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The Shapkins Defender – Running the Phases

Welcome to The Shapkins Defender, where I inhale your toxic screeds and spit out the fresh oxygen of optimism, like a tree that kind of understands WAR. (Just don’t ask me to explain it.)

Since my last piece was super long, I’ll try and keep this one short and sweet, both because it’s still sort of holiday time and because Shapiro and Atkins seem to require less defending these days. I wonder why that is.

Could it be because there’s a rumour they offered Gerrit Cole 300 million simoleons? And could it also be because that rumour actually seems somewhat plausible given that they subsequently spread over 100 million bucks on other pitchers, including Hyun-Jin Ryu? That’s all pretty fun!

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With the heavy lifting of the offseason now complete and the calendar flipping over to a new year, many Jays fans are understandably turning their attentions to the regular season and dreaming of watching meaningful baseball come September. And while I occasionally get caught up in those fantasies myself, I think the more clear-eyed reality is that the Jays are probably closer to a .500 team than they are to being a contender. The Jays’ projected WAR from the FanGraphs depth chart is currently 21st in the majors and 10th in the AL. And while a couple of prospect breakouts could launch the Jays up a few spots, there’s still three really strong teams ahead of them in the AL East, making it difficult to envision a playoff berth in the short term.

But I don’t think 2020 needs to be a playoff season to be considered a success. The trajectory still looks rosy in the long-term. I really liked this paragraph from a recent piece at the Athletic about Ben Cherington, letting Pirates fans know what to expect during his tenure. And I think there’s also something in it for the fans of the Blue Jays, the team Cherington just left.

“Cherington laid out a three-step plan for sustaining the Red Sox. Phase 1 was to construct a bridge, using veteran free agents, to cover for a deficiency in depth and talent. (It came with an unexpected World Series.) Phase 2 was to integrate the prospects. Phase 3 was to build back up around those homegrown players. Cherington was fired before finishing the third phase. Yet he carries the same conviction to Pittsburgh. He must build around the farm system. That is the vision of every GM in the game.”

I think it’s fair to say that, by this roadmap, the Jays are firmly in phase 2 in terms of position players. The Jays didn’t really need to sign many veteran free agents because the team was already full of veterans when Shapiro and Atkins arrived. But 2019 saw the Jays go headlong into “integrate the prospects” mode. And phase 3 doesn’t seem to be here just yet. Maybe I’m wrong and they’ll go out and sign someone like Castellanos or Ozuna or Puig. But I don’t think that’s likely, given that Shapiro has publicly stated that he doesn’t want to subtract playing time from guys like Teoscar Hernández and Derek Fisher. That seems like phase 2 thinking to me.

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While phase 3 is surely coming after the team sorts through guys like Teoscar and Fisher and Billy McKinney and others, the reason they can be a bit patient there is that they are still clearly in phase 1 on the pitching side. Ryu is exciting, but guys like Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson and Matt Shoemaker are clearly there to be that “bridge” to phase 2, where the Jays will suss out which of the young guys will actually be a significant part of the future. The Jays have about 10-12 guys on the 40-man right now who could be stalwarts of the future rotations. But none of them really seem to be a lock. Even frontrunners like Thornton and Borucki could eventually be leapfrogged on the chart by guys like Kay or Hatch or Murphy.

Anyway, you get the idea. As much as the rebuild is chugging along, there’s still a lot of building to do. But when they get to phase 3 and it’s time to fill in the roster around the prospects, the Jays should have plenty of money to do it.

The estimated payroll for 2020 is currently sitting just above 100 million, give or take, depending on which source you look at. But from 2016 to 2018, the budget was somewhere in the range of 150 to 175 million. And since Shapiro has repeatedly insisted that ownership has assured him that the payroll will go back up to those ranges again when the time is right, that means the Jays should have a lot of room to grow, financially speaking. And this coming fall, the Jays should have about 30 million coming OFF the books (half of that being Tulo). And the only significant arbitration raise will be going to Teoscar, unless Travis Shaw or Brandon Drury have a monster year in 2020. Which would be a good problem to have! So, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the Jays have a lot of Ryu-like deals coming up in the offseasons to come as they move into phase 3.

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Next winter, will it be another pitcher, such as a James Paxton or a Robbie Ray? Or could it be an outfielder, such as Mookie Betts? Sounds farfetched, but not as farfetched as it would have a few weeks ago. But who they target will depend what happens in phase 2, which should be playing out during the 2020 season. The Jays may or may not be contenders this year. They could win 70 games or they could win 90. But everything is lined up for the team to move into phase 3 soon, and for the next decade to be a fun one for Blue Jays fans.

If you hate the Ryu signing for some reason, send your hot takes, diatribes, harangues, tirades and jeremiads to me at [email protected] or @darraghfilm on Twitter, or just leave a comment below.