It’s been a terrible start to the season for the Toronto Blue Jays. Even the angriest, most negative, grumbling dungeon person couldn’t have predicted what’s transpired in the first few weeks of 2017.
The team will turn things around. It’s hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, I understand, but the Blue Jays really are better than this. They might not be able to climb back into a playoff spot, but they’re also not going to play at a 32-win pace, either. I mean, they didn’t just bullshit their way to the American league Championship Series last year off of luck and smoke and mirrors.
Still, though, this awful start has raised a legitimate question about the team’s future. It’s become trendy to suggest the team get blown up because, well, whether they’re this bad or not, they’re old. There’s simply no denying that. This is the oldest roster is baseball. Bautista is 36. Martin 34. Troy Tulowitzki 32. Happ 34. Estrada 33. And so on. They also have a handful of key players set to become free agents in the next couple of years.
But before we go ahead and tell ourselves a full fire sale and subsequent rebuild is the path this organization is destined to take, let’s walk through what that might actually look like. Who would be involved? Who would stick around? What would the turnaround be? Can we maybe find a middle ground here? Let’s see.
We’ll start with the veterans on expiring deals. These are the players who are set to become free agents in the next couple years, and, based on their age and contract status, would be the ones to have their names thrown around in trade discussions. Here’s a link to Cot’s spreadsheet of the Blue Jays’ contractual commitments that I used.
- 31 years old
- Arbitration eligible 2018, free agent 2019 (one more year of team control)
- 2015-16 WAR = 16.3
This is the really difficult one. Josh Donaldson is a Blue Jays legend. I won’t hear otherwise.
He’s only been here for two full seasons, but damn have they been memorable ones. Donaldson won the MVP in 2015, his first year with the club, and was instrumental in resurrecting this franchise from the dead. He followed that up with another MVP-calibre season in 2016, playing a major role in last season’s playoff run. He’s fucking awesome. A fantastic talent on the field, and a loveable personality off of it.
But he turns 32 this December, and it’s really difficult to say how long his body is going to let him play at an elite level. He’s being paid $17 million this season and will be eligible for one final go at arbitration this winter before hitting the free agent market after the 2018 campaign. Donaldson didn’t break into the league until he was 26 years old, meaning, relatively speaking for a player who’s been as good as he is, he hasn’t made much money over his career. So once that first free agent offseason rolls around, in which Donaldson will be turning 33, I imagine he’ll be looking to get paid.
That’s what makes this so difficult. Donaldson is the heart and soul of the team, but like I said, it’s hard to tell how long he’s going to be able to keep going at this level. Can you rationalize dolling out, like, $180 million over six years for a guy who plays a crash-and-bang brand of baseball on the old side of 30? My heart says yes because of this, this, and this. But my head (and, more importantly, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins’) might say otherwise.
Donaldson is also obviously this team’s most attractive player on the hypothetical trade market. One-and-a-half years of Josh Donaldson? A contending team’s general manager would probably sell his first born son for that.
I mean, for the sake of comparison, Jonathan Lucroy, a good catcher with a year-and-a-half of control to his name, along with reliever Jeremy Jeffress netted the Milwaukee Brewers Lewis Brinson (a five-tool outfielder ranked No. 21 in among MLB prospects) and Luis Ortiz (a right-handed pitcher ranked No. 63 among MLB prospects). Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltran netted the Yankees Gleyber Torres (No. 5), Clint Frazier (No. 39), Justus Sheffield (No. 91), and more. Josh Donaldson is a more valuable player than any of those aforementioned who were moved for massive returns last year. Top-100 list can be found here.
The last time a player as good as Donaldson was moved during the season? Uhhhhh. It doesn’t really happen. The closest somewhat relevant comparables I can find are Yoenis Cespedes, who netted Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa back in 2015, and Mark Teixeira who was moved from Texas to Atlanta in July 2008 for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Neftalí Feliz and Beau Jones.
So yeah! Yuck. I hate thinking about it, but the return for Donaldson would be ridiculous. Bigger than the one for Roy Halladay, probably. But as we learned from that deal: Prospects are for poor people, and there is absolutely no such thing is a sure thing. We’ll talk more about that later on.
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- 36 years old
- Free agent 2018 (two vesting option years, can be free agent this winter)
- 2015-2016 WAR = 5.8
- He has 10-5 rights, as he’s been with the team for five seasons and has been in the league for five, meaning Bautista has the power to veto a trade.
The Jose Bautista Revenge Tour hasn’t gone as planned. Based on the way he was hitting during spring training an throughout the World Baseball Classic, it seemed Bautista was poised to really bounce back after a frustrating 2016 season. That hasn’t happened so far. Bautista doesn’t look the same at the plate as the guy who launched Sam Dyson’s life into outer space that warm, sweaty October afternoon at the dome. He’s swinging through low-90s fastballs, getting confused by anything with break, and seems to have lost all of his confidence at the plate. But he’s looked excellent in the field so far, at least!
