Following the money in the Liriano-Hutchison trade

Francisco Liriano
Photo credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to post this quickly, and fill in the details as they come, but nearly an hour after the trade deadline closed we’re hearing that the Jays made another deal, adding starter Francisco Liriano (and two prospects) from the Pittsburgh Pirates — as first reported by Robert Murray.

On first blush, it is easily the most fascinating move the Jays have made here at the deadline, as the Pirates are essentially making a straight salary dump in the form or Liriano, and giving up a couple of not-insignificant prospects in order to get the Blue Jays to take on all of the money still owed him (he’s paid $13-million both this year and next).

Drew Hutchison is going the other way, per a tweet from BP Toronto’s Gideon Turk. He is the only piece moving from Toronto’s end. Meanwhile, the Jays also receive Double-A outfield prospect Harold Ramirez, and Double-A catching prospect (and 13th overall pick from 2013) Reese McGuire.

The 21-year-old Ramirez was the 95th best prospect in baseball heading into this season, according to Baseball America, and ranked 80th on Baseball Prospectus’s list (per BR), though is maybe a little green yet to be thought of as an asset for a club that may be about to lose a couple outfielders in the winter — especially one with designs on contending.

MLB.com had Ramirez ninth in a strong Pirates system (fronted by four of their top 30 prospects, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, and Jameson Taillon), mostly because of his bat, suggesting that he looks to be a future everyday big leaguer.

McGuire ranks eighth on the same (though is behind Ramirez on others), as a strong defensive catcher. “How much his bat can catch up to his glove should ultimately determine his Major League role.” 

Obviously this helps their farm system in terms of not just talent but trade chips — it’s harder to trade a Dalton Pompey or an Anthony Alford, for example, when there is simply no one else behind them who is close, and so maybe this allows the club to do something with one of them, or with Max Pentecost, over the winter.

And all it cost them was… um… a bunch of money committed in 2017.

That’s money with upside, to be sure. Liriano is intriguing, and has worked well with Russell Martin in the past. But ideally they’re not gambling on him finding his form so much as they’re hoping he can at least be OK — just as they would have with Hutchison (who I think they understandably weren’t terribly enamoured with — certainly not in the way that some fans weirdly are), but in this case for a year less, and for quite a bit more money. 

We can talk about what might help Liriano be better and why the Jays maybe think he can be, but that’s almost secondary in this deal. The bigger questions surround the money. This is the Blue Jays acting very much like a big market team, using financial heft to relieve a small market team of salary in exchange for real prospects. But is it a signal that the Blue Jays are going to start acting like a big market team more regularly? That they’re maybe going to be able to think like a big market team when it comes to re-signing some — or, for fuck sakes, at least one — of their trio of impending free agent hitters?

I honestly don’t know.

If the answer is no, then we really do need to talk about Liriano, because that makes this a real gamble on him, and him an important piece for next season.

They’re committed now to paying $109.625-million for nine players in 2017, assuming they pick up Jason Grilli’s option, and none of those players is Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, or Michael Saunders. Add in a few million for the arbitration-eligible guys (Stroman, Barney, Carrera, Thole, Colabello, Loup) they choose to tender contracts to, and about a half-million each for their pre-arb players, and it starts to look like a budget increase will be necessary in order to have much hope of re-signing their sluggers and filling the other roster holes that will need to be filled. Right now their 2016 payroll is sitting at just over $131-million, per Cot’s. 

If Liriano finds his form, perhaps they’ll have a good enough rotation to be able to compete and not necessarily have to go out and spend too much to be able to hit enough (and close out games enough) to make it work.

But if Liriano is just filler, what then? If he pitches like he has this year, can’t hack it and loses his spot to a prospect or Mike Bolsinger or some Gavin Floyd-esque signing, that’s quite a sunk cost for a team that won’t have had much buying power to patch holes in its offence. That’s a real high price to pay given that they could have simply kept Drew Hutchison, used the $10-million difference elsewhere, and passed on adding the prospects. That would seem, nice as these prospects may be, like it was kind of a bad move, even.

Unless the budget is going to go up.

The budget should go up, of course. TV ratings and attendance and advertising dollars are through the roof right now. Rogers’ media divison is counting on the Jays to offset sagging properties elsewhere, too, which may give ownership the impetus to keep thinking big. And hopefully that’s what this is an indication of.

If not, we’d better hope Russell Martin told the front office he saw something in Liriano he thinks will fix him, or that he can rekindle the magic the two once had as a battery.

When throwing to Martin Liriano was very good from 2013 to 2015, but has not been able to stop himself from giving up free passes this season. His 69 (nice) walks over 113.2 innings have contributed to his having allowed 69 (nice) earned runs, bloating his ERA to 5.46 for the season. He’s been a negative WAR player per FanGraphs.

Ross Atkins has told reporters that the plan is now almost certainly for Aaron Sanchez to move to the bullpen before the season is through — though he won’t do so immediately, which perhaps leaves the door open for him to stay in the rotation, should Liriano not regain his form. And it perhaps answers the question as to what they really think of Liriano — i.e. a replacement for/potential upgrade on their fifth/sixth starter more than a player they’re banking on fixing and becoming something significantly more than that again.

Which isn’t to say that Liriano may not be fixable. The raw numbers on Liriano’s velocity and pitch mix this season look just about the same as his successful years preceding this one. He’s not generating quite the same swing-and-miss, but his numbers there are still decent, and his strikeout rate is only down a little bit, and still above average. He’s not wholly different than before, it’s just… from all that he’s given up a tonne of walks, is allowing a very scary (35%) rate of hard contact, has an ugly HR/FB rate, and that bloated ERA.

It’s an incredible flyer for a team with money to take. Two very nice prospects and a chance to see if Liriano can become that 2 to 3.5 win player he was from 2013 to 2015 again, without significantly damaging financial flexibility going forward? HUGE!

If that $13-million does put them in a bit of a bind, though, this coming off-season, it becomes a whole different thing.