Toronto Blue Jays: Going for it in 2018 without mortgaging the future

 

Jays From the Couch has a way the Toronto Blue Jays can “Go For It” in 2018 without mortgaging the future

 

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The Ohtani and Stanton transactions have served to reframe the conversation around the Blue Jays off-season. Houston and Cleveland remain solid favourites for their division titles, while the Red Sox and Yankees seem primed to battle it out for the AL East title, with the loser likely joining the Angels in the wild card game. A consensus of sorts has developed among Jays fans, summed up by our fearless leader, Shaun Doyle:

 

 

Regardless of the current projected gap between the Blue Jays and their AL  East rivals, each team must still play 162 games of baseball. And baseball is nothing if not unpredictable. But, as our front office often says, it’s necessary to control the controllables. In this case, that means executing a plan that gives the Blue Jays the best possible shot at taking advantage of slip-ups by the front-runners in 2018.

 

We are all aware of the high-level of talent in the Jays’ system that should hit the majors over the next three seasons. The system boasts a combination of elite talents (Vladdy Jr., Bo Bichette and Anthony Alford), guys that look like solid MLB regulars (Ryan Borucki, T.J. Zeuch, Nate Pearson, Thomas Pannone, Logan Warmoth and Danny Jansen) and guys that have a definite shot at being MLB regulars (Sean Reid-Foley, Conner Greene and Richard Urena). [It’s worth noting that this list is far from exhaustive. The system is strong.]

 

Trading for young, controllable talent can certainly help the team for 2018 and beyond. But it will likely come at a significant cost, prospect-wise. If Jeets can be fleeced again, then a trade for Christian Yelich or Marcell Ozuna would be fine by me. But I feel that a focus on the free agent market can best solve the problems the team faces in the near-future, without sacrificing any long-term talent. [This is how a team can indirectly get younger through free agency. The average age of the MLB roster may remain relatively high, but the steady influx of prospects in coming years brings the average down, an influx that would be weakened by multiple trades.]

 

The Blue Jays appear to have five key positions they could address, well established by countless posts on this site and beyond in recent weeks: corner outfield, middle infield, starting rotation, bullpen and backup catcher. In my (not terribly controversial) view, the team should apply resources to these positions in order from most dire to least dire.

 

First, we need to come up with an estimate of their opening day payroll. The 2017 opening day payroll was $163 million. Over the Rogers era, opening day payrolls have grown by an average of 7% each year, starting from $46 million in 2000. Using last year’s payroll and the payroll growth rate, we can estimate the Jays opening day payroll in 2018 to be about $175 million. Guaranteed contracts ($89 million), arbitration projections ($47 million) and non-arb projections ($4 million) account for $140 million of that, leaving the team with about $35 million to spend.

 

 

My plan is based on the idea that the front office can squeeze another $10 million from Rogers. While Rogers is often accused of being cheap, they have clearly been willing to add to payroll over time. The Stanton and Ohtani deals could very well motivate them to boost the payroll once again.

 

In a nutshell, the plan is to spend big on the outfield (Lorenzo Cain) and infield (Zack Cozart), find a value signing to fill the #5 spot in the starting rotation (Jhoulys Chacin), patiently find a good deal on the deep relief market and not worry too much about finding an external option at backup catcher.

 

Note: In projecting contract term and value, I use the median of three contract projections: Dave Cameron’s estimate, the Fangraphs crowd source estimate and the MLBTR estimate.

 

Sign Lorenzo Cain to play right field (5 years at $17 million per season)

The Jays outfield is in most need of an immediate influx of outside talent. In Fangraphs’ current projections, a Blue Jays outfield made up of Kevin Pillar (CF), Teoscar Hernandez (RF) and Steve Pearce/Ezequiel Carrera (LF) is expected to produce 4.4 fWAR (tenth in the AL). The addition of Cain, projected to generate 3.2 fWAR this year, would shoot the Jays outfield up to fifth in the AL, in terms of projected fWAR.

 

My mid-November post on Cain made my feelings on the balanced outfielder clear: he is very good and hits well enough that a decline in his speed shouldn’t completely sap his value.

 

Aging curves are a thing, but it’s important to remember that a player’s peak is an important part of that conversation. While elite players age like anyone, they’re still often valuable into their mid-30s, because they’re expected to go from elite to merely good (which is still pretty useful). And Cain is indeed elite: since 1950, 250 centre-fielders have had 1000+ plate appearances over their age-27 to -31 seasons. Cain ranks 25th among that group with 20.5 fWAR.

