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The Awkward Off-Season

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Photo credit:Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Tammy Rainey
2 months ago
We may never have seen the Blue Jays enter into an off-season in a more broadly awkward and difficult-to-navigate circumstance.
Even the recent expansive willingness to spend what’s necessary (mostly in money but also in prospects) is not fully capable of getting past certain logistical realities affecting how the 2024 team is constructed and how well they can keep the longer-term vision of perennial contention on track.
The awkwardness comes both in the broader strokes and in the specific needs. For example, Toronto is one of the (at least) 10-12 teams that should be wholly involved in the Shohei Otani sweepstakes. But as much as every fan says, “It’s not my money, just pay what it takes,” the reality is that it’s not just money that will land this plane. There are factors in play that no team can control. But the existence of this first priority, one on which the office has only partial control, makes the overall course of the offseason tricky to navigate.
Then there’s the inexplicable offensive blackout among key incumbent hitters. Primarily but not exclusively Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (George Springer in decline? Or was it an aberration? Alejandro Kirk? The late spring, or…?). These too are largely outside of team control and whether to act like a team with real offensive problems or one with an above-average offense is… awkward. Then there’s the mystery of Manoah. But all these simply provide the background context for the well-known specific needs the team must address before March:
  • What do you do about Matt Chapman/3B?
  • How do you add power via LF and/or DH without creating another issue?
  • How do you have a quality safety net for the 5th starter position if Manoah doesn’t rebound or injury becomes a major issue?
Each of these has at least some awkward aspect that makes the answer to the need more tricky than it might have been in most other years.

Jul 24, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Matt Chapman (26) is greeted after scoring a run against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the eleventh inning at Dodger Stadium.

Let’s start with the conundrum at third base…

Probably not a single hitter in the Blue Jays’ lineup in 2023 provoked more intense feelings in the fanbase than Matt Chapman. No one had a more complex season. But we’re increasingly beset with the narrative that goes “after April he was awful” or, alternately, “in the second half he was useless.” These, of course, are references to his production at the plate.
But these are simplistic and misleading narratives. For example, after his astonishingly hot April, he indeed spent the next seven weeks in a tailspin. But you don’t get to take his April away from him but count against him the May that followed. All end-points are arbitrary (even monthly totals) unless they can be connected to some specific event like an injury (hold that thought), but they can also enlighten just the same. Some examples: Chapman’s career slash line is .240/.329/.461/.790, but, if you take BOTH his scorching April AND his seven-week tailspin, it’s .260/.338/.449/.787.
In other words, it works out to bog-standard Chapman production, with the only significant difference being a noticeable number of homers going to doubles instead (162-game average on his career 36/29 and 52/21 in this sample). “But what about the rest?” you may ask, well, therein lies the big factor that front offices will note but fans and some writers tend not to: the injury matters. In the middle of August, as we know, he had a disastrous encounter with a weight bar and seriously injured a finger.
At first, he tried to play through it, then he spent over two weeks on the Injured List, and then came back when he was clearly not right. This choice is, in my mind, to his credit. He put the team first even at the expense of potentially hurting his FA value. From the point of that injury to the end of the season, he hit .163/.250/.302/.552 over 96 PA. I will argue forcefully that when you are evaluating his season these DO NOT COUNT. They are in no sense a fair representation of his offensive abilities, nor predictive of what happens going forward.
On the day before his injury, he had, to that point, hit .255/.346/.449/.796 – again, your basic Chapman line. This sample includes the previous one and also a sample from June 20 until Aug. 12 (the injury) of .247/.360/.449/.810 and overall, up until the injury he had an OPS+ of 121. In other words and in summation, had he not suffered the injury there’s every reason to assume he would have been, and will be next year, just as good as his carer arc suggests that he would be.
So what’s that worth? According to Fangraphs, one WAR is worth about $8.5 million on the free agent market. He accumulated 3.5 fWAR in 2023 but if you adjust for the injury and his value with similar offensive numbers in previous seasons, it’s fair to think of him to this point as a 4 fWAR player, which works out to $34 million. Their system also stipulates that on average you can project a decline of roughly 0.5 WAR per season for an aging player.
So, if we assume that you simply can’t sign him for less than four seasons and potentially as much as six, that looks like this: 3.5 – 3 – 2.5 – 2 – 1.5 – 1 for a total of 11 WAR over four, 12.5 WAR over five, or 13.5 WAR over six. Translated into Fangraphs’ value system, that’s $93.5, or $106.25 or $114.75.
What can we conclude from this? Well, we’re all well aware that he’s going to get overpaid, a premium resulting from the fact that he’s the only really good FA option (and trade options aren’t much if any better) if you have a need at 3B. The question then becomes, how much of a premium can you stomach? And this is where the awkwardness comes in. If the Blue Jays had had one more season of control, it might well have been enough to bridge to a rookie replacement such as Martinez or Palmegiani. But they didn’t. This puts them in the position of paying a premium for 5 (?) years of a guy that you maybe only actually NEED for one. Of course, there are other factors besides the bat – veteran leadership, clubhouse presence, and the glove. You could argue they need that stuff for more than one year, but at what price?
Ultimately, a contract for 5/$110 is not unwise based on publicly available information. After that, every team will have a price point where it’s more than they feel good about spending on this player. We, as fans, may say “oh! That’s too much!” but remember, it’s only too much if it keeps you from doing the other things you need to do. Plus, you have to factor in the drop-off from him to whatever you have to do if you don’t sign him.


