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A Blue Jays Rebuild: The Difficult Choices Ahead With The 2019 Free Agents

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.

Josh Donaldson

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.

J.A. Happ

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.

Aaron Loup

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.

Steve Pearce

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.

Justin Smoak

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.

  • Jeff2sayshi

    Personally of the mind to sell on JD, Loup keep Happ, Pearce, Smoak. You can’t use the Yankees as an example because they had those prospects ready to break out. Jays need to get some of those, and best chance to do that is with JD.

    They could still be competitive with a top 3 of Sanchez/Stroman/Happ, and I’m sure they’ll get at least one decent free agent starter, or somebody will rise out of the minors.

    • The Humungus

      You can’t sell JD. I thought maybe you could earlier in the season, but you absolutely can’t. Put it this way. To get “fair value” for him, say the Red Sox came calling. They’d have to give you two of Benintendi, Bradley Jr and Rodriguez. To start. Then probably a prospect with a bit more control (Bradley Jr is arb-eligible after this season, Rodriguez MAY be depending on when Super 2 falls).

      Do you think anyone is offering that much in season? And after the season, no one is giving you that for one year of JD, even if he is a 7+ win player.

      You just can’t trade him. Not now. The best time to trade him is next year at the deadline, and that’s only if you’re out of it and he’s told the team that he won’t re-sign no matter what they offer because he hates it in Toronto. Otherwise, you keep the 7+ win player as long as you can and his contract provides value at least equal to his ability.

      • ErnieWhitt

        I would easily sell Donaldson provided I could get the right return. Take the prospects and with the extra money you have from Donaldson, maybe you sign a guy in another position of need on the team. I also disagree that the Jays would need roster players like you mentioned. I can think of trades for prospects that would serve the Jays very well.

        Boston: Devers, Groome, Lakins. Devers is your starting 3b probably next season and the Jays would collect two more advanced pitching prospects. Would Boston do it? They have a black hole at 3rd and would likely balk at the huge prospect price, but that is the point if you’re the Blue Jays. If I’m them I would just call up Devers at some point but you never know what being in a playoff position will do to a front office.

        Yankees: Torres, Adams, Florial. Torres is raking at AAA at age 20 and could potentially move for a period of time to 3B if the Jays can’t find someone to take Tulo. Otherwise he’s the starting SS. Would the Yankees move him? Almost certainly not, but again, if I’m the Jays I’m asking for the moon and the return would almost certainly still be worth moving on from a player who has been the MVP. Upgrading from Headly to Donaldson would be helpful if they want to take a shot this season.

        Cards: Reyes, Flaherty, Bader. They were rumored to be sniffing around the Jays. Getting 2 big arms and a replacement for Bautista would be HUGE for the Jays if they intend to contend going into future years. Reyes is rehabbing from TJ, but when he’s back he’s one of the best young arms in baseball and would be instantly slot into our rotation with Sanchez and Stroman.

        Would each of those teams give up that much for 1 year + of Donaldson? Likely not, but if you can get a team to overpay at this point in a way that can make a BIG impact in terms of the talent of rookie level players for this club I would trade Donaldson for sure.

        • The Humungus

          And this is why I disagree with it. Prospects are prospects. 7+ win players are 7+ win players. Can a prospect become a 7+ win player? Sure. But it’s not likely. You can’t trade Donaldson for a prospect crap-shoot, at least not until it’s 100% he won’t even entertain the idea of coming back. There are more Roy Halladay trades than Bartolo Colon trades. It’s too risky if you want to be competitive, and you don’t want to waste cheap(ish) years of Sanchez, Stroman, Osuna, Pillar and Travis on dumping the team’s best player for potential.

          • ErnieWhitt

            “Prospects are prospects”

            The 2016 Chicago Cubs say “hi”. The 2016-17 Boston Red Sox say “hello!”. The 60-29 Houston Astro’s say “YO”. Aaron Judge says “Hi I’m Aaron Judge and I approve this message”.

            Prospects become valuable (7 win or not) all the time. Not even leaving the Astros they have 3 home grown prospects in the top 10 in WAR in the league. Mookie Betts has been extremely valuable since his age 22 season. You have framed it as a “crap shoot” but I dispute that heavily. Just because some prospects have been highly touted and failed doesn’t make it a rule. There is a rookie leading MLB in WAR at this very moment.

            Lastly – the reason you trade for close to MLB prospects, is the VERY reason you list as your last point. Unless you want to dump an unreasonable amount of money on a guy who will be 34 you’re already preparing for life with Sanchez et. al. The best way to ensure you have a competitive team with them is to not just let the older players slip off and go un-replaced. The idea is to have a wave of talent that emerge and take over like the Red Sox and Yankees have seemed to have happen over the last year or so. Donaldson is basically the one “aging” player on the team that could fetch an impactful return. To lose him for nothing so that we can have a 7 WAR player on a non-playoff team is as bad roster management as it could get.