 

While there are plenty of examples of mobile outfielders aging poorly, there are plenty of notable counter-examples. Finding perfect comps for any player is difficult. In Cain’s case, I looked for centre-fielders who (over their age-27 to -31 seasons ) combined roughly average power with above-average abilities to run, field and get on base via balls in play. The list is short, but includes guys like Kenny Lofton, Steve Finley, Randy Winn and Devon White. These four centre-fielders aged gracefully, generating 15.9 fWAR, 10.2 fWAR, 10.1 fWAR and 9.8 fWAR over their age-32 to -36 seasons. If Cain replicates Devo’s late career, the proposed contract would be fair value.

 

Sign Zack Cozart as a super-utility man (3 years at $14 million per season)

Zack Cozart is an elite defender with an above-average bat (and only slightly below-average speed). Since he broke into the majors in 2012, he has produced the eighth most fWAR (14.2) among all shortstops. My confidence in his ability to be a super-utility guy is driven most by his defensive pedigree: Cozart ranks eighth among all major leaguers in Fangraphs’ defensive runs statistic (Def) since 2012. He has played a premium position at a well above-average level for six seasons.

 

Normally, I’d expect a player of his calibre to find a good team to sign with as their starting shortstop (something the Blue Jays cannot offer). Cozart’s problem is that basically every contender has a starting shortstop. He could always take a job with a rebuilding team, but (as MLBTR suggested) it might make more sense for him to accept a role as a super-utility man. It would allow him to play for a contender and create enough demand for his services that he could get a fair market value contract.

 

From the Jays perspective, the signing fits very well in 2018 and beyond. Early indications suggest that Tulo is unlikely to start the season healthy, so a strong shortstop like Cozart will help the team avoid another horrendous start. He’s likely going to be needed to cover second and short throughout the season, ideally also covering third on Josh Donaldson‘s off days. Looking ahead, a term of three years matches up well with Bo Bichette’s timeline, while also allowing Lourdes Gurriel and Richard Urena more time to develop.

 

A guy like Josh Harrison is another option, who comes with the added bonus of having already played multiple positions. He also is a playmaker on the basepaths. But he has his drawbacks too. He hasn’t played much shortstop, which is trickier than playing second or third base (his primary positions), and he’s a below-average hitter.

 

Most importantly, he’s under affordable team control for three more years on a team that hasn’t really declared itself a seller—by the Fangraphs depth chart projections, the Pirates are alongside the D’backs and Mets in a fight for the second NL wild card spot. If he’s available, he’s going to cost some prospect capital. These drawbacks leave me preferring Cozart in the super-utility role, if he’s up for it (which, in fairness, is its own question mark). If he isn’t up for it, Harrison would be a solid Plan B.

 

Sign Jhoulys Chacin as a back-end starter (2 years at $8 million per season)

This one will probably take some convincing. Chacin was a late cut to my impact arm list back in October, namely because he stretches the definition of an impact arm. However, I’ve included him in my plan more so because of his value than pure impact. A guy like Chacin is a very unsexy signing, but such signings are necessary in a world of scarcity.

 

Signing him to fill the rotation is much cheaper than other options, like Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn, to say nothing of Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. This allows the team to spend more on the more pressing needs in outfield and middle infield without requesting any more than a $10 million payroll increase from Rogers. [Now, if I was less concerned with maintaining realism, I’d probably try asking them for a $16 million payroll bump and sign Cobb to a 4 year, $14 million per season deal instead.]

 

Another factor is the Jays starting pitcher depth. The situation isn’t great, as last season proved, but has improved greatly. In Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, J.A Happ and Marco Estrada, the Blue Jays have a front four that surpasses the majority of MLB teams. Signing an ace and shifting everyone back a slot is ideal, but not essential. The Jays don’t currently have starters in the upper minors banging down the door, but that could change quickly. The 2018 Buffalo Bisons rotation will be made up of far more prospects and far fewer career minor leaguers than 2017.

 

With the qualifiers out of the way, let’s get into Chacin’s skills as a pitcher. In 2017, Chacin produced the lowest xwOBA (.303) among free agent starters that a) won’t receive monster deals (Darvish and Arrieta) or b) will miss significant time after Tommy John surgery (Michael Pineda). His FIP (4.26) was similarly strong last season, ranking fifth among free agent starters after Darvish, Arrieta, Cobb (4.16) and Jaime Garcia (4.25).

