The Blue Jays have done a tidy piece of business in extending Marco Estrada for another year at just $13 million, locking in a rotation that looks like it once again will be a strength. Estrada, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, and Aaron Sanchez all have themselves roster spots locked down for 2018. And with Tom Koehler (if he’s tendered a contract), Joe Biagini, perhaps a guy like Brett Anderson or a similar low-cost free agent willing to spend some time in Buffalo if need be, and eventually Ryan Borucki and Tom Pannone entering the conversation, there probably isn’t a whole lot the club has to do on the starting pitching front to get read for 2018.
Granted, the following year, with Happ and Estrada due to be free agents (along with Steve Pearce, Koehler, Aaron Loup, and some guy named Donaldson), still looks very much up in the air at this point. But that’s not necessarily even a bad thing. As much turning the page on this era of Blue Jays baseball would hurt, and as much as I’d like to see the core guys among that group (Happ, Estrada, Donaldson) stick around, there’s great flexibility in the Blue Jays having the ability to let 2018 dictate what 2019 is going to look like. And while it feels now that in all likelihood that will mean a step backwards at the big league level (especially with the Donaldson question still looming — although temporarily put aside, at least as far as the idea of trading him goes, because you probably don’t pay Marco Estrada $13 million if you’re going to turn around and trade Josh Donaldson), there are certainly things that could happen next season that might make all the rebuild chatter we’ve heard this summer seem awfully quaint:
- Devon Travis could have a full, healthy year that looks like his first 163 games in the big leagues (split between 2015 and 2016), in which he was worth about five wins.
- Troy Tulowitzki could look more like the three-win player he was in 2016.
- Kendrys Morales, unless they find a taker for him in the winter, could look more like the guy he was in 2015 (130 wRC+), and the final four months of 2016 (135 wRC+ after a rough start), than he was this season.
- Some of the hard-throwing youngsters in Double-A — Conner Greene, Jon Harris, Sean Reid-Foley — could take significant steps forward and start looking like genuine candidates for the 2019 version of the rotation. And perhaps even a T.J. Zeuch, who spent the bulk of this season at Dunedin, or even first-rounder Nate Pearson, could do the same.
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette could continue to look like I-shit-you-not impact bats that are very fast approaching.
- Teoscar Hernandez could claim a long-term spot in the Blue Jays’ outfield (maybe Kevin Pillar’s *COUGH*). Maybe Anthony Alford, too. And, if he’s able to get onto the field, maybe even Dalton Pompey enters that conversation.
- Danny Jansen could pick up where he left off, get a full year of development in Buffalo, a cameo in September, and position himself to be the 1B to Russell Martin’s 1A for the final year of the Jays incumbent’s current contract.
- The bullpen, with Osuna, Tepera, Barnes, Leone, Ramirez, Santos, Dermody, Mayza, Loup, perhaps Biagini, and whatever other pieces emerge or are found, could continue to evolve into a real strength.
- Richard Ureña could make strides as a hitter and give the Jays a genuine option behind Tulo and Travis, and somebody who might even start to push the former for playing time in 2019.
- Lourdes Gurriel could start to really get a feel as a hitter at the highest level and start to become the kind of versatile, multi-position bench piece that’s essential in the modern game.
Not all of those things are going to happen, of course. Maybe not any of them, even — they’re all best case scenarios. But if even just a few of them come to fruition, the notion of 2019 as an automatic write-off in which the club starts to position itself toward the Bo and Vlad years becomes quite a bit less certain.
As it stands right now, the club has just $54.2 million committed for 2019. Though by then there will be some relatively costly arbitration raises (plus Justin Smoak’s final option year) to go along with that, that number still will give the club a lot of flexibilty when it comes to adding dollars. And they barely have anything on the books for 2020, with the Martin and Morales deals ending, and Tulo entering his last year (with his salary going down to $14 million) — which is good, because that’s also the final year of arbitration eligibility for Stroman, Sanchez, and Osuna.
Extensions for those three should be workable, if they still make sense by then. Filling in gaps with some exciting free agents the winter after this one isn’t entirely crazy, either. Backload those deals to get past the bottleneck that is the 2019 budget and you’re looking at a wide open payroll, with a sizable chunk of the club’s core due to be pre-arb players.
Of course, looking from this far out, it’s much harder to gauge than all that — ask any fan who remembers dreaming of the future glories of the Romero, Morrow, Drabek, Lawrie, and Bautista-led Jays of the early 2010s *COUGH* — but these are the things that Blue Jays fans ought to be thinking right now. Because 2018 is on.
Or… it’s on as much as it can be with a somewhat similar roster to this year! At least until the trade deadline!
So how do we expect it to be any damn better than this mess of a season? Health, for starters. Donaldson and Sanchez were the club’s two best players in 2016, and one made eight starts, the other spent half the year looking lost.
