You’re sitting around a dingy card table on a Friday night in some seedy Cabbagetown apartment. The craft brews are flowing and you’re half-lit when you go to turn over your hold’em cards and discover snowmen, also known as a pair of 8s. A pocket pair is a decent enough hand, so you go ahead and bet on it. You watch as most of the hipsters clustered around the table muck their cards into the pile. But the two big stacks at the table, the two unemployed guys who you’re pretty sure earn their rent money off of online gambling, don’t fold. Instead, they call your raise. When the flop shows an Ace, a Queen, and a 3, one of the big stacks makes a bet, and then the other one raises. So now what do you do?
If you know poker, then you fold, obviously.
If one of the big stacks isn’t holding the Ace, then the other one is probably holding the Queen. Either way, you’re way behind. As much as you may have liked the hand when you flipped those cards over, it’s probably compromised at this point. You could hold out and pray that you hit a third 8 on the turn or the river, but the odds of that card coming aren’t in your favour.
What does any of this have to do with baseball, you ask? Well, I came up with this potentially obtuse analogy while rationalizing why I should trade a star third baseman away from a pretty good sim league team. My team wasn’t bad, but it was eight games out of the wildcard spot, and I had to admit that I probably wasn’t going to make the playoffs. Now I know no one gives a rat’s behind about some internet hack’s fantasy baseball exploits. But I think there’s a lesson in here for the Blue Jays.
Toronto needs to realize they are sitting on two of the better assets in this summer’s trade market: Josh Donaldson and J.A. Happ. In Happ they can offer teams a middle-of-the-rotation lefty who has showcased ace-like strikeout numbers in 2018. At the very least, Happ can offer teams a reliable sub-4.00 FIP while logging heavy innings, and he’s shown enough flashes that the right team might dream on a short run of dominance over the second half of the season to carry a team into the playoffs (think a poor man’s version of David Price circa 2015). Happ is exactly the type of arm a contender could look to as a #2 or #3 arm in a playoff series. For most teams not named the Astros he’d represent a significant upgrade over in-house options, and unlike many spare deadline arms he’d be at no risk of being relegated to the bullpen come playoff time. While at 35 he’s not young, and he’s never been truly elite, it’s hard to see too many better arms than Happ on the move this summer.
Donaldson’s pedigree needs no preface, though the Jays would obviously be well-served to wait and hope he can distance himself from his early-season arm injury and return to some facsimile of his old self. Donaldson’s rate stats are down across the board so far, as his exit velocity and launch angles have sagged a bit from his 2015-’16 peak. He showed some minor slippage last year, including a spike in K rate, but was still an elite hitter when he saw the field. The worry is that this might be the first year we’re seeing Donaldson enter a real decline, but the numbers are noisy enough that there’s still good reason to hope that this is simply an early-season slump that was perhaps augmented by his shoulder injury. Even if he’s no longer an MVP candidate, if Donaldson can get back to driving the ball again he could be the second-best hitter on the market. (He’s not going to pass Manny Machado, especially given that Manny seems to be having his MVP season right now.) The hope in dealing a half-season of Donaldson would be to get one elite prospect back, but a more likely return would be something like what the Jays traded to Detroit for a half-season of Price – a couple of talented young starting pitchers with mixed major league results and a fringe prospect.
The Jays have several other pending free agents including Marco Estrada, Curtis Granderson, and Seunghwan Oh. If they wanted to get really creative, they could throw Justin Smoak and his affordable team option for next year into a deal and make a team looking for a power bat really happy. But while there are plenty of players who could get shipped out in a large-scale rebuild, most of those guys don’t figure to bring back much more than fringe talent: the question of whether or not to engage in a fire sale will be determined by the returns available for Happ and Donaldson.
