By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
After following up back-to-back postseason appearances with a disappointing 76-86 finish in 2017, the Toronto Blue Jays entered this off-season needing to either commit to rebuild or stay the course and address the series of roster deficiencies that ultimately led to their undoing last year.
When asked about potential targets, GM Ross Atkins told reporters that the team is open to trades so long as they make the MLB roster stronger while avoiding any unnecessary sacrifice to the club's immediate future.
A pair of transactions for Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte have fallen comfortably into that mold, as both deals saw the Blue Jays flip lower-level minor league talent in exchange for major league returns.
With their infield and its overall depth intact, the Blue Jays brass will now increase their efforts to add arms and a viable replacement for Jose Bautista -- be it with top prospects Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Dalton Pompey or otherwise.
In the outfield, free agent options include names like J.D. Martinez, Jarrod Dyson and Carlos Gonzalez, all of which would make welcome additions to the Blue Jays' roster in 2018. But if Toronto's front office intends to keep their sights set on the trade market, perhaps a divisional rival could emerge as a potential partner.
After acquiring Giancarlo Stanton earlier this offseason, space in the Yankees' already talent-heavy outfield has become limited. With Brett Gardner establishing a new career-high in home runs (21) last season, Clint Frazier appearing to be on the verge of a breakout, Aaron Judge capturing Rookie of the Year honours and Stanton coming off of an MVP campaign, Jacoby Ellsbury has become somewhat of an expendable asset in the Bronx.
Although Ellsbury hasn't quite lit the world on fire the way Brian Cashman had envisioned when the Yankees GM signed him to a seven-year, $153M pact ahead of the 2014 campaign, he's still managed to produce despite the inflated expectations that come with a substantial free-agent deal in the Big Apple.
In 2017, Ellsbury used 31 extra-base-hits and a slash line of .264/.348/.402 across 409 plate appearances to produce an OPS of .750 and a WAR of 1.6 on the season. For those keeping score at home, that's a steady improvement over the .711./-2 marks Toronto's right fielders combined for in 2017.
At 34, Ellsbury doesn't help the Blue Jays get any younger, and his arm strength is already below average, but he does swing from the left side of the dish and could join Ezequiel Carerra as the only two exclusive lefties on Toronto's roster.
In addition to the batter's box he occupies, the former All-Star still retains an element of speed in his game. Four seasons removed from leading the American League in swipes with 54, Ellsbury successfully ripped off 22 bases in 25 attempts last season and can help inject the type of speed that Atkins admitted was an issue for his squad in 2017.
Although it looks like a fit on paper, few trades are truly perfect. The hangups in any deal aimed at acquiring Ellsbury comes in the form of his no-trade clause, dollars owed on his current contract and term.
The no-trade is an easy thing to get around. Simply put, a starting gig with a team that has designs on contending trumps a bench role handily, especially for a player that owns two World Series rings.
As for the other two concerns, 2017 marked the fourth year of Ellsbury's seven-year deal with the Bombers. Now in the second half of his free-agent pact, the remaining three seasons come with a sizeable guaranteed salary of $21,142,827 per year.
For a team that (barring trades) will be paying aging veterans Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales over $100M alone over the next two years, that kind of financial commitment may seem like a risk.
Still, unless extensions are banged out between now and November, the Blue Jays will have high-dollar talent such as Josh Donaldson, J.A. Happ, and Marco Estrada and coming off the books ahead of the 2019 campaign. This impending drop in team salary, along with the fact that New York is reportedly willing to eat half of what's remaining on Ellsbury's contract, could help ease his financial addition to Toronto's 40-man roster.
Just what New York could command in exchange for Ellsbury remains to be seen. It's hard to imagine the mighty Yankees being in a position in which they search for a straight up salary dump. Instead, they will try to extract as much value out of trading their assets as possible.
On Monday, the San Francisco Giants -a team rumored to be in the mix for Ellsbury's services- acquired Andrew McCutchen from the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for Major League right-hander Kyle Crick, high-A outfielder Bryan Reynolds and international bonus pool money.
Perhaps this deal could help gauge the framework needed to complete an Ellsbury swap in the weeks to come.
-Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)