. It's not that the front office should be complacent after falling well short of expectations in 2013, but rather the current state of the franchise leaves it with little wiggle room for next season.

    Due to the contractual statuses of its starters and the paucity of quality prospects in the upper levels of the organization's farm system, the Blue Jays are simply best suited to maintain the status quo and hope to compete with the same core of hitters in 2014.

    And why not?

    If there is to be any kind of roster overhaul next year, it'll likely be in the rotation. The Blue Jays' big bats—Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion—have carried their weight, while the lineup's spark plug, Jose Reyes, has returned from injury with a vengeance.

    As of right now, this lineup—when fully healthy—still looks as if it can be one of the best in baseball.

    Nevertheless, change is inevitable. It's especially inevitable when you go from World Series aspirations to sitting in last place as September approaches. Although the team is somewhat hamstrung by its current payroll obligations and its flexibility is limited by the current state of the franchise, there will likely be some new faces in the lineup in 2014.

    With a quarter of the season still left to play and an entire offseason of moves and developments, this is obviously a very speculative exercise. The team's performance over the remainder of the season, injuries and a myriad of other factors can still dramatically change this offseason's outlook.

    It is never too early to start looking toward next season—especially when you're 15.5 games out of the division in late August—and trying to determine next year's starting lineup.

     

    All statistics from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

     

Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

1 of 10

    2013 Statistics: .272/.341/.456, 50 R, 10 HR, 48 RBI, 0 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: Free Agent

     

    One area where the Blue Jays may look to shake things up is behind the plate. Current starting catcher J.P. Arencibia is under contract and will be arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason. Unfortunately, Arencibia has not taken the next step forward offensively as many have hoped.

    The Blue Jays appeared to commit to Arencibia as the team traded its top prospect, Travis D'Arnaud, to land R.A. Dickey last offseason. However, after another year of failing to draw walks, cut down on strikeouts, and reach base at anywhere near a league-average clip, Arencibia currently offers little more than 20-HR pop as a hitter.

    Arencibia is currently hitting .211 after hitting .219 in 2011 and .233 in 2012, his OBP sits at an unacceptable .248—after posting OBPs of .282 and .275 in 2011 and 2012, respectively—and currently has a career-worst .640 OPS.

    On the bright side, Arencibia has still slugged 18 home runs on the year and is still relatively cheap as he has yet to reach arbitration. Based on recent first-time arbitration-eligible catchers, Arencibia isn't likely to make more than $3 million dollars in 2014, which could allow the Blue Jays to pursue another catcher in free agency to either replace or compete with Arencibia for the starting job in 2014.

    One particular free agent who could become an attractive option for the Blue Jays is the current starter for the division rival Boston Red Sox.

    Salty, or Jarrod Saltalamacchia if you're not into the whole brevity thing, would seemingly be a good fit to take over the starting job behind the plate and relegate Arencibia to a backup or platoon role.

    The Red Sox have David Ross under contract through next season and seem committed to giving Ryan Lavarnway a chance to take over as starter, so letting Saltalamacchia walk is a very realistic possibility.

    Saltalamacchia is a switch hitter who is hitting .288/.347/.508 against right-handed pitching this year and would, at the least, make for a very intriguing platoon partner with Arencibia (who has a career .716 OPS against lefties versus a 40-point drop to .676 against righties). Additionally, Saltalamacchia could spell Edwin Encarnacion at first base and share time at designated hitter, should left-handed Adam Lind return in 2014.

    Saltalamacchia will only be 29 next season, has above-average power for the catcher position, and has proven that he deserves to be a starter in this league. He also has intimate knowledge of the Red Sox pitching staff and has experience catching the knuckleball.

    Superficially, he would appear to be a great fit for Toronto. Of course, the remaining issues are how much he'll cost in free agency and whether the organization is ready to reduce Arencibia's role after committing to him only a year ago.

    The Blue Jays will have some money come off the books as it is unlikely that Josh Johnson or Darren Oliver will return, but they will also see the salaries or Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes increase. They also need to address the rotation.