 

When examining a pitcher coming off a strong season, but with a spotty track record, the key question is whether the performance was sustainable. In my view, his peripherals point to a decent chance of sustainability. His BABIP of .272 was low, but not much lower than his career norm (.284), while his HR/FB% (11.4%) was actually higher than his career average (10.3%).

 

Statcast data also suggests that he wasn’t overly reliant on good luck last year. Chacin surrendered an opponent’s wOBA of .307 and batting average of .235, both better than the MLB average for starters. Positively, the contact he surrendered more than justified those numbers, as he posted even lower xwOBA (.303) and xBA (.231), ranking 47th and 42nd among 173 starters who faced 250+ batters in 2017.

 

He also posts a consistently above-average GB/FB, which helps him avoid giving up the long ball. In that vein, he posted a lower than average barrel rate (3.9% vs. 4.5%) and higher than average poor contact rate (44.8% vs. 44.1%). His solid 2017 seems based upon an increased usage of his slider, in conjunction with greater use of his sinker. This was a good move, as he has one of the best sliders in baseball—since 2010, he has the seventh highest wSL (73). Last year was no different, with his slider ranking as the 5th most valuable in baseball (21.7 wSL).

 

Patiently wait for a good opportunity in the deep relief market

For the first time in years, the bullpen represents one of the Blue Jays’ strongest areas. In 2017, on the back of relievers with lots of team control remaining, the Blue Jays bullpen ranked seventh best in fWAR (5.8), eleventh in FIP (4.02) and sixth in xwOBA (.293).

 

The bullpen will once again be anchored by Roberto Osuna. After two extraordinary seasons for a young reliever, he went ahead and had a career year in terms of K%, BB%, FIP, fWAR and xwOBA. In his first four seasons in the MLB, Aroldis Chapman was worth 6.2 fWAR over 198.2 innings. They were his age-22 to -25 seasons. Roberto Osuna has been worth 6.1 fWAR over his first 207.2 innings, over his age-20 to -22 seasons.

 

Osuna is certain to be joined by Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes, Dominic Leone and Aaron Loup. Each of these relievers made important contributions to the bullpen in 2017, even the oft-derided Loup—he was easily better than the average MLB lefty reliever in terms of FIP (3.66 vs. 4.17) and xwOBA (.285 vs. .301). Carlos Ramirez, owner of a strong .265 xwOBA, and Matt Dermody, who held batters to an even better .264 xwOBA after his late July call-up, seem like decent bets to fill the last two spots at the moment.

 

A couple of the relievers left out help underline the depth of the bullpen. Joe Biagini seems likely to begin the season in the Bisons starting rotation, one last attempt to see if he can be a starter. Tim Mayza, a lefty with electric stuff, showed a lot of promise in 2017 and will likely be the guy shuttling between Toronto and Buffalo this season.

 

The free agent relief market is similarly deep. Come January, there will almost definitely be a handful of strong options out there willing to accept a one year deal at a good price. By my count, both the Fangraphs and MLBTR Top 50 free agents list includes 12 relievers that remain unsigned. Beyond those 12 are a number of serviceable relief arms. Signing one or two of these relievers would allow the Jays to keep Dermody and Ramirez in AAA to develop further and step in when a need arises.

 

One option would be to spend the remainder (about $6 million) on one particularly good reliever. A handful of good free agent relievers are available for around 2 years at $6 million per season, including Pat Neshek, Joe Smith and Tony Watson. Another option would be to pull another Howell-Smith combo and sign two relievers for about $3 million each. With the sheer number of relievers available, I’d expect this strategy to be possible too. That said, with the internal bullpen depth the Jays have, signing one high-ceiling reliever might make the most sense.

 

Backup catcher, the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ of baseball positions

Luke Maile seems like a nice guy. He doesn’t hit well (he owns a career wRC+ of 27), but takes care of everything else you need from a backup catcher—among 63 catchers who played in 250+ innings in 2017, Maile ended up tied for 9th in DRS (6) and 21st in adjusted fielding runs above average (2.7). He also has five more years of team control, which makes him a very cheap part of the team. The fact that he wasn’t removed from the 40-man roster ahead of the Rule 5 draft speaks to the high opinion the Blue Jays have of him and makes me fairly confident that they plan to stick with him in 2018.

