I wrote last week for the Athletic about why the best way forward for the Blue Jays doesn’t include a rebuild, arguing that “a team projected to be .500 doesn’t need to play very far over its head to become a playoff contender — especially if it does so in the first four months of the season, putting its front office in a position to strengthen the roster at the trade deadline,” and that “the 2018 version of the club — if the front office keeps most of its players already under contract, and fills in the gaps this winter using money coming off the books — will still have more than enough talent in place to make such a run at least plausible.”
This is a truth that’s recognized, I think, by most people on the rebuild/retool divide — with the rational among those preferring a bigger rebuild (as opposed to the mewling burn-it-down Catharsis? My arse is capable of more flush pisspods) arguing that such measures won’t go far enough to ensure a great future, and that the Jays may well end up with the club stuck in the middle.
Fair enough. But let’s think this all through a little bit deeper. We all know what the torched hellscape of a full-on rebuild would look like — though I think some of us are a little too optimistic about the bounty of prospect riches or quick turnaround it would bring — but what about the 2018 Blue Jays if the club did precisely what it seems like they’re going to do and more or less stayed the course?
Here’s what I see:
Russell Martin has a .380 on-base this year. He’ll be a year older and isn’t the least injury-prone player in the world, but with him the 2018 Jays should still be the envy of a whole lot of teams behind the plate. I can live with that. And if he does well but the team doesn’t, he’s on the books for just one more season after 2018, and if the Jays were willing to eat a little money, might legitimately be worth something in a mid-2018 sell-off. That’s still a long way off, but… y’know?
Justin Smoak is a damn All-Star on a cheap contract. Maybe we shouldn’t tempt fate by thinking about this one too much, but there’s an honest chance they’re OK here. Perhaps an even-better-than-honest chance. And like Martin, Smoak is controllable through 2019 (he has a club option) for rather cheap and could maybe fetch something decent next July, if he keeps it up and the team doesn’t.
You’d almost certainly want to find a better-than-replacement-level backup for Devon Travis (perhaps Lourdes Gurriel by then?), but I wonder if we should be quite as uncomfortable with the Jays’ second baseman’s injury history as we generally are. On one hand, past injury is the best way to predict future injury, and Travis has certainly had his troubles in that regard since arriving in Toronto. The fact that his knee has taken so long to get right is a not-insignificant concern. But on the other, in his Blue Jays career he’s really only had two issues: the recurring knee problem, and an problem with his shoulder caused by bones that didn’t fuse properly when he was young. With Erie in the Tigers’ system in 2014 he lost a month to an oblique injury, too, but otherwise, including his career at Florida State, seems to have managed to be rather healthy. I’m not saying the injury stuff isn’t a concern, I just wonder if it’s maybe a little bit overblown. Let’s not give up on the guy. Let’s, in fact, see his being here as the positive that it is.
Uhhhhhhh… yeah. Troy Tulowitzki is going to be here for a while, so we might as well get used to it — and get used to the fact that we’re probably going to have to keep playing the following sorts of games: Though his numbers look very shortstop-like this season, since mid-June he’s posted a 118 wRC+. He also finished last year strong (a 115 wRC+ from his mid-June return from the DL to the end of the season), and while his defence has looked ugly according to the metrics this year (and perhaps even the eye test), he was positively Tulo-esque in 2016 (+10 DRS, +5 UZR). The older he gets and the more DL trips he makes (two more and the next one’s free!) the harder it gets to believe stuff like this is going to bounce back, but… maybe? It’s not entirely crazy.
Says here “Josh Donaldson.” Oh, shit, this infield is actually maybe kinda good.
Kendrys Morales has belted 16 home runs in the first half, some of which — mostly earlier in the season — came at rather opportune times and perhaps masked the fact that he’s been kinda bad. To make a horrific dated reference to an embarrassing movie to admit ever having watched, it’s like Justin Smoak has stolen Kendrys’ mojo. If you’d have told me before the season that Kendrys would have Smoak’s first half numbers and Smoak would have Kendrys’ first half numbers, I’d have absolutely believed you — and I think most Jays fans would have as well. Which says something about what Kendrys might still be able to do… though his posting some of the worst numbers of his career in terms of walk rate, strikeout rate, and wRC+ are pretty hard to defend.
Hey, but if he doesn’t come around it’s not like it’s a tough position to fill or all that difficult a contract to swallow, either — especially if you give it 365 days. I’ll still bet the over, though.
Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for “crisis” as they do for “opportunity”? (Yes, crisitunity!)
Blue Jays left fielders so far in 2017 are 16th by wRC+, 30th by FanGraphs’ defensive component of WAR, and 28th by total WAR. Maybe… uh… it’s better to sacrifice some bat for some glove here, eh? One of Dalton Pompey, Anthony Alford, or Lourdes Gurriel should be able to provide enough glove here to offset the difference between their bat and the 95 wRC+ Blue Jays outfielders have put up this season. In fact, they may even be able to exceed that number.