I mean, he sure as hell isn’t going to slash a .118/.258/.157 line (yes, that’s real) all season. But he also might not be the, say, .250/.350/.500 hitter we figured he would be back when he inked that one-year, $20 million deal in January. If he does heat up, he creates another difficult conundrum. There’s a good chance that a team with a red hot Jose Bautista is one that’s winning games. But there’s also a chance that the team has dug itself into such a deep hole that it doesn’t even matter. When the time comes, do you move him to a playoff team for something of value? Or do you roll into the offseason and hope the ever curious vesting option works out for both sides? If Bautista does step up and have his hella awesome Revenge Tour season after this slow start, you have to think he’ll want to hit the free agent market and cash in after what he went through this winter.
Like I mentioned earlier, Carlos Beltran netted the Yankees a nice package from the Rangers to be a veteran, power-hitting bat for their playoff run. Bautista has been bad this season, sure, but there’s no reason he can’t pull himself together and hit like Beltran did last season and be just as worthwhile of an asset come trade deadline time.
- 33 years old
- Free agent 2018 (no more years of team control)
- 2015-2016 WAR = 4.8
- 34 years old
- Free agent 2019 (one more year of team control)
- 2015-2016 WAR = 6.6
- 33 years old
- Free agent 2018 (no more years of team control)
- 2015-2016 WAR = 4.0
The one thing that has been good for the Blue Jays this season has been their starting pitching. Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano have both found their stride after shaky starts to the season, and J.A. Happ appeared to be rolling before being forced to the 10-day disabled list with elbow soreness. All three are good pitchers. They’ve been good this year, and they were good last year. Well, in Liriano’s case, he started to pitch well after being acquired by the Blue Jays, but you know what I mean.
Liriano and Estrada will both be free agents at the end of the season, while Happ has one more year at a very modest $13 million left on his contract before he can hit free agency again. As we know, starting pitching is like oil in Major League Baseball. You simply can’t get by without it. It’s the most valuable thing to have. If you’re paying for it in free agency, it’s costly. See David Price, $217 million. If you’re paying for it via trade, it’s costly. See David Price, price of acquisition being Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd.
The fact the Jays have Liriano, Estrada, and Happ, three excellent veteran pitchers at the same time on reasonable contracts (along with young talents in Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman) really is quite remarkable. After Josh Donaldson, these three are the team’s most valuable trade pieces.
Last year, one-and-a-half years of Matt Moore netted the Rays two of San Fransisco’s best prospects, Phil Bickford and Matt Duffy. Impending free agent Rich Hill (along with Josh Reddick, another impending FA) got the Oakland A’s Grant Holmes, Jharel Cotton, and Frankie Montas, three very promising pitchers, one of whom is already playing in the majors. Hell, the Red Sox figured it would be a good idea to give Anderson Espinoza (Ranked No. 21 by Baseball America) to the Padres for Drew Pomeranz.
I already mentioned it earlier, but if you need a reminder as to how much a good pitcher can net you on the trade market, just think back to the magical summer of 2015. It feels like just yesterday, right? The Jays were so good, so much better than their record indicated. Heh. Then Alex Anthopolous went out and acquired David Price to solidify a very mediocre rotation. The cost was massive, as the Tigers grabbed Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, both of whom are solid contributors to their rotation and will be for the next half decade. It was quite the Price to pay, but that’s the Price of doing business. (Sorry for that shitty pun.)
- 40 years old
- Free agent 2018 (no more years of team control)
- 2015-2016 WAR = 1.3
- 33 years old (no more years of team control)
- Free agent 2018
- 2015-16 WAR = 0.5
- 33 years old
- Free agent 2018 (no more years of team control)
- 2015-16 WAR = 0.6
Then finally, you have the relievers. The Jays aren’t anywhere near as strong coming out of the bullpen as they are in the starting pitcher department, but there are still a few assets here. That said, they don’t have that same big name, dominant closer, you know, the super trendy thing in baseball right now, like Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman that they could trade away for a couple of top-100 prospects like the Yankees did last year. Well, they do, but they don’t have a soon-to-be free agent one that they’re going to trade away in the next few months.
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Despite the fact they’re an old team, the Jays still have a core of good, young players. That’s Aaron Sanchez, Marcus Stroman, Joe Biagini, Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, and Devon Travis. It’s the beginning of a good starting rotation, the back-end of a very strong bullpen, or, perhaps more starting depth, and two strong position players. This is the present, and the future of the team.
Stroman will go to arbitration for the second time this winter. Sanchez, Pillar, Osuna, and Travis will go for the first time at the end of the season. All five of them are under control for three more seasons, and can become free agents after the 2020 campaign. Biagini had his clock stated last season, so he’s a year behind all of them.
Speaking of 2020, that’s when the Blue Jays are completely out of the woods in terms of current contractual obligations.
