Why a Blue Jays Rebuild Could Be Coming Soon
If things go south for the Blue Jays in 2017, there's reason to believe they might start selling off their best pieces and blow this thing up.
Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The Dodgers are the latest team to give a shit ton of money to a reliever, splurging $80 million over five years to keep their incredible closer, Kenley Jansen. It's an eye-popping amount for a closer, especially given that long-term relief pitcher contracts notoriously tend to end badly. But sometimes an overpay is simply the cost of doing business—a necessity if you want to actually get the player, rather than ending up looking for considerably worse alternatives while convincing yourself you did a great job in terms of finding value.
"If you're always rational about free agents, you will finish third on every free agent," Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said at last week's winter meetings.
The Blue Jays weren't reported to have been in on Jansen, and that's unsurprising. Despite their massive success over the last two seasons, the Jays behave as though they need to worry about making costly mistakes quite a bit more than the big-money Dodgers do. So far we've heard of them being in on expensive players like Edwin Encarnacion and Dexter Fowler, but only to a point—only so long as it makes sense for them. Only so long as it's rational.
It's hard to fault anyone for acting rationally. It's especially hard to fault the Blue Jays' front office, given that so much potential irrational capital was spent by their predecessors. The Mark Shapiro/Ross Atkins-led front office would perhaps be able to worry less about costly mistakes had caution not already been thrown to the wind in the form of expensive outlays for Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and David Price over the last two years. But had the club not made such moves, where would that have left it? Having Jeff Hoffman, Dan Norris, a bunch of other OK young arms, and a worse catcher and shortstop for less money would certainly not have helped the club in 2015 or 2016. And probably not all that much in 2017, either, if at all.
The frustrating thing for fans, however, has been that while they've been asked for big financial commitments of late in the name of playoff tickets, season tickets to ensure you get your chance at playoff tickets, new pricing structures for season tickets, dynamic pricing for walk-up tickets, etc., they look at the roster and feel like the club isn't holding up its end of the bargain. Ownership has made its money, maybe it can make even more by going the cheap route on ballplayers.
It's not easy to argue that the Jays are about to suddenly turn cheap, given that they will likely run the highest payroll in club history in 2017. And there is far too much offseason still left to think more moves aren't coming. But "going the cheap route" doesn't necessarily have to be specifically about 2017 payroll—it could simply mean choosing not to add more long-term dollars to the books, or shedding ones that are already there.
"There could have been someone (at Rogers) who strategically said you should take a step back in this moment and we chose not to do it," Shapiro said "rather cryptically" at last week's winter meetings, according to Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star. Or at least they hadn't then.
And maybe they haven't now, either. But ownership could do awfully well for its investment if it locked in a bunch of TV advertising at rates established by Sportsnet's 2016 numbers, as well as all the season-ticket money that has already been spent, and then watched as the team started whittling down its long-term commitments.
Fans will be aghast at the thought, but try as they might to create leverage for their interests, these last two years have shown pretty clearly that they will come out and open up their wallets for a winning team, no matter how much cheapjack bullshit they've been made to endure over the years.
Is that the kind of rational the Jays are being?
There is, on the other hand, a whole lot of basic logic in not doing the kind of thing that the Dodgers just did with Jansen. Shit, Blue Jays fans saw firsthand how the old record-breaking reliever contract went up in a puff of Slipknot and scoreboard flames. And on a much (much) smaller scale, they saw last season how a reliever, Drew Storen, with a pretty nice looking track record—albeit light years from Jansen's—can sometimes turn utterly useless for no apparent reason.
In other words, the Jays are probably smart to have not been in as heavily as these other clubs on the reliever market. Even the Fowler deal looks awfully rich for any team that needs to keep an eye as closely on its budget as the Blue Jays evidently do. He would have been as perfect a fit in Toronto as this free-agent market could have offered, but five years on turf is a lot to ask of a soon-to-be 31-year-old whose value comes so much from his legs and who has hardly been the picture of durability, especially at whatever amount would have been necessary to outbid St. Louis.