The Yankees and Red Sox are like the big stacks holding high cards at the poker table. They’re both loaded with high-end talent and possess the deep pockets to absorb minor losses (as evidenced by Boston’s recent designation of Hanley Ramirez for assignment). Position by position, the Jays can’t possibly expect to contend with either team heads-up. The Jays can dream on scenarios where everything could break exactly right – a few well-timed injuries to Boston pitchers, a Herculean slump for Aaron Judge, a resurgent return for Troy Tulowitzki. But the odds of several lucky breaks like that working in Toronto’s favour all at once are extraordinarily slim.
According to the ZIPS projections at FanGraphs, the Jays’ odds of sneaking into one of the wildcard slots are 7%, but the chances of them then winning all four rounds and taking home the World Championship shrink all the way down to 0.2%. Put in poker terms, the Jays have somewhere around the same odds to reach the playoffs as that pocket pair-holding poker player at the top of the article had of catching a third 8 on the flop. That’s unlikely, but not remote. Their odds of winning the whole damn thing, on the other hand, are less than the odds of the same player landing two more 8s for four of a kind on the flop – not even the whole hand, mind you, just the three-card flop. In other words, it could happen, but you certainly wouldn’t want to stake any kind of real money on it. PECOTA is even more bearish on the Jays’ playoff odds than ZIPS, placing them at just 4%. (PECOTA also projects the Jays to play exactly .500 ball for the rest of the season, which, while hardly damning, isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the current roster’s capabilities.)
In some years, it makes sense for a marginal team to play out the string without pushing too hard towards buying or selling at the deadline. Teams reluctant to sell could fall into several different categories: they could have a number of young assets under control long-term; they might be overloaded with expensive vets who wouldn’t bring back much of a return in trade anyway; or they could have tantalizing talent in the upper minors offering hope for the very near future. And in a way, the Jays have all three of the above obstacles: they have long-term assets like Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez who are struggling and unlikely to be moved; they have three virtually un-tradeable albatrosses in Kendrys Morales, Tulowitzki, and Russell Martin; and they have a beacon of hope in Vlad Guerrero Jr. ripping AA to shreds at this very moment. But the Jays can’t afford to let those pieces distract them from the larger fact that this team is perfectly positioned to sell.
My drunk hipster sitting on a bad pair at the beginning of this article was dealing with a version of the sunk cost fallacy. When poker players get caught up in a bad hand, investing half their stack in cards that looked good early on but ran into a buzzsaw, the natural inclination is to see things through. Because so much is already invested, it just feels wrong to walk away. But smart poker players know not to throw good money after bad – they understand that once a hand is lost, it’s lost, and there’s no point in chasing after chips that are already gone.
The bad contracts on the Jays’ roster are sunk costs – they’re bad money that isn’t coming back. There’s no reason to hang onto perfectly good assets – namely Donaldson and Happ – in the hope that somehow the Jays can find a way to suddenly get a return on those investments. The team needs to move on and do what’s best for the roster in the long haul. This is exactly the reason that the Red Sox walked away from Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, and it’s a good argument for why the Jays should jettison Morales. Tulo and Martin would be tougher to eat outright (partly because of sheer dollars and partly because there aren’t necessarily great alternatives at their positions who are ready for the bigs), but even if they stick around, they should be viewed as the marginal roster-filler they are at this point in their careers. And in a way, those three problem contracts actually jive much better with a minor rebuild: If the Jays tank on 2018, they’re probably not going to expect an immediate rebound in 2019. By 2020, Morales and Martin will both be gone. Tulo’s monster deal will still be hanging around, but there’s not much that Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro can do about that except to hope that he finds the fountain of youth and health somewhere.
How about calling up Vlad to revitalize the team and make a charge at the big boys in the East? It’s a nice idea, but not very realistic. While Vlad may truly be an elite talent, even the best prospects usually see some kind of adjustment period in the major leagues. Adrian Beltre might be a future Hall-of-Famer now, but he hit the bigs at 19 and didn’t have his breakout season until he was 25. Manny Machado was a passable big leaguer as a teenager, but it took him a couple of years to develop into a transcendent player. Even Mike Trout had a mildly disastrous September call-up at 19 before transforming himself into the best player in baseball the following season. While Vlad may well be the Chosen One, there’s little hope in tying this season’s stock to the saviour.