Russell Martin has two more years left at $20 million. Troy Tulowitzki has two at $20 million as well, then one at $14 million, and an option for a final one at $4 million. Kendrys Morales is owed $12 million next season, and $13 million in 2019. But when those free agent dates for the young core, Sanchez, Stroman, Osuna, Pillar, and Travis, rolls around, there aren’t any commitments getting in the way as of right now.
Some thoughts on rebuilds…
Baseball is an unpredictable sport. Sometimes you get 14 hits in a game, but none of them came at the right time, and you only score two runs. Sometimes you throw a pitch in the right spot with great break, but the batter closes his eyes and it goes right between the second basement and shortstop. Sometimes Ben Revere hits a home run off of Masahiro Tanaka. That’s what makes it so great, so romantic. You can’t predict baseball.
That doesn’t only hold true to action on the field, though. It’s also a reality in the front office. And that’s something that needs to be considered when it comes to the full tear down and rebuild. No prospect is a sure thing. You can’t just trade away Josh Donaldson for three prospects and have them seamlessly fit into the lineup in two years because it makes sense on paper. The game isn’t played on paper.
Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, and Kyle Drabek made a really fucking nice starting rotation on paper. With Brett Lawrie, Anthony Gose, and Colby Rasmus forming the core of the lineup. Wow! What could go wrong?
But just because we grinded through multiple failed rebuilds doesn’t mean they all fail. Think about the team in Cleveland that beat the Blue Jays in the playoffs last season. That team is very good, and is loaded with depth all over its roster. A big reason for that is because Mark Shapiro was willing (with the reality of the team’s very tight budget in mind, surely) to deal away star players before they hit free agency.
In 2008, he traded C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for Matt LaPorta, Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson, and Michael Brantley (!!!), and Casey Blake to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Carlos Santana (!!!) and Jon Meloan. A year later, Cliff Lee and Ben Fransisco were sent to the Philadelphia Phillies for Carlos Carrasco (!!!), Jason Donald, Jason Knapp, and Lou Marson. In 2010, Jake Westbrook was moved in a three-team trade with the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals for Corey Kluber (!!!).
How about the Philadelphia Phillies? They won the World Series in 2008, and went again but lost in 2009. They kept the dream alive, adding to aging teams with acquisitions like Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Jonathan Papelbon, and Raul Ibanez and made it to the playoffs in 2010 and 2011, but didn’t make it out of the first round. Then they just hit a wall. The team got old and bad very fast. Rather than selling off assets while they could, the Phillies tried to continue to find success on the foundation of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley, and as a result, it’s taken a damn long time to rebuild the team. They’ve finished no better than third in the NL East in the past five years, and they’d be looking even worse if the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins weren’t also so terrible.
The situations aren’t perfectly similar, obviously. The teams are different, the players aren’t the same, nor or the contexts in which everything happened. But the point is to illustrate that this is a complicated issue and both sides have very compelling arguments with realistic references from recent history that can be drawn from.
One on hand, you have a good thing here. Maybe you should ride it out because, fuck, this is the first time the Jays have been even sort of good in over twenty years. It isn’t easy to acquire talent like Josh Donaldson and Aaron Sanchez, so go for it, dammit! But maybe you need to realize the times were good, but it’s over now, and the best way to avoid another decade of sadness is to rebuild. But who knows if a rebuild will even work, though. We’ve seen so many of them fail before, right?
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What does it all mean?
I don’t really have an answer. There really isn’t a perfect path to take. Regardless what you or me decide is right, the decision ultimately comes down to Make Shapiro, Ross Atkins, and the other decision makers in the organization’s front office.
I’m not really here to present my opinion on what ought to happen, but instead walk through all of the relevant information so the reader can come to their own conclusion. But if you ask me, (and you absolutely don’t have to!) I really don’t think the team needs to completely blow it up and undergo a full rebuild. I do, though, think the team needs to get younger, think about the long-term, and be smart in getting value out of its expiring assets.
That full rebuild would involve trading guys like Osuna, Sanchez, and Pillar, good players who have multiple years of control, are cheap, and have added value because of it, along with all of the rental assets who are getting up there in age, and then being very awful for three or four years in order to stockpile top talent at the draft. There’s no reason to do that when you already have a good core of young players. They can accomplish a lot by selling off a few soon-to-be free agent assets, which is prudent business, and quickly turn around within their young core’s window.
So when July rolls around, whether the team is completely out of it or right in the thick of things, decisions for the future will need to be made. You have to figure out who you want to keep around long-term. Estrada? Work on an extension. Liriano? Do the same. If it doesn’t happen, you have to listen to offers on Bautista, Liriano, Estrada, and Grilli because you might lose them for nothing over the offseason. You also really, really, really have to start talking about a Donaldson extension and whether the risk involved are worth it. Then you have to find out what the possible return would look like in a trade, because that’s one player you absolutely can’t let walk for nothing, and he’s also has the ability to make a re-tool happen a lot quicker because of who he’ll net in return. You have to start thinking about the future, because there’s a chance this team could turn around and be very good again quickly, but difficult decisions will be involved.