          • The Humungus

            You can’t use they Cubs and Astros as examples. They scorched earth. Doing what they did would require trading everyone you don’t expect to be around in 3 years.

            I’m fine with what the BoSox did. And the Yankees. Trade impending free agents with value.

            JD is not one of those. Until he becomes one (trade deadline next year), you keep that guy. He’s too good if you have any designs on being decent next year.

            You mention Judge and that’s fine. But, why trade a guy who’s equally good right now for a guy who MAY be that good in two years?

            It’s risk-reward. Right now, if the team is going to be anything next year, you have to keep JD.

            But seriously, if they stumble out of the break, trade Estrada, Liriano, Bautista and Smith in a heartbeat. I’d sit through the rest of the season with Biagini and a warm body from AAA in the rotation if it meant getting something of value for guys. Dwight Smith Jr can play all the LF with Zeke’s Thunder in right.

            JD is another animal, though. You won’t get value for him in season unless the Cards trade you some serious shit for him (like Reyes and Aledmys Diaz, plus more).

            Seriously, though. You can’t bring up the Astros. The Jays have too much money available to them to do what the Astros did. They’ve got 60 wins already and still can’t draw shit to the stadium. Rogers corporate won’t let the team scorched earth like that.

            Here good things I heard on the Blair show Monday about the Jays future (just to contrast, and also because I’m sick of the bleak): They signed 31 of their 51 draft picks this year. And they’ve signed 5 of the top 38 International Free Agents (nos. 14, 23, 32, 36 and 38), as well as another 11 IFAs (mostly Venezeulans). Things are good. Just don’t trade JD until you have to.

    • DAKINS

      The question though, is whether or not there is a situation where trading Donaldson gets you a player of Donaldson’s value in return, either now, or in the future.

      The answer to that question is, “no, not a chance in hell.”

      • The Humungus

        Right. But, if it’s 2018 trade deadline and the team is out of it and he’s made it absolutely clear that nothing will bring him back, however unlikely that may be, then do you trade him if the return is greater than the potential of a
        2nd and 5th, or a 3rd round draft pick (depending on the signing teams payroll)? I’d say yes then.

      • Jeff2sayshi

        There’s no guarantee on who you get back, obviously. That works both ways, though. Remember the Marlins trade that the Jays 100% won. Josh Johnson was suddenly done, Reyes got injured game 1, Bonifacio face planted in Toronto. The best part for the Jays was Buerhle who was taken to complete the rest of the deal.

        Is there risk? Absolutely. May you not get another 7 win player? You may not. But if you can get 7 years of control on a couple 3-4 win players, that’s not a bad base to build with.

        • The Humungus

          As far as immediate effect of that trade, it basically wound up being Alvarez and Hechavarria for Buehrle.

          Alvarez had a 5 win season in 2014, including 3 complete game shutouts and a no-hitter. Those two were a wash for one another (Buehrle had 6.8 WAR for the Jays, Alvarez 6.6 WAR for the Marlins before he got hurt and his career essentially ended in 2015). Hechevarria was 1.7 WAR with the Marlins in his career, and they flipped Escobar immediately for Dietrich, who’s put up 2.8 WAR as a utility guy over the last two and a half seasons. I wouldn’t say the Jays 100% won that trade at all.

      • Just Jeff

        The equation is a little different than what you have suggested. It’s more like: The value of Josh Donaldson going forward vs. what you can get for Josh Donaldson in a trade plus what you can do with the money that you don’t have to pay Josh Donaldson.

        • Glassman

          I would say you are looking at it wrong. If you want to compete next year, trading a 7 win player is the last thing you want to do. They have a solid enough core to think going forward that they should be able to make a run at the post season next year, and maybe even this year. That is why you wait until the trade deadline next year. If you move him this year then you are giving up next year as well as their will not be anybody as good as JD you would be able to sign. That is why management is talking about retooling and not rebuilding.

          • Just Jeff

            I’m not saying I would for sure trade Josh now (there actually isn’t a good trade partner for him that isn’t in our division) this year. But I might be inclined to deal him in the off-season. I was just pointing out that there’s more to consider than just Josh vs. what you get back.

            But my question to you is this: Do you think this team will be better next year. If the answer is yes, then my next question is: Why? I’d rather run it all back and try again next year too, but I really don’t see why anyone would expect this group to be better next year and if they aren’t going to be better, then you have to decide on whether you want to pay Josh Donaldson a pile of money for what are likely to be his regression years.

        • The Humungus

          Have you looked at the free agent class after this year? What does that $24M you save buy you from it that gives you the same value? A JD Martinez overpay? It’s still not worth it because of the risk of trading him for the next Kyle Drabek.

          • Just Jeff

            The assumption needs to be that the money would be used intelligently by Shapiro & Atkins, just like the assumption needs to be that they would select prospects that have a reasonable chance of panning out. Nobody is suggesting moving Josh Donaldson for some A ball lottery tickets. I would expect that our management would be looking for prospects at the AAA & AA level that are more projectable.