    If Salty gets a deal in the range of Russell Martin's two-year, $17 million deal last off-season, then he could be in the Blue Jays' wheelhouse this winter. Arencibia has stagnated at the plate over the last three years, but he's still affordable as a backup. The Blue Jays could look to upgrade behind the plate with most of the lineup returning for 2014.

First Base: Edwin Encarnacion

2 of 10

    2013 Statistics: .278/.368/.538, 76 R, 31 HR, 92 RBI, 7 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: Under Contract (year two of a three-year, $29 million deal)

     

    There is far less to say about the first base situation for 2014 than there is to say about what will happen at catcher.

    Edwin Encarnacion is firmly entrenched as the franchise's first baseman and has challenged Jose Bautista for the role of the team's most productive hitter over the last two seasons.

    After breaking out during his age-29 season last year, Encarnacion has followed it up with an All-Star appearance and another year in which he could slug 40 home runs and drive in over 100 runs. If there were any doubts that Encarnacion's 2012 was a fluke or that he was a one-year wonder, he has put them to rest with another impressive campaign in 2013.

    Encarnacion is also locked up through the 2015 season with a very team-friendly contract, based on his level of production over the last two seasons. Though Encarnacion will also split time at designated hitter, there's no reason to doubt that he will be the team's primary first baseman once again in 2014.

    Last season, Encarnacion posted a 4.1 WAR—second among all qualifying first basemen, according to FanGraphs—and currently has a WAR of 3.7 in 2013, fourth among all qualifying first basemen. He may be the most valuable hitter in the lineup and will almost assuredly be back at first base in 2014.

Second Base: Daniel Murphy

3 of 10

    2013 Statistics: .275/.307/.397, 71 R, 10 HR, 57 RBI, 14 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: 2nd-time Arbitration Eligible (Under New York Mets' team control)

     

    Another position at which the Blue Jays could look to upgrade in 2014 is at second base. What was expected to be a healthy competition between newcomers Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis has devolved into a black hole at the position.

    Bonifacio has since been traded to the Kansas City Royals while Maicer Izturis is currently last among all 151 qualifying position players with a -2.3 WAR, according to FanGraphs.

    Needless to say, the position could use an upgrade.

    The top levels of the minors do not present any potential starters for the position in 2014 and there do not appear to be any other internal options to solve the problem. It's also very difficult to see the Blue Jays simply handing the job back over to Izturis next season, despite the fact that he remains under contract.

    Izturis signed a three-year, $10 million deal this past offseason, but with an OPS of .598 and a UZR/150 of -31.1 defensively at second base, he clearly does not deserve to be entitled to anything more than a utility role going into next season.

    One player the Blue Jays could target is current New York Met, Daniel Murphy.

    Murphy, 28, is having a solid season for the Mets and looks to have finally settled into playing second base after a very difficult transition period at the position. Murphy also carries a respectable bat that won't carry a team, but can reliably round out a lineup card.

    Murphy doesn't walk much, but he has flashed modest power and speed and has a solid lifetime .288/.331/.420 batting line. He may not be someone that gets a fanbase excited but, especially as a left-handed bat, he offers some value as a starter.

    Murphy will be arbitration-eligible for the second time next season and should see a modest raise from his current $2.93 million salary. He'll still be very affordable and on the right side of 30, which makes him an intriguing potential trade target.

    The issue, of course, is whether the Mets will look to move Murphy this offseason. One reason why they may be inclined to do so is the emergence of long-awaited prospect, Wilmer Flores. Flores, who, at 22, has a much higher ceiling than Murphy, will be a man without a position once David Wright returns. And in anticipation of this, the Mets have worked on converting Flores into a second baseman.

    Whether the Mets will trust Flores enough to give him the keys to second base in 2014 and thereby make Daniel Murphy relatively expendable is all yet to be seen. However, Murphy likely isn't viewed by the organization as much more than a placeholder at the position and the teams could look to complete their second trade in as many offseasons this winter, if things line up properly.

    It'll be hard for the Blue Jays to give up any more prospects, but Murphy likely wouldn't cost them a top-10 talent. None of the free agents seem to make much sense for the organization in 2014 and they simply can't rely on Izturis after his performance this year.

    Seeking a trade for a low-upside but reliable left-handed bat in Murphy to man second base currently seems like a possible avenue the team could explore. The switch-hitting Izturis could then return to a utility role or a potential platoon partner at the keystone.

