I looked yesterday at the main assets the Blue Jays could sell at the upcoming trade deadline as rentals. The list isn’t very long, and if you were expecting the team to get a return similar to what the Yankees garnered when they sold Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman last season, you’re going to be disappointed. Sure, they can still acquire some solid prospects, but Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano, and Joe Smith probably aren’t going to net any game changers who can flip the fortunes of the franchise overnight.
The brunt of the Blue Jays’ best and most realistic trade assets are players under contract for the 2018 season. How to handle the 2019 free agent group is obviously much, much more tricky than the impending 2018 free agent group Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins have sitting in front of them at this moment. How these players are handled will likely determine whether or not the Blue Jays go into a short-term retool, longer-term rebuild, or whether they look to remain competitive again next season.
He’s the heart and soul of this team. Over the past three seasons, only two players — Mike Trout and Kris Bryant — have been worth more wins above replacement than Josh Donaldson. When the Jays acquired Donaldson before the 2015 season, it turned everything around. He injected a life into the team that I don’t think we had seen in years. Donaldson has the ability to completely take over a game, which, in baseball, is pretty incredible. We saw that last week when he made a huge defensive play with Marcus Stroman scuffling and then hit a go-ahead three-run homer a few innings later.
He’s also turning 32 years old in December and becomes an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career after the 2018 season. He’s going to be due for a big, deserved pay raise. But with his age, injuries, and play style, he’s a very risky investment. What would a team give up for Josh Donaldson? A lot. Look up and down this list of the most valuable players from 2015 to now. You don’t find these guys in free agency. You infrequently find them available in trades. Sometimes you fool the general manager of a cheap team into giving them to you, but that doesn’t happen often. You draft them, develop them, and try to keep them forever.
Mark Shapiro said “it’s not impossible, but it’s hard for me to see a scenario where you trade JD and get better.” That’s certainly true. But it’s also hard to see a scenario where JD walks in free agency and the team gets better. A good, competitive Blue Jays team is one with Donaldson locked down to an extension. But a Blue Jays team with a great future probably sold him off to a contender for a king’s ransom. It’s a tricky one.
When the new front office signed J.A. Happ after the 2015 playoff run, it was met with a scoff. The team had just let David Price walk and they were replacing him with a retread who was, at best, a bottom-of-the-rotation starter here? What the hell? But Happ became a different pitcher in his year of studying abroad. The Jays sent him to Seattle for Michael Saunders, the Mariners flipped him at the 2015 deadline to the Pirates, and pitching coach Ray Searage helped him turn his career around.
He put together a damn good 2016 season, posting a 3.18 ERA over 32 starts, good enough to finish sixth in American League Cy Young voting. This season, Happ missed significant time with an elbow injury, but has been very effective when healthy. He’s signed for another season at $13,000,000 and will turn 35 years old in October.
They aren’t perfect comparisons, but at last year’s deadline, lefty starter Rich Hill (along with Josh Reddick) netted the A’s a nice haul of prospects, and young, inconsistent, but under-control lefty Matt Moore got the Rays top prospect Matt Duffy. A year-and-a-half of Happ obviously has more trade value at this year’s deadline than one run with him at next year’s deadline. But, of course, Happ also has a considerable amount of value as a top-of-the-rotation veteran on this team too.
Left-handed relievers are assets baseball teams would colonize the moon to acquire. Like, last summer, the Giants traded their top prospect Phil Bickford (remember him?) to the Brewers for Will Smith, a good-not-great lefty with a few years of control. Zach Duke, Fernando Abad, and Mike Montgomery, a collection of pretty solid lefty relievers, also returned decent prospects to their respective teams.
Aaron Loup has been erratic the past few seasons to say the least. He was excellent when he broke into the league in 2012, but struggled into 2015 and 2016. He’s been pretty effective this season, but he’s also prone to implosions largely due to poor command. Still, like I said before, lefty relievers are a premium asset, and a year-and-a-half of one at a cheap price tag could probably net the Jays a surprisingly decent return.
I would be pretty shocked if the Blue Jays decided to part ways with Steve Pearce, one of last winter’s major free agent investments, just a few months into his tenure with the club. But come this time next year, if the Jays are out of it, he would make an excellent rental asset for a team in need of a versatile veteran with a good bat.