            If you are going to assume in the worst-case scenario in a trade, then of course you shouldn’t make the trade. You are operating from the hypothetical that the money won’t be spent intelligently and that the prospects won’t work out. But does your position also consider that Josh Donaldson might not keep churning out 7 WAR seasons given his age and his style of play? That needs to be considered as well, especially if you’re considering ponying up big dollars for him in free agency. All you get for him if he walks is a 2nd and a 5th round pick, which are higher risk than anything you’d get in a trade (you haven’t suggested this, I’m just saying).

            To be clear, I am not suggesting moving Josh Donaldson today. I couldn’t, given I have no idea what would be offered. I am merely pointing out the complicating factors when you consider moving a player of Josh’s calibre.

          • The Humungus

            I was more pointing out that the free agent class is weak. Just like this past off-season, this coming one is not the time to have money to spend.

            As far as Donaldson goes, I wouldn’t expect it to continue, but, maybe? I mean, his WAR ages 27-31 (32.8) is 7 higher than Adrian Beltre’s (25.8), and Donaldson still has nearly half a season to bank more. I’m not saying he’s Beltre, who’s the best 3B of my lifetime (Fuck Boggs) and a legitimate Hall of Famer, but still…I mean, maybe you pay that guy? I’m fine with 5yrs/$125M to take that shot. Beltre was worth 32.1 wins from age 33-37.

          • Glassman

            I do think they will be better next year as long as Sanchez and the blister issue is gone. I think the point on the prospects is, no matter how highly touted or what their rank is, they are still prospects who could go up in flames. Drabek was ranked very highly and in AA if i remember correctly and he was the center piece of the Halladay deal. It was considered a good haul and they just didn’t pan out. Their is a reason players of JD’s (not Martinez) stature does not get traded very often. Wait until the next trade deadline because then you have a better idea of what he will be looking for $$$ and how many years.

      • ErnieWhitt

        No the question is can we bring in a player who will provide more value in all of the years they play as a Blue Jay after 2017 than Josh Donaldson will provide in 2018. That changes the calculation immensely. If you’re talking about the top tier of prospects and you do your due diligence its not even remotely as stark a prospect.

        • Glassman

          You can do all the due diligence you want, top prospects bust all the time. You hope they work out like the Bryants, Trouts and Harpers but it could turn out to be the next Brandon Wood or Corey Patterson. And if you decide to trade Donaldson now, you would be punting next season as he is by far the best hitter on the team and probably top 5 best hitter in baseball. Yes, buliding through the farm is smart and we do not have enough talent in AA or AAA but the Jays should still be very competitive this year and 2018.

          • The Humungus

            I was going to say this. Travis Snider was the number 5 prospect in baseball. He’s currently 29 and playing in Round Rock. All the due dillegence in the world didn’t make Jesus Montero a major leaguer.

  • Just Jeff

    Assuming you can’t get much for Marco at this point, I would move J.A. Happ now and try to re-sign Marco in the offseason. Happ will be 36 at the end of next season, and by then hopefully one or more of our pitching prospects can fill his spot. If you believe Marco can regain his form, he can replace Happ next year and hopefully rebuild some value. The Jays would still have to find another starter for next year though.

  • jerjapan

    The best reason to sell high on Smoak is that it clears up the logjam at 1B / DH. The Morales deal was bad the moment the ink dried, but it makes it more tenable if we can play him at 1B sometimes, giving Bautista, Tulo and others quality DH time not playing D on the turf. Jose, Pearce, Smoak and Morales are all basically 1b / dh types, and Tellez might figure out AAA at some point.

  • dolsh

    These are all the reasons why a different kind of trade is needed. The team is talented, but a wee bit listless. I keep bringing up the Carter/Alomar trade as an example. Trade value to get a different kind of value that benefits all parties.

    Smoak and Carrera *have* to be expendable. Especially Smoak. Neither are in the long-term plans, and both will fetch “something.” I honestly don’t care what, but hope it would be a decent bullpen arm. We already have a really good first baseman on the roster in Pearce. He can play until Vlad ultimately makes the switch to first and takes over. Alford/Pompey/DSJ can play left.

    A second tier that should be considered? Happ, Pompey or Alford, Travis. Possibly Pentacost and Tellez too. They’re all potentially blocking a younger/better player, and they all have value. I’d suspect that this group would be on the table to land Quintana.

    Finally, I do think Tulo has value. Some NL GM (Arizona maybe?) will look at his career and think real Tulo has a chance of returning if he returns to the NL. I’d honestly ship Tulo and his contract in exchange for a rosin bag and some Yoo-Hoo if it cleared some salary room for a run at a 2019 free agent or JD extension.

    Trading JD doesn’t serve any purpose. The team needs to remain competitive, and he’s simply not replaceable in the next two years. I’d extend him.

    Baseball being baseball, I suspect that what actually happens is a complete surprise and we’re all wrong though.