Hey, it’s no crazier than the plan the club went into this season with, and they looked like legit-ish contenders!
Maybe another off-season of work will help Kevin Pillar rediscover those changes he seems to have forgotten since April. Or maybe his glove will bounce back and make it so his bat doesn’t matter quite so much. He’ll be OK. Or maybe he could bring back something decent in trade — something worth exploring since, unlike just about every other position, the Jays actually have a couple guys knocking on the door (or about to be) behind him.
OK, so here’s where the Jays are probably going to have to look outside of the organization. José Bautista is a legend, but he’s also a DH. He’s also all but certainly going to end up a free agent. The good news is that Bautista has been worth fewer than two wins over his last 200 games. And even though, yes, we’re only talking about upgrading on a team that’s already “not good enough,” we’re also only talking about upgrading to “plausible contender.” Maybe the Jays use the trade market to find a player who can play there a long time. Or maybe they just find a body with some upside.
It would help if one of the guys mentioned as left field options could play the other corner, but I’m not sure about that. Even if not, though, some reasonably-priced right field options will be out there: Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Gonzalez, and Seth Smith are free agents, not to mention costlier options like J.D. Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, or Jarrod Dyson. And there are a few guys who’ll be entering their final contract year that might work via trade: Nick Markakis, Hunter Pence, and theoretically A.J. Pollock or Charlie Blackmon (who, let’s be honest, are probably about as realistic as Bryce Harper — another option, theoretically).
I think Gurriel fits here — maybe not from Opening Day, but at least eventually. They probably find a cheap backup catcher who might eventually give way to Danny Jansen (or at least should in 2019). Goins is still under contract, and with the injury history of the Jays’ starters up the middle, he’ll possibly stick around — though he hits arbitration for the first time this winter and maybe the extra half million dollars will make him a non-tender guy and he’ll be replaced by someone more… uh… capable. Ezequiel Carrera still has two more trips through arbitration left, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him back, at least as some kind of insurance if they really do go young in left — and especially if they go young in both corners. Steve Pearce has a 158 wRC+ since the start of May, and so maybe he stays as a bench bat and a guy who could fill in for Smoak or Morales (and maybe steal some at-bats from them if they struggle) — but holy shit, certainly not as an outfielder. On the other hand, while I like him, Pearce already feels like he’s surplus to requirements and if the Jays could flip him between now and next March for some pitching depth, it wouldn’t surprise me if they did (it would surprise me if they didn’t). And so maybe this is eventually Rowdy Tellez? I dunno.
Marcus Stroman. Aaron Sanchez. And, unless they’re blown away by some kind of trade offer in the next couple weeks, J.A. Happ. That’s a fine starting point for a rotation. A really good one, even.
I’d love to say that we could possibly add Roberto Osuna to the list, but I suspect the Jays won’t abide such a request. Joe Biagini will likely get stretched out again next spring, even though his time as a starter this year diiiiiiiiidn’t go so great.
Also not going great: the years of Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene, and Jon Harris in New Hampshire. Those guys still have bright futures, of course — they’re not the first pitchers to struggle in their first tastes of Double-A (the second for Greene) and they won’t be the last — but the Jays can’t expect them to ride in and save their rotation next year. At least not without something seriously clicking for one or two of them in the second half or next spring. The club could, however, consider moving them for more immediate help, but… yeah… it seems that’s kinda how we got into this situation in the first place.
Maybe move one of them though? To a non-contender? For a guy with a year or two left, instead of their six? It’s possible, but I tend to think that they won’t. So it’s likely that, again, that the Jays will look to the free agent market to find a couple bodies with some upside for their rotation. I like to fantasize that one might even be a guy they’re rather familiar with, who will be hitting free agency after a rough year, and not especially in long-term demand, but with a quite nice track record in 2015 and 2016: Marco Estrada.
If you’re not exactly keen on another Estrada season, I can’t blame you after his last couple of months. And maybe the club feels the same way, too. Maybe they see another one of the options on the market as better fits. But if Marco’s going to go somewhere on a short-term deal for relatively cheap, why not here? It might even leave the Jays with enough in their budget to add an even bigger piece.
Speaking of, here’s what I wrote about the 2018 budget back in early May:
Cot’s has the Jays at $76.304 million in commitments for 2018. Add $44 million for the group of key arbitration eligibles [I calculated that arb raises should require about $24 million for Donaldson, $5 million for Stroman, and about $10 million total for Sanchez, Travis, Osuna, and Pillar] and you’re at $120 million — or, $40 million less than their current payroll ($43 million less, to be exact).
