Blue Jays Check Off a Pair of Gloves on their Winter Shopping List

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The best defense is a good offense. As much as the pacifist in me hates to admit it, the old platitude is true. Many have tried to flip this popular saying in a sports context, suggesting instead that the best offense is a good defense, but that’s just patently false. No matter how terrific a team’s run prevention abilities may be, they can’t win a ballgame without scoring at least once. Conversely, it doesn’t matter how many runs a team concedes as long as their offense can score even more. As such, I’d embrace the strategic offensive principle of war (or should I say WAR) more readily than I’d accept its antimetabole.

Nevertheless, Kevin Kiermaier and Isiah Kiner-Falefa are the kinds of players who make the patently false seem true. Kiermaier is the greatest center fielder of the modern statistical era; no other outfielder comes within 10 points of him in either DRS or OAA. His defense makes a convincing argument that players should earn bonus points for impossible catches and spectacular throws.

Kiner-Falefa, meanwhile, is the consummate picture of defensive versatility. He’s the first player since the turn of the 20th century to play at least 50 career games at catcher, shortstop, and in the outfield – not to mention 154 games at third base, 21 appearances at second, and four innings pitched as the cherry on top. In 2018, a then-23-year-old Kiner-Falefa became the first player to start multiple games at catcher and shortstop in the same season since Dave Roberts (not that Dave Roberts) and Derrel Thomas in 1980. Add in the fact that he also started multiple games at second and third base the same year, and he’s the first player to have done all that since Marty Martinez in 1968.

In fact, the only other active player with at least 40 career games played in center field and behind the dish is Kiner-Falefa’s new teammate Daulton Varsho. Funnily enough, the Blue Jays could field a starting lineup featuring four catchers on any given day next season – all of whom are still under 30 years old. And after winning the Team Gold Glove in 2023, the Blue Jays are emphasizing defense once again. On December 28, Kiermaier officially re-signed with the club on a one-year, $10.5 million deal. The following day, Kiner-Falefa’s two-year, $15 million pact became official as well. Presumably, Kiermaier will resume his duties as the primary center fielder, while Kiner-Falefa will take on a superutility role, backing up nearly every position on the diamond.

Here’s what I had to say about Kiermaier earlier this winter as part of our Top 50 Free Agents list:

After a decade with the Rays, Kiermaier signed a one-year, $9 million contract with the Blue Jays to be one-third of the team’s all-center-fielder outfield plan. The three-time (now four-time) Gold Glove winner was everything the Jays could have hoped he would be and more; his defense was still elite in his age-33 campaign, and he had his best season at the plate since 2017.

Kiermaier led AL outfielders in OAA and finished second only to teammate Daulton Varsho in DRS. On top of that, he posted a 104 wRC+ thanks to slightly above-average numbers in all three triple-slash categories. His 21.1% strikeout rate was his lowest in seven years, and he made the most of his speed, too, going 14-for-15 when swiping bases, the highest stolen base success rate of his career. Best of all, the oft-injured outfielder largely managed to avoid the IL, missing just 11 days in August with a deep cut in his elbow. He played 129 games and 981.1 innings in the outfield, his most since 2019 and only the third time in his career he has played so much in a single season.

In addition to his $9 million guarantee, Kiermaier’s last contract included a $750,000 bonus for an undisclosed number of days spent on the active roster, an incentive he most likely received. Thus, accounting for inflation, his new deal is hardly a raise at all, rather surprising given his excellent 2023 campaign. Nonetheless, he seems thrilled to be back in Toronto, and the Blue Jays seem happy to have him – especially at that price.

Steamer and ZiPS agree that Kiermaier is due for some regression at the plate, but regardless, the most important thing the veteran proved this past season is that he can stay on the field long enough to be his team’s primary center fielder. As long as he keeps himself healthy, his glove will be an asset in Toronto’s outfield. And if he doesn’t? Well, at least the Blue Jays just added another capable center fielder.

Unlike Kiermaier, Kiner-Falefa had a down year in 2023. After averaging 1.8 WAR per 162 from 2020-22, he was worth just 0.2 WAR in 115 games this past season. On the offensive side, he added a bit of power to his profile but struck out more often than he has in years. The end result was an 82 wRC+, just a tick above his career 81 mark. He also registered negative baserunning value for the first time in three seasons, perhaps because his sprint speed dropped from the 79th to the 59th percentile.

On the bright side, Kiner-Falefa flexed his defensive versatility, playing outfield for the first time in his big league career. In fact, he ended up spending more time in both left and center field than at any other position. The advanced metrics didn’t love his performance on the grass – he produced 4 OAA and 4 DRS in the infield compared to -2 OAA and -4 DRS in the outfield – but for a player whose greatest selling point is his flexibility, there’s no doubt that adding a few new positions to his resume helped him earn his surprisingly lucrative deal.