Pearce has missed a decent chunk of time this season due to injury, but since returning from the DL he’s looked solid at the plate. For the season, Pearce has a .750 OPS through 150 plate appearances, but like I said, he’s been much better post-injury than he was before hitting the DL.
Here’s the really tricky one. Justin Smoak, like so many others in recent years, has enjoyed a completely unexpected breakout season in 2017, joining Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Marco Estrada, and Chris Colabello as Blue Jay late bloomers. Is it going to last? It did for two hitters on that list. The other? Not so much. Is Justin Smoak a flash in the pan like Colabello was? Was his All-Star performance just some Michael Saunders stuff? I really have no idea. Baseball is weird.
But if it is legitimate, the Jays have themselves a damn good asset on their hands. Many have suggested trading Smoak at the peak of his value would be prudent. There’s some merit to that. But you only have to go back a few years to when a nearly identical situation played out right in front of us. I can pretty vividly remember people suggesting that the Jays deal a 29-year-old Jose Bautista because he had just quadrupled his value with a 54-homer season. The Jays ultimately locked Bautista up to a long-term deal and the rest is history. He’ll end up going down as one of the best players ever to put on a Blue Jays jersey.
I’m not saying that’s Smoak’s path, or anything. But this is a mystery box and the boat situation. You could trade Justin Smoak and maybe get another Justin Smoak in 2021. Or you can keep Justin Smoak. He turns 31 years old in December. If this season isn’t a flash in the pan, he could have a lot of years left as a big time power hitter and run producer left ahead of him. Two of those seasons — 2018 for $4,125,000 and 2019 for $6,000,000 with that option that’ll more than likely be activated — are cheap as dirt.
What does it all mean?
If the Blue Jays are going to go all-in on this rebuild, these are the assets to sell on. As I pointed out yesterday, the impending free agents aren’t going to net much of a return right now. It seems right now that the market favours the buyer and the Jays only feature three, possibly four, rental players, all of whom are middle-of-the-pack type veteran additions. But the players who become free agents in 2019 hold a tremendous amount of value in possible trades.
But — here’s the catch! — they also hold a lot of value to the Toronto Blue Jays as a baseball team right now. As down as you might be on this team, it’s easy to accept that they should be better. I know, should doesn’t mean much. But if Aaron Sanchez’s blister doesn’t derail his season, J.A. Happ and Josh Donaldson don’t suffer injuries, and the Jays have some better luck, they could easily be a Wild Card team in the America League right now. As bad as things are, they’re only five games out of a playoff spot, and the teams ahead of them aren’t that good.
A rebuild is fun to fantasize about. It’s hard not to. The team is old, slow, frustrating, and injured. Right next door we watched the Yankees do some major work in building a future contender with those Chapman and Miller deals. You can also look back to the Phillies of last decade to see what happens when you refuse to let go. But how many assets have the Miami Marlins sold? How about the Padres? Hell, remember the Roy Halladay trade? The Jays rebuilded year after year after year and saw literally zero success for two decades.
I can empathize with the argument for blowing it up, selling Estrada, Liriano, Bautista, Donaldson, Happ, Pearce, and Smoak at the deadline and then entertaining offers on Roberto Osuna, Kevin Pillar, and Marcus Stroman in offseason and getting maximum return value. The organization’s farm would rise from the middle of the pack to the top just like that.
But there’s a middle ground here. The front office has said they don’t want to tear the team down. They want to operate at the 2017 team in a hybrid style of buying and selling. They want to continue getting fans out to the park. But they also don’t want to ignore the future.
Sell where you can at the trade deadline. If there’s a suitor willing to offer a solid prospect for an impending free agent, take it. But also, buy where you can. If there’s a team wanting to dump a Liriano-esque contract that’ll hand over some prospects, take it. Then, retool and make a push for it again in 2018. If it goes south again, pull the trigger at next year’s deadline. The returns won’t be as significant, sure, but you have a core here that can be successful. I think the organization is better off taking a chance one more time with this group — that largely being Josh Donaldson — than they are selling now for a slightly higher return.
There’s an interesting blend of veteran talent and young, good, and cheap talent on the roster right now with some very impressive prospects at the lower levels of the system. That could, if handled properly, result in a team that continues to find success year after year without putting its fans through a period of desolation.