That accounts for 13 players: Tulowitzki, Martin, Donaldson, Happ, Morales, Pearce, Smoak, Stroman, Pillar, Osuna, Travis, Sanchez, and Lourdes Gurriel.
They then have three arbitration-eligible players who are non-tender candidates — Ezequiel Carrera (making $1.1 million in 2017), Aaron Loup ($1.2 million), and Ryan Goins ($550K) — and in this scenario would be filling out the rest of the roster with guys making the league minimum.
If they keep all three, which seems dubious (*COUGH* non-tender Loup *COUGH*), even with their raises and pre-arb guys the number we’re looking at is more like $130 million.
My lack of faith in Loup aside, those are still the numbers we’re basically looking at for next season.
The current payroll over $163 million, and maybe could go even higher, leaving something like $30 to $35 million to spend. That’s not great — none of this is great! — but it’s certainly workable. And there are all kinds of interesting and perfectly serviceable-ish names (or better!) that will hit free agency that might jump at the chance to get in on this situation, crazy as that may sound to the kinds of fans who’ve decided everything is awful here. For example:
Jaime Garcia, Andrew Cashner, Matt Garza, Trevor Cahill, Jason Vargas, Michael Pineda, Jhoulys Chacin, Lance Lynn, Jeremy Hellickson, Scott Feldman (a damn 3.95 ERA in 102.2 innings for the Reds!), Clayton Richard, Tyler Chatwood, Jesse Chavez (I know, I know), Derek Holland, Brandon Morrow (WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE’S A RELIEVER NOW? DO IT!), Wade Miley, Miguel Gonzalez, and more.
The top of the class — Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Johnny Cueto, Alex Cobb, etc. — is surely out of the question, but… uh… a lot of pitchers out there who probably wouldn’t require too much of the $35 million or so that the Jays may have to spend. Francisco Liriano, too, if we want to get real deep into doubling-down fan fiction here!
Other than Joe Smith, the bullpen is going to come back intact in 2018, with a bunch of interesting pieces starting to bubble up from the minors, too. Should be fine!
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Is all this decidedly unsexy? Is it a whole like the path they took last winter? Well… yeah. The Jays have basically been running this playbook since Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins arrived — all to a purpose: doing what they can to win in the near term as they build their prospect pipeline.
The crucial thing to remember is that just because 2017, at this point, doesn’t look like it’s worked, it doesn’t mean 2017 couldn’t have worked. And it doesn’t mean that a team quite similar to this one, with a few tweaks, can’t work next year. No, the Jays won’t likely be a slam dunk contender in this scenario, but they also won’t disrupt the process of continuing to accumulate young and cheap talent — it just won’t infuse the minors with quite as much talent as if they went ahead and got really bad right this second.
It’s also important to remember that doing this will still provide them with opportunities to sell if 2018 looks like a dead end. Donaldson will still have value next summer, and the same is likely true of Happ, and possibly true of Smoak. Granted, it won’t be as much value as now, but those guys will also provide a lot of value to the 2017 and 2018 versions of the Blue Jays in the meantime — both literally, in terms of on the field value, as well as in terms of keeping the chance of this team being a contender alight. Which is important! And not only is it important for the brand and TV ratings and gate receipts and all the kind of stuff that fans probably shouldn’t be quite so invested in caring about, but it’s important because having a team that isn’t entirely hopeless — even if, like I say, it’s not a slam dunk contender — is a good thing. An enjoyable thing to watch. And a thing you can maybe sell free agents on as money starts coming off the books, too.
Mostly though, for me, it all comes down to this: Stroman, Sanchez, and Osuna are still cheap, and they’re controlled for three years after this one. Donaldson is an MVP and here again next year. Martin is still a top catcher. J.A. Happ won 20 games (I know) last season and is signed on for another year. Devon Travis, if he’s healthy, can be a top second baseman. Justin Smoak is an All-Star at first. Kevin Pillar probably just had a blip in the first half and is likely still an elite glove in centre. The bullpen is quite decent and staying almost entirely intact.
A lot of teams would love to have a starting point like that. I’m old enough to remember a whole lot of years between 1993 and 2015 where Jays fans would have killed to have a starting point that looked like that. Yet many now are ready to piss it away for some extra prospects and because they’re sick of looking at it.
And for what? A big rebuild offers no guarantee of success, but definitely guarantees of a lot of failure, and a lot of losing. If the 2021 Blue Jays have a bunch of young talent but not a lot of budget, because the fans and the TV ratings went away for a bunch of years, and they lack for top notch veteran teammates to help mentor them, how much farther ahead will they actually be? And how many awful seasons will we have had to endure just to get to that just-as-uncertain point as wherever we’re going now?
Appreciate what you have, Jays fans. It’s not nearly as bad or as dire as some of you think.