 

Now, given all of the money I’ve already spent, there isn’t much left to put towards filling the backup catcher position. The thing is, that’s not really the issue. The issue with finding a good backup catcher is (as many, many others have pointed out over the years) there aren’t many. Good backup catchers tend to quickly become starting catchers.

 

Fortunately, compared to 2017, the Blue Jays will have much more quality in the upper minors, across the board. This applies to the catching position as well. Danny Jansen will start at AAA, where he finished off after an extraordinary rise through the system in 2017. His short time in AAA was very positive, with his 172 wRC+ encapsulating his offensive contributions. He is, for all intents and purposes, the Jays current Catcher of the Future™.

 

Reese McGuire‘s stock rose as well, with his 134 wRC+ in 136 AA plate appearances suggesting that it might be premature to label him as a future light-hitting backup. He’s likely to start in AAA and will be pushing Jansen for playing time from a backup role.

 

With all of this in mind, I think that Maile should be the backup to Russell Martin, but only the backup. He would be called on to spell Russ once a week or so and end up playing in 25-30 games. However, if Russ ended up on the disabled list for a stretch, I think calling on Jansen to step in as the starter (and not Maile) would make the most sense.

 

MLB Pipeline gave him 50 ratings this year on both fielding and throwing. At the AAA level, he rated as an average defensive catcher in terms of adjusted fielding runs above average in 2017. Most importantly, Danny Jansen hits—his minor league performances were so spectacular that Fangraphs projects him to be an 87 wRC+ in the majors in 2018. For perspective, Fangraphs has 2018 projections for 741 catchers—Jansen is tied for 31st. His projection also compares well with the offensive production of the average MLB catcher (89 wRC+ in 2017).

 

Obviously, as a rookie catcher there’s potential for Jansen to experience growing pains. But his 2017 offensive performance, solid defensive abilities and success starting at the AAA level (he played 21 of 30 games) are strong reasons to feel positive about his chances. Of course, if McGuire were to outperform Jansen this season, he would deserve a shot in place of Russ himself. Regardless, the key takeaway is that the Jays will have two catchers at AAA who look like potential MLB starters.

 

These moves, combined with some bounce back performances, will keep 2018 interesting

The Blue Jays currently find themselves about 10 WAR behind the Yankees and Red Sox in the Fangraphs depth chart projections. Replacing Teoscar with Lorenzo cuts the gap down to about seven wins. Zack Cozart’s signing would primarily serve to raise the infield floor, but should also add a win or two (depending on whether his 2018 looks more like his 2016 or 2017). Replacing Biagini (projected to produce 1.5 WAR as the fifth starter) in the depth chart projections with Chacin wouldn’t change much.

 

There are also some areas where the projections seem off, the most glaring of which is the bullpen, projected to generate only 2.2 WAR. The ZiPS projections differ significantly—the Jays bullpen is projected to produce 6 WAR, higher than any ZiPS bullpen projection in 2017 and in line with the crew’s 2017 fWAR (5.8).

 

If I wanted to be particularly nit-picky, I’d argue that Smoak (projected to produce 1.9 WAR), Travis (1.6 WAR over 455 PA) and Estrada (1.1 WAR) are each underrated by one win. But even setting those aside, Cain + Cozart + a more generous/accurate bullpen projection narrows the gap between the Jays and Red Sox/Yankees to a couple of wins, comfortably within the margin of error.

 

Whatever specific changes the front office chooses to make, the Jays will likely be fairly close to the division front runners, talent-wise. Close enough that some normal breaks, be they injuries or over/underperformance, will put them in a playoff spot. For some, that’s not good enough. The team should blow it up sooner rather than later to bolster the team’s chances of future success. If you belong to that group, nothing I say will change your mind.

 

Instead, the point of this post (which ended up much longer than I expected) is to show that the Jays can make 2018 competitive without touching their prospect depth. As a fan, that sounds like a much better option than not watching a meaningful Jays game for 100+ weeks in order to (potentially) boost our chances in 2020 and beyond. As a fan that has seen a lot of sub-par Blue Jay teams over the years, I feel like it’s a sin to waste a perfectly good ball team on the hope that the sacrifice can improve a future that already looks very hopeful as is.

 

The recent transactions should not scare us away from competing this year, but rather motivate us to be better. Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins are smart guys, surrounded by equally smart people. I’m sure they’re up for the challenge.

 

Feel free to share your own plan of attack in the comments.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: C Stem- JFtC

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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.