Moving along to the other problems that need to be solved…

Moving to the second point, it won’t take nearly as many words to describe why this one is awkward. The guys you traded away last winter are two of the top five options to add power and overall offence to LF.
Now you and I can’t know to what extent that was just the demands of the moment and to what extent it was “we’d like to move these guys along,” but if they were to sign Lourdes Gurriel for LF (a move which I favour, by the ways, for reasons I won’t elaborate on for the sake of length) that would at least be a little tricky to navigate. Conversely, if you sign a guy (not named Ohtani) who’s almost entirely confined to DH (like Jorge Soler), then you’d better score because you don’t have another way to get value out of him. Also, of course, you limit your ability to use the DH spot for other purposes.
The third point is awkward in the sense that you absolutely do not want to block an Alek Manoah revival AND you do not want to be left holding the bag if that revival doesn’t appear, or if a significant SP injury does.
In that sense, I asserted and still maintain that Cal Quantrill was an elegant and ideal solution. He has been and likely can be (in this environment) an average or better starter, but he also has two options remaining. If he’s the sixth-best choice, you don’t have to lose him (which is the case with Mitch White, regrettably, because I still think he’s going to do fine work as a starter in the majors for someone).
Quantrill is such a good fit that if I were GM I’d be trying to get the Colorado Rockies to flip him for someone more likely to succeed in Denver. But there are not a lot of available options out there who can both be a credible starter and also either valuable in the bullpen or possess options remaining. But I do have a suggestion here that I haven’t seen any of my fellow speculators mention: Nick Martinez.
He’s a free agent, he’s not projected to get a huge contract (he’s #50 on Fangraph’s Top 50 list and is projected for a two-year, $10 million contract). He’s a ground ball guy who’s done fine work mostly in relief for the Padres the last two years.
He’s started 19 times over those two seasons and pitched just as well in either role (3.41 starting, 3.48 out of the bullpen). Unless he’s insistent on being assured a full-time starter role, I can’t imagine why Ross wouldn’t be all over Martinez and 2/10 would actually be a nifty bargain if he gives the Jays similar work. Not to say you wouldn’t want to pad out your AAA depth some more (particularly if you have to move on from White because of the options issue. I really like Bowden Francis, but you’ll need more layers than that).
Finally, there’s 2B. This is awkward only insofar as you have an abundance of candidates, and you need to navigate how to get the best value out of all the available options.  Santiago Espinal has some “plot armour” in that he can play SS in the majors, but he has the lowest offensive value among the candidates. That only gives him an argument for a bench role, at most. If Cavan Biggio could carry forward his reinvention success (.785 OPS from May 23 through the end of the season), he could and should be the strong half of a modified platoon.
Davis Schneider probably has the strongest case for being there when Biggio is elsewhere but it’s fair to be cautious about how well he carries over his momentum. Ernie Clement is still in the system and might push out Espinal if he hangs around through the spring. You’d need to be more optimistic than me to see him as a regular at 2B though. Then there’s Orelvis Martinez and Addison Barger (albeit the latter may be increasingly seen as having more potential in the OF) and Rafael Lantigua is back so that’s another layer. But concerning the prospects, there’s enough depth here not to be rash. Let them (or circumstances) force you to clear a path for them. Unless you’re adding a significant talent (say, Ha-Seong Kim), focus elsewhere and sort this out in the spring.
All of this makes it an uncomfortable winter for people like me, who like to speculate how the pieces go together. Other than Ohtani and, maybe, Cody Bellinger, there simply isn’t a lot you can feel any certainty about that you have a feel for what would be the best fit. But (as always, laying aside Ohtani) if you add to your 2024 payroll $22 million for Chapman, $13 million for Gurriel, and $5 million for Martinez, all that remains (of the heavy lifting) is to figure out DH – I’m thinking Mitch Garver? –  and it’s been a productive winter. The Meetings start on Sunday.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

 

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