Indeed, if Kiermaier’s contract was a bargain for Toronto, Kiner-Falefa’s seems like an overpay. The 28-year-old, who didn’t even get a ballot in our contract crowdsourcing project, has secured the sixth-highest guarantee and eighth-highest AAV of any free agent hitter this offseason. The Blue Jays haven’t been crying poor this winter, but that’s still a lot of money to guarantee a player coming off a 0.2-WAR season.

That said, with an injury-prone outfield and question marks at second and third base, the Blue Jays could certainly use the depth. Breakout sensation Davis Schneider is slated to start at second base next season, but given his limited big league experience and unforeseen emergence in 2023, manager John Schneider will need a backup plan. Similarly, the Jays need a fallback if they fail to re-sign Matt Chapman, considering the limited third base options remaining on the free agent market.

One could argue they already had the necessary reserves in Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal, the two of whom combined should earn less than Kiner-Falefa in 2024, yet Biggio doesn’t play shortstop and Espinal doesn’t play the outfield. Kiner-Falefa may not have much offensive upside, but his versatility makes him uniquely valuable in a bench role – or, at least that’s what the Blue Jays are counting on.

There’s still room for Schneider, Biggio, and Espinal on the roster right now, but if the Blue Jays continue to add this winter, as they most likely will, roster spots will become more and more precious. Schneider has the inside track on a starting job, but he’s also likely to fetch the biggest return in a trade. Meanwhile, Biggio and Espinal are superfluous with Kiner-Falefa around, and if the Jays add a new infielder, one or the other seems likely to be dealt.

Blue Jays Infield Depth Chart
Player Positions
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 1B
Bo Bichette SS
Davis Schneider 2B, 3B + LF
Cavan Biggio 2B, 3B, 1B + RF
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 3B, SS, 2B + CF, LF
Santiago Espinal 2B, 3B, SS
Spencer Horwitz 1B + LF
Otto Lopez SS, 2B + LF, CF
Ernie Clement 2B, 3B, SS

After a slow start to the offseason, the Blue Jays are finally on the free agent board. Still, the team that fell short in the AL East, in the playoffs, and in pursuit of a top-flight superstar has yet to make a real upgrade this winter. Kiermaier fills his own void, while Kiner-Falefa essentially replaces Whit Merrifield, offering more defensive versatility at the expense of offensive upside. Needless to say, that’s not nearly enough to make up for the loss of Chapman and Brandon Belt, let alone to improve a club that finished a distant third in the AL East.

Spending upwards of $25 million on Kiermaier and Kiner-Falefa is a fine decision if ownership is willing to open the purse strings and spend past the luxury tax for the second consecutive season. If not, it’s much harder to understand either move. Both are talented players in their own specific ways, but they’re redundant on the Blue Jays’ roster; this team already had an elite defensive center fielder and no shortage of utility players with questionable bats. Gold Glove defense and singular versatility are valuable skills, the kind that make you wish the official scorer could award extra points for run prevention prowess. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays, crossing the plate remains the only way to score. The best offense is a good offense, and that’s where they’ll need to focus their efforts if they’re going to avoid a fourth Wild Card round sweep in 2024.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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Jason Bmember
4 months ago

Obviously the story is not completely written yet, but man what a disappointing offseason so far. From a pursuit of Soto and Ohtani to, well, this.

Could still be salvageable, but man they need some impact bats at 3B and OF in the worst way.

4 months ago
Reply to  Jason B

The big thing is that they need at least one player who can mash right-handed pitching (even if they’re a platoon piece). Joc Pederson is the obvious name here, or a reunion with Brandon Belt, to handle DH.

This team could have also really used Candelario at 3B, but that’s obviously not an option now.

Having Kiermaier also puts them in a weird position. He’s a very good player, the team is better with him. But they desperately need a big bat to hang out in the corner outfield when Kiermaier is hurt and Varsho moves to left or when Springer is hurt. This team could do well to have Teoscar Hernandez back since one of the current outfielders will likely be hurt; he could get 600 PAs in that outfield even with Kiermaier and Springer on the roster.

4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Personally I would just let Horwitz take over as the LH DH bat and use the savings to try to get someone who can play 3B and hit a lot better than IKF or a right handed hitting OF who can play LF.

Horwitz has absolutely torched RHP in the minors and I don’t think Pederson should ever see the OF defensively unless it is an emergency and in that case the Jays already have Biggio & IKF who would be better defenders as 5th OFers than Pederson.

Hell even Horwitz has made 66 starts in LF in the minors and would probably be no worse than Pederson in the OF at this point.