Realistically, the Jays were never built to win this year. There were indications that that was the case when the two prized acquisitions of the offseason were Yangervis Solarte and Randal Grichuk – essentially a glorified utility infielder and a glorified utility outfielder. Solarte has been a little better than advertised while Grichuk has been significantly worse, but Solarte should soon regress to a slightly above-average hitter and Grichuk’s extreme strikeout tendencies and below-average batting eye don’t bode well for a guy who seems to be in decline at 26. And despite ranking a deceptive 9th in the majors in runs scored thus far in 2018 (not nearly as good as it sounds once a favourable home park and the designated hitter are factored in), the offense is a real problem.
Since the beginning of May, Kevin Pillar has begun to regress into the below-average hitter he’s consistently been throughout his career. Couple that with the declines of Morales and Martin, along with Tulowitzki’s total inability to stay on the field, and the Jays suddenly are rolling out four below-average hitters on a nightly basis. It’s true that catcher, shortstop, and center field have been traditionally seen as defense-first positions, but with strikeouts and shifts on the rise, up-the-middle defense is less important than ever. Combining three below-average hitters with a black hole at DH makes for a five-man lineup that doesn’t have a shot in hell at outslugging the Yankees and Red Sox over the course of a season. Remember that fun 2015 lineup that could pound everyone into oblivion night after night? Yeah, this isn’t it.
Even more problematic than the offense has been the once-vaunted rotation, and there’s even less hope of that turning around. While Happ has been good, for the second straight season Marco Estrada has stopped outpitching his FIP, which raises legitimate questions about whether his stuff simply doesn’t play anymore; seven god-awful starts from Marcus Stroman suggested that something was seriously wrong with him physically; and while Aaron Sanchez has been passable on the whole, he’s really struggled with control, which was notably a major issue for him throughout the minor leagues. Even if Sanchez can clean things up a bit and one of Stroman or Estrada can find the magic elixir, the fifth and sixth depth options haven’t shown much to offer hope that the team can be carried by starting pitching. At best, the rotation can hope for mediocrity. The bullpen was always cobbled together with duct tape, and since Roberto Osuna’s unfortunate decision to be an awful human being, the leaks have begun to show on a unit that had held up pretty well for the first few weeks of the year. There’s hope that things can be patched together, but there’s no Andrew Miller out there – the bullpen was never supposed to be this team’s calling card.
Sure, the Jays can dream on a slightly above-average offense, a bounce back from the rotation, and a patchwork bullpen leading them to 87 wins and a second wildcard berth – but even that’s a long shot at this point. There’s no need to double down on the roster as currently constructed when a teardown can push the team into a future that promises real upside. The Jays are a team caught between a previous administration’s playoff contender and the current front office’s build for the future. It’s time to cut bait on that middle ground and just go ahead and move forward with the rebuild. It’s not as if Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins can point to attendance as a reason to keep this house of cards propped up – the Jays have averaged a middle-of-the-road 27,000 a game thus far in 2018. Toronto fans aren’t stupid. They know a donkey when they see one.
In poker, they say you can’t win if you don’t play. And it sucks to sit there hoarding your dwindling handful of chips as you watch two top-notch hustlers rake in the big bucks. But there’s also a good reason why players fold hands that aren’t winners. There’s hope in lingering around the table waiting for some Aces. Throwing away a marginal hand to wait for a better one is a calculated risk that doesn’t always pay off, but the hope is that there’s a tangible reward at the end of that rainbow. In baseball, some teams load up at the deadline for a run at the World Series, but some years it’s better to make a deadline run at something else – assets. The Blue Jays need to approach this year’s deadline with the understanding that 2018 is a loser – and try to find a way to make a winner out of it.