McKinney and Hernandez could see time at Morales' old DH spot

Billy McKinney (above) is one player that could see more playing time after Kendrys Morales was traded to the Oakland A’s on Wednesday.

Billy McKinney (above) is one player that could see more playing time after Kendrys Morales was traded to the Oakland A’s on Wednesday.

By Lucas Casaletto

Canadian Baseball Network

Of all the players that the Toronto Blue Jays have parted with ahead of Thursday’s season opener, there’s a strong argument that the recent trade of Kendrys Morales will be felt the most, in more ways than one.

Russell Martin, who was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in January, helped with the development of the team’s catchers and pitchers, but Morales’ impact in the clubhouse - and, specifically on young Latino players making up the Blue Jays core - was substantial.

It didn’t take long for the praise to trickle out once the organization finalized a Wednesday night trade that sent Morales to the Oakland Athletics, none of it more telling than Kevin Pillar’s personal send off.

The longest-tenured member of the club, Pillar’s words mean something these days. Widely considered a mentor to Lourdes Gurriel, Teoscar Hernandez and the organization’s prized jewel, Vladimir Guerrero (Montreal, Que.), not having Morales penciled into the 2019 Opening Day lineup seems wrong, if only for his recognized contributions both on and off the field.

The bigger picture, though, has become more clear. As difficult as it may be to see Morales go, his departure opens up seemingly endless opportunities for first-year manager Charlie Montoyo, who will undoubtedly use this to his advantage. You see, as much well-deserved hype that Vladdy gets, he isn’t the only young Blue Jays player under the microscope. A lot will be determined this season, and though prospects like Guerrero and Bo Bichette and to a lesser extent Cavan Biggio, generate the headlines due to performance and bloodlines, some current Blue Jays will look to capitalize on the sudden opening created courtesy of Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro.

On the financial side, it’s hard for many not to question certain aspects of these moves. It’s not pretty, at least not presently. Fans will scoff at the idea of the Blue Jays paying their players to don different jerseys, but that’s the tough side of the rebuild.

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According to Spotrac, the Blue Jays opened the 2019 season with a payroll of $60.6 million, which ranks 28th in baseball. For comparison’s sake, this is what the Blue Jays payroll has looked like on a yearly basis dating back to 2014.

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Considering where the Blue Jays are at with its current roster structure, the drop off shouldn’t be too surprising. What is a bit jarring, if only for this year, is how much the salaries of recently traded players make up the club’s $60 million payroll.

In factoring all of the players above from the first table, the Blue Jays are paying them a combined $48.5 million to suit up with the likes of the Yankees, Dodgers, Athletics, and Giants. That leads baseball in retained salary, with the Dodgers slotting behind the Blue Jays at $39.5 million, followed by the San Diego Padres with $23.2 million, respectively.

As tough a pill that is to swallow in the short term, that’s all it is. After this season, the daunting figure of $48.5 million in retained salary will drastically shrink to $14 million, as only Tulowitzki is owed money after in 2020. It goes down to $4 million in 2021, the final year of money owed to the former shortstop.

Rogers ownership may not be thrilled with it, and the fans certainly won’t love seeing Tulowitzki, Morales, and Martin being paid less to play for other teams, but Atkins and Shapiro did what was necessary and even managed to recoup some assets in the Martin and Morales deals. That deserves some merit, especially if you consider what it means for the future.

This season is about the development of young players for the manager and front office to get a sense of which ones will be part of the next wave. Those past their prime or on expiring contracts are most likely to be traded for assets to help push the rebuild along. Financial repercussions aside, Tulowitzki’s departure brought with it the chance to get an extended look at Gurriel at shortstop and the chance to sign an experienced and savvy defender in Freddy Galvis as a stop gap on a risk-free contract.

With Martin now in Los Angeles, it rewarded Danny Jansen - one of the game’s best young offensive catchers - with the opportunity to play every day, build a rapport with the pitching staff, and improve on the defensive side. More recently, with Morales gone and the role of DH open, it provides Montoyo a bevy of intriguing options on a daily, per-game basis.

Kendrys Morales was hours away from Thursday’s home opener when he was dealt to the Oakland A’s.