Shortstop: Jose Reyes

4 of 10

    2013 Stats: .291/.348/.444, 36 R, 9 HR, 29 RBI, 12 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: Under Contract (year three of a six-year, $106 million deal)

     

    Reyes suffered an unfortunate and serious ankle injury sliding into second against the Royals in April that cost him two-and-a-half months of action this season, but he has since recovered and is living up to his offensive reputation as a premier top-of-the-lineup hitter.

    He has played roughly a quarter of a season since his return—41 games—and over that span, he has hit .278/.332/.438 with seven home runs and seven stolen bases. If you extrapolated those numbers over the course of a full season, Reyes could be the most productive offensive shortstop in the league.

    Either way, the Blue Jays are committed to Reyes at shortstop. Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck have already been traded, Josh Johnson is unlikely to be resigned, and it looks as if the Blue Jays may seriously regret taking on Mark Buehrle's contract. At the end of the day, Reyes may be the only piece of the blockbuster trade with the Marlins that the organization is glad to have acquired.

    Reyes turned 30 this season, but still appears to be capable of 15-20 home runs and 30-plus stolen bases while providing solid defense at shortstop. He's also locked into a massive six-year deal and the Blue Jays expect him to continue to serve as a catalyst and table setter for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.

    The trade with the Marlins may not have the profound impact the team expected when it executed the deal, but there is no way they're about to part with the centerpiece of the trade a year later.

    Expect Reyes to return to the leadoff and the shortstop position in 2014.

Third Base: Brett Lawrie

5 of 10

    2013 Stats: .262/.317/.438, 28 R, 9 HR, 31 RBI, 6 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: Pre-arbitration eligible

     

    Lawrie's 2013 season may end up appearing quite similar to his 2012 season: modest counting stats, a  league-average batting line, some time lost due to various injuries and very good defense at third base.

    And even if Lawrie's 2013 is ultimately indistinguishable from his 2012 campaign, that should not raise any concern that the organization is growing weary of Lawrie.

    Lawrie is still only 23 years old, and as we've seen with so many post-hype sleepers in recent years, a third baseman's true breakout may not come as soon as we expect. Lawrie's 2013 season in some ways is a microcosm of the team as a whole: the expected progress wasn't there, but that doesn't mean that all hope is lost.

    Lawrie has suffered some unfortunate ailments and may be the type of player who never churns out 150+ games a year, but his potential has not diminished.

    Now fully healthy and completely removed from a senseless effort to move him back to second base, Lawrie has hit .339/.392/.541 with four home runs, 17 RBI, and four stolen bases in 30 games since the All-Star Break.

    Sure, it's easy to draw arbitrary endpoints and the sample size isn't particularly large, but it is nonetheless encouraging.

    We'll have to see if Lawrie can continue to hit well over the remainder of the season, but there's no reason to believe that he won't be back at third base in 2014. He's still not arbitration-eligible for another season and will only be 24 for all of next season.

    The organization should remain committed to Lawrie at the hot corner.

Right Field: Jose Bautista

6 of 10

    2013 Stats: .259/.357/.499, 82 R, 28 HR, 73 RBI, 7 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: Under Contract (year three of five-year, $65 million deal)

     

    Bautista may not be having one of his monster seasons on par with his 2010 or 2011 performance, but he's still an incredibly dangerous hitter with elite power and a top-ten walk rate. Not only that, but he's third among right fielders in outfield assists and remains the rock of the lineup.

    Like Encarnacion, there isn't much else to say about Bautista's expected role in 2014. He'll once again be entrusted as a centerpiece of the lineup while manning right field and occasionally filling in at designated hitter. He remains locked into a team-friendly deal and one of the best all-around players in the American League.

    Bautista may not continue to lead the American League in home runs, but he still has 30-plus home run power, plays solid defense, can draw walks and will solidify the heart of the order. Bautista has essentially become the face of the franchise and he'll be expected to once again play an integral role in the lineup again in 2014.

    Bautista remains the team leader with a 4.2 WAR—12th best in the American League, according to FanGraphs.