It's just... sigh. So now here we are, with little money irrationally spent, but little to show for it in terms of impact players.
Here we are relying even more heavily on Troy Tulowitzki to be something more than the league-average hitter he's been over his last 1,000 plate appearances. Relying on a pitching staff that will be hard-pressed to get more out of J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada than it did in 2016. Relying on Russell Martin to not look like he's fallen off a cliff the way he did during his (banged up) beginning and ending of the season. Relying on Devon Travis to stay healthy, which he's yet to manage to do at the big-league level. Relying on Kevin Pillar to keep providing enough defensive value to offset his weak bat. Relying on the bullpen to... find some answers somewhere.
At least, that's the especially pessimistic way of looking at it.
On the other hand, Happ has been excellent for 18 months, and Estrada for two years, so maybe the regression boogeyman doesn't exist for them in the way that we fear. Francisco Liriano, if he pitches anything like he did down the stretch, will give the Jays five starters who can keep them in any ballgame. Josh Donaldson is a goddamned superstar, and even a declining Tulo and Martin will provide above-average offence and defence for their positions—with the possibility of more than what they gave in 2016. If Travis is healthy, he's a legit asset at the plate. There is reason to be optimistic about Kendrys Morales coming to a more hitter-friendly ballpark, and Steve Pearce should be a great pick-up for the club (unless he goes all 2015 for them and sucks). Pillar's defence will still be excellent, and the threesome of Roberto Osuna, Joe Biagini, and Jason Grilli provide a good bullpen foundation. Shit, even Melvin Upton, for all his struggles, ranked a respectable 36th by wRC+ among 122 right-handed batters against left-handed pitching in 2016 (minimum 120 plate appearances).
There are things to like here. It just would have been nice if they were being supplemented by more. There's still time for that to change, of course. But the opportunities out there to make significant additions feel like they're dwindling.
That said, fans who paid attention understood long before this offseason started that it almost certainly would be a powerfully unsexy one for the Blue Jays, and that things would probably be OK if it was. To say a week after the winter meetings that it hasn't been good enough implies that the offseason is already over, which it's obviously not. It's just... one wonders where this is all going, and not just with respect to 2017.
The Jays, it seems, don't have a big trade in them. They don't have the high-minors prospects that teams covet—the centrepieces of the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades, Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito, both reached the majors in 2016 (and were among the top prospects in all of baseball, according to most of the big lists). Toronto doesn't have that kind of player to trade unless it creates another hole by moving a player off its big-league roster—something the club is understandably loath to do. The Blue Jays don't have that kind of player coming to save them in 2017 or 2018, either.
Sure, Rowdy Tellez is a guy a lot of fans have fixated on, and might be someone who can steal some at-bats from Justin Smoak later this season, but that's one piece with a whole lot of uncertainty still surrounding him. Anthony Alford is even farther away. Dalton Pompey is a nice player but maybe not much more than that. Vlad Guerrero Jr. is someone to dream on, but is still genuinely just a kid (he won't turn 18 for another three months). Intergalactic bounty hunter Bo Bichette was just drafted. And while there are some nice arms coming, they're still far away in their own right, and not generally regarded as players who can step in and be difference-makers.
The Blue Jays lost a generation, essentially. Norris, Hoffman, Franklin Barreto, and a whole bunch of arms that could have filled in variously, were dealt away for Tulo, Price, and Donaldson. We understand why they did it, and no fan would want to undo any of those trades, but it is what it is. And while I get the "trade 'em all, they'll mostly bust" thing, while you're figuring out whether they're truly busting or not you at least have some cheap big-league filler. The Jays don't have a whole lot of that coming for 2017, which is part of the reason the budget is so tight. It doesn't yet appear as though they'll have a whole lot of help coming in 2018, either, when Estrada and Liriano are due to hit free agency, and when Happ and Donaldson will be a year from the end of their current contracts.
