As the 2016 Major League Baseball offseason heats up, the Toronto Blue Jays are in a precarious place. Following back to back ALCS appearances, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, two franchise icons, are free agents. They are joined by seven other members of the 2016 Blue Jays as being free to negotiate and sign with any of the 29 other clubs. Brett Cecil and R.A. Dickey have already accepted offers to play for the Cardinals and Braves, respectively. As a result, the Jays have holes up and down their roster to fill prior to the start of the 2017 season. They’ve already filled the DH spot by signing Kendrys Morales for 3 years at $33M, but much work is still required. However, before getting into the details surrounding their other specific needs, it’s important to delve into all of the big picture factors surrounding the Jays this winter.
It goes without saying that any discussion about the offseason has to begin with payroll. It may be boring to talk about, and all anyone can do is speculate, but given the payroll commitments already in place and the many needs that this team has, payroll flexibility is obviously crucial to this offseason. Besides, it’s easier to have a discussion about potential scenarios and strategies if we have at least a rough understanding of the numbers involved. The Blue Jays are reported to have spent approximately $150M in payroll this past season. While many players are coming off the books, many others are getting raises for next season. The Jays currently have approximately $121M committed to 10 players for 2017. If you add in likely arbitration and pre-arbitration salaries, you’re looking at roughly $130M that will need to be paid to current Jays who are expected to be on the team next year. That leaves around $20M for Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and President Mark Shapiro to spend to get up to last year’s payroll.
Of course, one would hope that the 2016 American League attendance leading Toronto Blue Jays would have a much larger payroll in 2017. One would hope that Rogers would come to the conclusion that paying more for a competitive team is an investment worth making, even for purely financial reasons. One would hope that they would want to avoid pissing away all of the immense enthusiasm that has erupted in the fan base over the past 16 months. Unfortunately, fans hopes have never seemed to sway the decision making processes of billion dollar corporations, and it would be surprising if that started now, despite some notable recent changes in the personnel of ownership. This is not to say that payroll won’t go up, it definitely can, and many believe that probably will…but likely not by a whole lot. I really hope I’m dead wrong though. So based on this, one wild/speculative guess would be that they’ve got about $25-30M to spend to fill their remaining holes. Of course, contracts can be moved at any time and these numbers may be far from exact, but this as good of a guess as any.
In addition to payroll, we have to factor in what managements’ vision for this team is going forward. Shapiro and Atkins inherited an aging yet talented team on the heels of its first post-season appearance in 22 years. There wasn’t a whole lot coming off the roster at the end of 2015 so their task then was pretty clear. They had to fill a couple holes in the bullpen and rotation with short term, relatively low cost players and go for it again in 2016. They did this to great effect in the rotation with the extension of Marco Estrada (credit for that one goes mostly to Tony LaCava) and the signing of J.A. Happ. Their offseason makeover of the bullpen wasn’t nearly as successful but clever in-season acquisitions of Jason Grilli and Joaquin Benoit lessened the blow (that Storen for Benoit trade does not get nearly the attention it deserves. Like that was really amazing). Anyways, they successfully lead the team to its second straight ALCS in a season that contained many remarkable moments. Shapiro and Atkins did their job well, but things won’t be as easy this time around.
As all Jays fans are sure to remember, the talent in the upper levels of the minors was all pretty much traded away or promoted to the big leagues in Alex Anthopoulos’ final two seasons. While pretty much every fan, including me, would do it all again, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s hard to field a competitive team without a bunch of low cost, young, controllable players all over the diamond. Just look at the Cubs and Red Sox. Premium talent just costs too much on the open market to fill very many spots that way. Unfortunately, the Jays now find themselves in a place where good players are leaving and internal replacement options are sparse. This is not to say the Jays farm system is bad. To the contrary, it has been getting much better and there is lots to be excited about. The problem is that most of the excitement emanates from the lower minors. Of the Blue Jays top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America, only Rowdy Tellez, Connor Greene and Anthony Alford are talked about as having a real chance of making big leagues this year, although you never really know with prospects. Even if one or more of these guys does make it up, it’d be surprising if any of them had a significant impact immediately. Dalton Pompey is also still around and may be able to provide some value. However, his .702 OPS from AAA Buffalo in 2016 doesn’t inspire an abundance of confidence. This puts the Jays front office in a tricky place going forward.
Some have suggested that the Jays should try and enter a soft rebuild phase where they trade some of their better players and stock pile young talent for a few years and then go for it when the big contracts subside and the younger players are ready to make to make an impact, probably around 2019-2020. The Jays front office has consistently stressed the importance of building a great farm system and it’s natural to assume that Shapiro and Atkins will follow some aspects of their Cleveland model of drafting and developing many young, athletic players. Even this year, they’ve implied that they want the team to be younger and more athletic (who doesn’t though?). Nevertheless, this rebuild argument misses a couple of key facts. First, the Jays still have *a lot* of excellent players. The whole rotation from last year is returning. The only difference is that Francisco Liriano is replacing Dickey, which is perfectly fine by me. The Jays still have a great infield consisting of Josh Donaldson, Russel Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Devon Travis, with Kendrys Morales DHing. Additionally they have Kevin Pillar who, despite his offensive shortcomings, has put up 8 wins above replacement over the past 2 seasons. Finally they’ve got one of the best young closers in the game in Roberto Osuna and they have Jason Grilli who’s coming off a fantastic 2016 in Toronto. Frankly, there’s just too much talent and upside to justify any kind of rebuild…even a halfhearted one. Secondly, the Jays aren’t a small market team and they’ll almost definitely have a top 10 payroll in 2017. That gives them the financial muscle to stay somewhat competitive even if they’re not drowning in young, talented pre-arb and early-arb players. This isn’t Cleveland.
What does all this boil down to? The Jays will almost certainly try to have their cake and eat it too. Translation: they’re going to use their payroll flexibility and existing talent core to try and stay competitive over the next three years by bringing in good players on short term deals through free agency or trade. Meanwhile, they’ll be building the farm system in the background so that the Jays can field a very good, young team by the end of the decade when the big contracts expire. This strategy would maximize their competitive window, it would keep the fan base excited in the near term, and it would ensure that Shapiro and Atkins have a good chance of building something special of their own in the not so distant future. These two tasks won’t exist perfectly in parallel. Keeping their eye to the future will lessen the chance that they’ll be able to trade for impact major leaguers or sign coveted free agents. Conversely, their desire to win now will put tight limits on the rate at which they can collect premium prospect capital and they may even have to trade some of it away. However, it’s the right strategy and it’s one that we all hope is successful. The hard part now is getting the pieces necessary to make the 2017 Jays contenders within this framework. There are many moves to be made this offseason and they may not all be the sexiest, but there’s no doubt it’ll be an exciting ride.