Kendrys Morales was hours away from Thursday’s home opener when he was dealt to the Oakland A’s.

Former Blue Jays top-prospect Anthony Alford - who finished spring training hitting .242/.342/.646 with four home runs - was initially expected to join the 25-man roster but, instead, the final two spots were awarded to first baseman Rowdy Tellez and right-hander Javvy Guerra. Alford starting the year in triple-A Buffalo seemed inevitable and is the best course of action for the 24-year-old, who will get everyday at-bats and is sure to be the first called upon if an injury arises.

Then there’s Tellez, whom many declared as the biggest beneficiary of the Morales trade. He was immediately penciled into the first official lineup of 2019 and, for now, should see the bulk of responsibility at DH while splitting time with Justin Smoak at first. The 24-year-old had a decent spring of his own, hitting .280/.308/.600 with a .908 OPS and five home runs, building off his impressive September audition in which Tellez hit .314/.329/.614 while becoming the first player since 1913 to hit six doubles over his first three games (10 at-bats).

There’s still a lot for Tellez to prove before he’s considered the future at first base. While his torrid start was great, Tellez’ 40% Hard Contact rate, his 0.10 BB/K rate, .391 BABIP was the second largest negative differential in baseball between his SLG (.614) and xSLG (.450), telling us that young Rowdy was extremely lucky in his debut. If Tellez can cut down his strikeouts, there might be something here, and he’s at least going to have the first crack at proving it.

After Tellez, there are two players I’m looking to for the most production out of the DH spot, and they’re Billy McKinney and Hernandez. Starting with the latter, Hernandez screams DH to me. He’s too much of a liability in the outfield to be a solution so it’s his bat that will make or break his time in Toronto. During his first month of 2018, Hernandez slashed .261/.305/.538 with a 124 wRC+.

Teoscar Hernandez could see more time at DH now that Morales has been moved to Oakland.

Teoscar Hernandez could see more time at DH now that Morales has been moved to Oakland.

Unfortunately, he struggled more and more as the year progressed. Hernandez, who has always battled strikeout issues, struck out 39.5 percent of the time in the second half and hit only .209 despite a .322 BABIP. Teoscar still managed a 107 wRC+ to end the year, but the strikeouts remain an issue. Because his batted ball profile remains strong, there’s a ton of power upside with Hernandez. Now with a chance to focus solely on hitting, he could take off, especially with some new guidance under hitting coach Guillermo Martinez.

Somewhat similar to Tellez, the 24-year-old McKinney fared well in his debut with the Blue Jays. When he was called up to the big leagues in August, McKinney slashed .252/.320/.470 with six homers in 132 plate appearances over the season’s final two months. Unlike Hernandez, McKinney gets on base at a much better clip. Across separate stints in double-A, triple-A and the majors, McKinney walked 10.6% of the time. He also changed his approach at the plate opting for more power at the expense of his batting average, as McKinney slugged 22 home runs in the Yankees and Blue Jays systems, including the six he hit with Toronto at the major-league level.

With a much clearer path to playing time now that Morales is in Oakland, if Montoyo decides to rotate Tellez and Hernandez at DH and first base, that would leave McKinney as the primary left fielder. He’s also a reasonable choice to lead off due to his ability to get on base and could rotate with Brandon Drury and Randal Grichuk atop the Blue Jays order.

Forgetting about Guerrero would be foolish, and though the precocious teenager could get the odd look at DH, the Blue Jays will deploy the 20-year-old at the hot corner until he proves unable to carry the defensive load. His arrival could shift Drury over to second base, which could force Gurriel into a utility role, with the most logical landing spots being at shortstop, left field and, you guessed it, even DH.

The presence of Morales will surely be missed, as will many other past leaders in the Blue Jays clubhouse. The time has come, as they say, for the Blue Jays to try and gauge what they have in their system.

Guerrero’s major-league debut is imminent, Bichette’s arrival isn’t too far behind, and now, with one move, the Blue Jays have created significant position flexibility in the short term, with a strong focus on the future outlook of the team.

Statistics and information courtesy: Spotrac, FanGraphs, Statcast