Are Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, T.J. Zeuch, and Jon Harris going to be ready-enough to help a 2018 team that views itself as a contender? A team that views it as essential to keep Donaldson until the end of his contract, or to push to extend him? A team that will be relying even more on Tulowitzki, Martin, and Morales, with one more year under each of their belts?
It's hard to envision. It's especially hard to envision the front office seeing it that way.
And it would have been much easier to see better things for 2018 and beyond had the Blue Jays spent this offseason constructing a bridge to those years—following the Dodgers' path and spending money on free agents who will be here until the key members of the farm system are truly going to be ready to hit their stride.
In 2019 the Jays will have Tulo (34), Martin (36), and Morales (36) under contract and taking up $52 million of payroll. They'll have Pillar, Osuna, Aaron Sanchez, and Marcus Stroman each with just two seasons (2019 and 2020) before free agency. Travis will be three years out. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will presumably be contributing in the majors. Any other significant piece of that roster will either have to be re-signed, come from outside the organization, or be an already-existing prospect.
Is that core going to be good enough to win? To justify spending massively to keep Donaldson out of free agency through his mid-30s and beyond? To keep building bridges to the future with mid-tier free agents?
How does the front office factor in the way that the new CBA will likely prevent the club from getting draft-pick compensation on Estrada and Liriano next winter, or Happ the winter after?
The organization may not have expected compensation from those players anyway, but the fact that it surely won't receive any now might give extra incentive to move the duo this summer if the team doesn't appear to be championship-calibre. But once you decide you're going to move two fifths of your rotation, with not a whole lot coming in yet to help, how tempting does it become to cash in a year-and-a-half of Donaldson for a king's ransom?
And if that happens, why stop there? If you're now looking at a window that doesn't even start to open in earnest until 2019 or later, why have Tulo, Martin, or Morales on the payroll? Why not even think about what you could get for Sanchez, Stroman, and Osuna, that might better line up with your new timeline?
The front office wouldn't be doing its job if this thought hadn't at least entered its mind. The hope for Jays fans is that Shapiro and Co. have said everything to the contrary, and I can't imagine they'd be dead set on it at this point.
You don't offer Encarnacion a four-year contract if your aim is to tear the whole team down in six months. You don't give Morales a three-year deal if that's your aim. You don't go down to the wire on Fowler if that's your aim.
You probably also don't think you have so much job security that you can afford to wait until 2019 or 2020 to start to see success again. But if 2017 goes quickly down the drain, you may not have much of a choice.
And maybe you don't quite go all-in on Fowler because this is in the back of your mind. Maybe this is why you rush to sign Morales to a deal that should be movable if he's anything but awful. Maybe that's why you make sure you have a warm body at first base for a couple years in the shape of Smoak.
So how can this all be avoided? Big steps forward from Alford and Tellez and some of the top pitching prospects would be a good start—things to convince the front office that big-league calibre help is genuinely coming, and soon. Production from Tulowitzki that looks more like the final four months of his season (118 wRC+ from May 9th onward) than his overall 2016 numbers would help, too. A smaller workload for Martin might lead to better things. Health from Travis is key. Health from Donaldson is enormous. The pitching rotation looking like it did in 2015 will be all but necessary. And the bullpen needs to be figured out before they piss too many games away.
Better still would be adding top-end talent to the roster that's under contract for more than just one year. Though at this point I think most Jays fans would take someone decent on a one-year deal to better ensure they're competitive through the first half of the season to push all this talk away for another year. Jose Bautista doesn't look so bad right now, does he?
And while I still have a hard time seeing how they're going to get the timelines of their core players and their prospect reinforcements to line up, maybe a better path will become clear by next winter. Until then, Jays fans, just hope that the front office gets creative, and be thankful for the second wild card!