After missing out on Michael Brantley the Blue Jays were clearly looking to add another bat to the line-up and found one in Marcus Semien. The deal is a one year deal worth $18M. Reports indicated that the Blue Jays had to overpay to get Semien as they are asking him to move off of shortstop to play second base.
Craig Edwards at Fangraphs predicted Semien would sign a 4 year deal at $16M per, the Crowd had it three years and $17M per, and MLB Trade Rumors predicted a one year deal for $14M. The Blue Jays may have overpaid by a couple million to bring in Semien.
Given what other teams have paid players in free agency this off-season it won’t be hard for Semien to be worth his contract. Using Roster Resource at Fangraphs, I was able to sort through players who signed a major league contract for one year (including those who accepted the qualifying offer) and compared that to those players projected WAR. I found that teams have been spending $5.7M for a win in free agency. If we round that up to $6M, Semien just needs to be worth 3 WAR next season to be worth his contract. Looking at the projections for Semien they all have him projected between 3-4 WAR.
The added benefit to this deal for the Blue Jays is that Oakland didn’t qualify Semien this past offseason. So the Blue Jays can qualify him after the season and have the chance to receive a draft pick should he sign elsewhere. The team just lost their second highest pick (54th overall) to sign George Springer, so overpaying Semien to potentially replenish that pick is more than worth it.
Semien is going to play second for the Blue Jays, a position he does have some experience with, having played 223.2 innings there back in 2014. His defence at shortstop has been hit or miss, Fangraphs defensive runs saved had Semien as a really strong defender in 2018 and 2019, while below average in 2017 and 2020. Baseball Savant’s outs above average had Semein below average in each of the last four seasons. No matter what you think of the defence, Semien’s glove plays up at second. His experience at short gives the Blue Jays a reliable back-up to Bo Bichette who hasn’t been a staple of health in the early portion of his career.
Regardless of what position Semien plays he was brought in to hit. Though looking at his career you may not think that. This is Semien’s wRC+ going back to 2015: 97, 98, 97, 97, 138, 92. You see that and it’s easy to conclude that Semien is a slightly below average hitter who had an outlier 2019 with the juiced ball. However if you include his playoff numbers from this season (where he hit .407/.484./.667), he gains 15 points of wRC+ and as Mike Petriello showed in this MLB.com article, that was one of the biggest improvements for any player.
A 107 wRC+ is still a sizable drop off from 138. It does give some hope that Semien might be able to sustain some of the improvements he showed in 2019. As Ben Clemons of Fangrpahs wrote in his breakdown of the deal “In essence, what you think of Semien depends on how real you think this improvement was. The abbreviated 2020 season didn’t provide much, if any, clarity.”
Semien made some major improvements at the plate in 2019, some of which he maintained in 2020.
His plate discipline appears to be fine. He still walked at a double digit rate. The contact rate decline and swinging strike rate increase is slightly concerning. Semien had a slow start to the season and battled an oblique injury. It looks like he may have tried to sell out for more power, perhaps in an effort to still be productive while he was struggling.
Other than the pull rate this looks like a player who is trying to sell out for power. He was getting under the ball more, hitting more flies and had a higher launch angle. It’s difficult to say why these changes occurred. It could simply be small sample noise, or the way he was pitched. Or maybe with Matt Chapman going down with an injury and Matt Olsen struggling offensively, Semien tried to pick up some of the slack.
The Blue Jays clearly believe in Semien and are hopeful he can bounce back. With how the line-up is looking the Blue Jays don’t need Semien to be a top of the order bat. He could hit anywhere from sixth through ninth and perhaps with a reduced role he can get back to being the hitter he was in 2019.
Semien makes the Blue Jays a deeper team. He provides some insurance at shortstop and by playing second, frees up Cavan Biggio to move all around the diamond. Semien extends the line-up and gives the team a solid hitter at every spot in the batting order. No matter how you set the line-up there are no easy outs, this line-up is going to be a nightmare for opposing starters.