The magical seasons of 2015 and 2016 are only three and four years in the rear-view mirror, but in some ways, it feels like it’s been 13 or 14 years since the Blue Jays have been in the playoffs.
Two of the biggest pieces of those playoff teams — Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez — were traded at the deadline. Any residual warm and fuzzy feelings about that era of Blue Jays baseball walked out the door with those two players.
Those pitchers were household names in Toronto and the Blue Jays’ front office took a lot of heat for trading away Stroman and Sanchez (and to a much lesser degree, Joe Biagini). “Underwhelming” was the consensus adjective which encapsulated the return for those pitchers.
It seemed like Stroman was destined to fetch a Top 100 prospect. A package centred around Sanchez, Biagini and Cal Stevenson surely would have brought back more than an outfielder the ilk of Derek Fisher. But that’s precisely what happened in those deals.
Three months after the fact, we finally have some context from Ross Atkins on why the Blue Jays made those transactions. And in turn, also provided a glimpse why MLB front offices do the things they do.
Here’s how Atkins justified those trade deadline deals during his appearance on Tim and Sid last week:
“The thing with trading those names that are so popular in this city, there is the way that Toronto sees Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, other players that have been traded away. And then there is the way that the industry sees players, and they’re often times misaligned.
Not entirely, it’s not very big, but there is some emotional attachment to players. And for us too, it’s difficult for us to part ways with players.”
There’s the crux of it all; the industry valued Stroman and Sanchez much differently than the fan base did. Stroman, who had a Top 10 ERA in the American League at the time, was 28 years old. He struggled in 2016 and 2018. Since he’s a ground ball machine, a lot of his success depended on having decent infield defense.
Sanchez won an ERA title in 2016 but lost two seasons because of injuries. He experienced a litany of finger and shoulder ailments, his velocity was down this past season and he often laboured through outings.
The main takeaway I got from that Atkins interview was this; front offices view players through a much different lens than onlookers do. Fans often look to the past where front offices project into the future.
The rationale of “he’s done it before, he can do it again” is a fallacy when evaluating players. Fans tend to romanticize particular players associated with their favourite team.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, front offices have a calculus for this sort of thing. Previous results have some bearing on future performance, but so do projections and injuries. There is very little, if any, emotion involved in transactions.
It’s a depressing way to look at front offices, but that’s the hard truth about baseball in 2019. They will exploit any loophole they can and they feel zero remorse about it. It seems like we’re singling out Blue Jays executives here, but this is how every MLB team operates.
If the Blue Jays factored emotion into the way they do business, then they would have signed Jose Bautista to that reported five-year/$150 million contract extension he demanded at Spring Training camp in 2016.
In fact, it was atypical of Atkins to offer a 36-year-old Bautista that one-year/$18 million deal back in 2017. In retrospect, that deal reeked of caving to public pressure, because under normal circumstances, the Blue Jays move on from Joey Bats after the 2016 season. But since it was only a one-year deal, there was very little risk involved.
This rationale explains the return on Stroman and Sanchez, but it also explains why Atkins sounds so awestruck about a player like Fisher. The Blue Jays didn’t acquire him for the numbers he posted in the Astros organization, the Blue Jays acquired Fisher for what he could become … what he projects to be.
Just as opposing front offices have a formula for what Stroman and Sanchez were worth on the trade market, the Blue Jays have a formula for Fisher’s projections.
To a lesser degree, this also explains the organization’s fascination with a player like Brandon Drury (and to a much lesser degree, Socrates Brito). Drury’s peripheral and advanced metrics have underwhelmed thus far, but it’s easy to see why the Blue Jays believe he might still break out and have a career year in Toronto.
Frankly, the floor is so low for players like Fisher and Drury that anything above replacement level production would be deemed adequate.
So, there you have it; this explains why teams like the Blue Jays don’t care when they trade your favourite players. It’s not that they’re callous, but they’re not in the business on making emotion-based decisions tied to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Because if a transaction goes belly-up, it’s much easier to rationalize “our metrics really liked this player” instead of “I just really like this player”.