For two, a raising of the floor. I’m not sold on Richard Ureña just yet, but if he’s needed, or if Gurriel is needed, or maybe even if by the middle of next season Bo Bichette is needed, they ought to be able to give the club more than they got from their backup middle infielders this year. With a new backup catcher coming in, Danny Jansen waiting in the wings, as well as Reese McGuire, the Jays shouldn’t lose nearly as much behind the plate in the games Russell Martin doesn’t play as they have this year. (In just 260 plate appearances combined, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Luke Maile, Miguel Montero, and Mike Ohlman managed to be worth -2 WAR this year — 1) that is not easy to accomplish!, 2) Josh Thole’s entire Blue Jays career: -1.2 WAR). And we probably don’t need to talk about the addition-by-subtraction that will be taking place in right field.
And then there’s the financial picture, which with Estrada officially in the fold, is a little bit clearer (and not exactly hopeless, either):
The Jays now have eight guaranteed contracts on the books for 2018:
- Russell Martin, $20 million
- Troy Tulowitzki, $20 million
- J.A. Happ, $13 million
- Marco Estrada, $13 million
- Kendrys Morales, $11 million
- Steve Pearce, $6.25 million
- Justin Smoak, $4.125 million
- Lourdes Gurriel, $1.429 million
Add in a $500K buyout for José Bautista (*sadface*) and that’s $89.304 million.
Now let’s take some guesses at arbitration numbers for guys already into the arbitration process:
- Josh Donaldson goes from $17 million to, like, $23 million.
- Marcus Stroman goes from $3.4 million to maybe $6 million.
- Tom Koehler, if they tender him, would stay around $6 million.
- Ezequiel Carrera, if they tender him, would go from $1,162,500 probably up to north of $2 million, but likely not as high as $2.5 million. Let’s say $2.2 million.
- Aaron Loup we’ll say goes from $1.125 million to $2 million.
Next it’s the first time arbitration eligibiles:
- Aaron Sanchez, had he not missed most of this year, might have got something like the $4 million Carlos Martinez was in line to receive last year, but with the way this season has gone, let’s just say he gets $3.5, which is about what Stroman got last year as a first-timer.
- Roberto Osuna won’t get the record for first-time arb-eligible relievers, which is the $6.25 million Jonathan Papelbon received in 2010, but I don’t think $5 million is out of the question.
- Kevin Pillar, Ryan Goins, and Devon Travis would, I think, get between $1 million and $2 million, so let’s say, like, $4 million for the group.
Feel free to quibble with these, but they should at least put us in the right ballpark. And if we add them all up, it’s another $51.7 million added to the payroll, taking the overall total to $141 million for eighteen players.
Because Gurriel won’t be on the big league roster, though, let’s actually say that this roster has just 17 players on it, and so would be filled out by another eight players making, on average (judging by this year’s crop of pre-arb salaries on the Jays), a touch less than $550K. So that brings us to a little bit over $145 million in total.
That’s… not too bad. Their current spending — per Cot’s, as all these figures (apart from my arb guesses) are — is $163.4 million.
This is maybe not great news if you’re Tom Koehler, who the Jays could potentially cut in this scenario (and maybe fill his role with a minor league, or lower-cost free agent — maybe Brett Anderson, or maybe Koehler himself), taking the club below the $140 million.
That number, assuming payroll stays flat (which it might not), likely won’t allow them to go after a really big free agent this winter. But could they adequately fill their needs and make up a whole lot of marginal value pissed away this year through back backups and a healthy right fielder? While also getting more out of core pieces like Donaldson and Sanchez? And thus being quite a bit better in the overall? I sure think so.
Some cheap starting depth? Maybe another reliever or two for cheap? A backup catcher? A versatile piece that could provide cover for Travis and Tulo while playing regularly in the outfield? Crazy as it may sound to fans who are absolutely through with the 2017 version of this team, they really don’t need a whole lot more than that to look like they could win a whole bunch of games. It wouldn’t make them World Series favourites, but it doesn’t take much to be in the playoff conversation these days. And staying competitive, staying in that conversation, keeping revenues up — all of that makes the task of the years to follow that much easier (because they’ll have that much more financial flexibility to work with).
Plus, with potential late-season reinforcements coming in the forms of Vlad and Bo, 2018 could actually be alright! There’s even the ability to move a little bit more money around — find a taker for Pearce, cut Carrera, eat some money to move Morales (if you can find a taker) and free up a roster spot and a bit of cash in the process — and maybe do something bigger. A free agent, or even taking on money in a sizeable trade. With over two years having now elapsed since the prospect-depleting deals of 2015, the system is built up again to the point where, though they wouldn’t decimate it with a blockbuster or consider moving their biggest or best names, they could certainly make a pretty significant trade and have plenty left over. They moved a prospect to get Koehler, after all — the notion isn’t entirely off the table.
Hey, and though it’s a total pipe dream, I can think of a Japanese guy who’ll be playing on an artificially suppressed salary next year but will require big payouts down the road when the Jays books get a whole lot clearer!
All of which is to say: things can be done. And while the fact that Estrada’s deal is only for a single year is maybe telling us something about how the team views 2019 (though it’s also surely about Estrada liking this situation enough to be amenable to a “pillow” deal to help him recoup value and hit the market again next season), there are all kinds of interesting ways that this can go. Good ways! Ways that don’t include the horrific rebuild so many are much too desperate for!
2018 is on! Let’s see where it takes us.