Center Field: Colby Rasmus

7 of 10

    2013 Stats: .273/.335/.478, 53 R, 18 HR, 60 RBI, 0 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: Third-year Arbitration Eligible

     

    On the surface, Colby Rasmus appears to be one of the most improved Blue Jay hitters in 2013, raising his batting average 50 points from last season, and may have benefited more than any other player from the change in management and clubhouse culture under John Gibbons.

    Rasmus opened the season on the hot seat, in danger of potentially being traded or non-tendered with another disappointing campaign. However, Rasmus currently sports a 9.0 UZR in center field this season and has raised his OPS from .689 in 2012 to .812 in 2013.

    Rasmus sits on the 15-day DL with a left oblique strain, but according to Rotoworld, he is expected to return "around the end of the month." Assuming Rasmus is back before the season ends—which, by all accounts, seems extremely likely—and he can finish strong, then it seems very likely that Jays will hold onto him for 2014.

    Rasmus will be entering his last year of being arbitration eligible in 2013 and will likely receive a significant raise over his $4.68 million salary for 2013. However, even as he nears the $7 million dollar salary range, it will likely be worth it for the Blue Jays to hold onto him for one more year to decide what to do with him before he hits free agency in 2015.

    Nothing is set in stone, however. My early prediction is that Rasmus will be back—at a higher price—but I'm not overly confident about that nor am I sure that he should be back.

    Superficially, Rasmus looks like he's rediscovered himself at the plate, but I'm not so sure he has. His strikeout rate has dramatically increased—from 23.8% in 2012 to 30.1% in 2013—while his walk rate has not significantly improved. His counting stats are right on par with last season; the only significant change is a BABIP increase from .259 in 2012 to .363 in 2013, which is not supported by any change in his batted ball data.

    There could be some real concern that Rasmus has not developed as expected in 2013, despite the improved batting average, and his performance may not warrant a raise.

    If Rasmus comes back strong from the oblique injury, however, I strongly believe the Blue Jays will find it easier to bring him back for a contract year in 2014 and hope that the improvement was not an illusion.

Left Field: Melky Cabrera

8 of 10

    2013 Stats: .279/.322/.360, 39 R, 3 HR, 30 RBI, 2 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: Under Contract (last year of a two-year, $16 million deal)

     

    Like it or not, all signs point to Melky Cabrera once again being relied on as the everyday left fielder for the Blue Jays in 2014.

    We can all speculate as to why Melky hasn't come anywhere near the level of productivity he achieved in 2011 and 2012, prior to his suspension, but the Blue Jays will owe him $8 million next season and there isn't any other plausible alternative but to hope he can get fully healthy and reestablish himself as a legitimate No. 2 hitter.

    Kevin Pillar is getting a look in the majors now, Anthony Gose remains available and Moises Sierra is still hitting well in AAA, but if the Blue Jays hope to contend in 2014, their best bet for success is hoping Melky can duplicate his past performance as a Royal and Giant.

    None of the internal prospect options offer much in terms of immediate starter value.

    Additionally, Rajai Davis is set to hit free agency and the Blue Jays may choose to have Gose take over as the team's fourth outfielder at a fraction of the price, which would further ensure that Melky keeps his job as the starting left fielder.

    Perhaps Davis returns or the Jays bring in a free agent outfielder to compete for the job, but given their payroll limitations, it is unlikely that Melky is supplanted as the starting left fielder to open the 2014 season.

    There is definitely very good reason to think Melky may never duplicate his 2011 or 2012 numbers again in his career, but it would not be wise to write him off entirely based on 88 games of generally unproductive hitting this season. The Blue Jays will likely give him another shot to rediscover his bat in 2014 and really don't have much of a choice given their financial situation.

Designated Hitter: Adam Lind

9 of 10

    2013 Stats: .279/.350/.479, 52 R, 16 HR, 44 RBI, 1 SB

    2014 Contractual Status: $7 million team option with $2 million buyout

     

    Perhaps the most interesting decision and one that could go either way is whether the Jays should pick up Adam Lind's option and bring him back for 2014.

    Lind has had a mini-renaissance of sorts in 2013, raising his OPS 100 points from last season, in which he spent time demoted to AAA. Lind may never come anywhere near his career year of 2009, when he hit .305/.370/.562 with 35 home runs and 110 RBI, but it could shape up to be the second-best season of his eight-year career.

    The question is whether Lind, a modest power hitter with maddening year-to-year inconsistency and is only a part-time first baseman with a career UZR/150 of -1.4 at the position, is worth $7 million next season despite his significant improvement from last season.

    If they don't answer the aforementioned question in the affirmative, they'd still be on the hook for a $2 million buyout, create themselves a hole at DH and lose the team options they also hold on Lind for the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

    Although Lind is still far from a guarantee to contribute at a high level, despite what he's done in 2013, the Blue Jays will have to ask whether there is someone out there at the price of $5 million or less who could match Lind's potential production for 2014.

    Lind has 5 home runs in the second half, but he hasn't hit nearly as well as he did in May and June. He's put together disappointing lines of just .195/.263/.356 in July and .218/.338/.400 thus far in August.

    How he finishes the season could be very telling as to how the Blue Jays address the DH spot this offseason.

    What happens here is still very much to be determined. Lind is still a liability against lefties and $7 million is a lot to play a part-time designated hitter. Of course, they still owe him a $2 million buyout either way and they may feel most comfortable bringing Lind back after his modest improvements this year and after nearly a decade in the organization.

    At this moment, if I had to speculate, I think Lind's option will be picked up for 2014, with a cheaper veteran right-handed bat added to platoon at designated hitter and provide depth at the corner infield spots.

The Predicted 2014 Lineup

10 of 10

    Lineup:


    Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

    First Base: Edwin Encarnacion

    Second Base: Daniel Murphy

    Shortstop: Jose Reyes

    Third Base: Brett Lawrie

    Right Field: Jose Bautista

    Center Field: Colby Rasmus

    Left Field: Melky Cabrera

    Designated Hitter: Adam Lind

     

     

    Lineup Notes:

     

    As previously stated, barring an unforeseen major development, the Blue Jays will likely rely on a lineup in 2014 that looks very similar to their current lineup. Reyes, Bautista and Encarnacion are locked into reasonable contracts and it would be shocking to see them moved. Meanwhile, Lawrie and Rasmus are still under team control, Lind has a somewhat favorable team option, and the Jays have no choice but to stick it out with Melky.

    There is some flexibility to seek upgrades at catcher and second base, which is what Saltalamacchia (a free agent) and Daniel Murphy (a potential trade target) could offer, should the Jays go in that direction.

    All in all, I would not expect a dramatic overhaul of the current lineup going into next season with the way things currently stand. The Jays seem poised to give it another go with the same core of hitters in 2014.

     

     

    Bench:

     

    J.P. Arencibia (C)

    Maicer Izturis (INF)

    Anthony Gose (OF)

    Michael Young (1B/3B/DH)

     


    Bench Notes:

     

    Arencibia and Izturis would likely be relegated to reasonably-priced backups or platooners with the additions of Saltalamacchia and Murphy. Both have shown the ability to start, but their disappointing 2013 campaigns make them better options off the bench right now.

    Rajai Davis is a free agent and the Jays could look the save some money by turning to Gose to take over as the team's fourth outfielder.

    Finally, the Jays could also go after a right-handed veteran to platoon at DH with Lind while also filling in around the infield. They already have a guy that can do that in Mark DeRosa—and they seem likely to pick up his $750,000 option for next season since they pulled him back off waivers recently—but it's hard to truly rely on DeRosa, given his injury history.

    Michael Young is nearing the end of a very nice career and perhaps there's a chance he'd like to come back to the organization that drafted him on a team-friendly one-year deal. The line between Young and DeRosa may have become blurred a bit as both near the end of their careers, but there's no doubt Young is the superior hitter.

    Whether he'd be worth the difference in contract price would depend on his asking price and willingness to join the Blue Jays. If the Blue Jays could keep him fresh by using him primarily as a DH, Young could still have enough in the tank to be a difference maker in the lineup. He certainly still has more upside than DeRosa.

    The Blue Jays could just stick it out with DeRosa again in 2014, but I would not be surprised if they pursue a cheap, right-handed veteran bat to push him off the roster, should they have the money to do so. Young could fit that mold.