Jays From the Couch takes a look at an interesting option for the Blue Jays’ thin outfield.
I have written extensively on my hope for the Jays to sign Lorenzo Cain this offseason. He is a bonafide superstar outfielder whose balanced production as a hitter/runner/fielder would make a great addition to the 2018 lineup. His cost would be entirely financial and very reasonable and while his production will deteriorate over time, it probably won’t be the cliff dive that some are suggesting (head over to the linked articles for a thorough explanation).
In lieu of a third post on Cain, I thought it would make more sense to offer a backup plan for the outfield (Cain is a sought-after free agent after all). My personal pick is Randal Grichuk, a player Shaun Doyle had highlighted as an option back in October. Grichuk is an outfielder who brings value in all facets of the game. He has three arbitration years left, which should be very affordable (I ballpark his three year salary cost at about $20 million, more on that later). He appears to be available, as he suggested himself that he might not be a Cardinal in 2018. And, most importantly, Grichuk was as vital a cog as Xavier Cedeno on the 2017 World Champion Blue Jays [Note: This happened on MLB The Show 17, not in real life. Though it was very real to me.]
Grichuk has provided above-average production with his hitting, running and fielding throughout his major league career. That high-quality fielding has come at all three outfield positions. In fact, he is the only major leaguer who has produced a DRS of zero or better over 500 innings at any three positions over the last three seasons. Even though 2017 was a down year for him, he still ranked 68th among all outfielders in WAR.
Now, I have no intention to cherry pick stats to make my case. In fact, let’s get the bad out of the way right now: Grichuk strikes out a ton and rarely walks. The result is a walk-to-strikeout ratio in the bottom ten of the MLB. It’s actually remarkable how consistent his strikeout and walk rates have been in his career. The expected causes are at play—he swings at a lot of balls (high O-Swing%), swings through a lot of strikes (low Z-Contact% and high Swinging Strike%) and, more often than not, falls behind the count after the first pitch (high First Pitch Strike%).
While watching him strikeout in nearly a third of his plate appearances won’t be fun, watching him absolutely mash balls in the Rogers Centre certainly will be. That’s Grichuk in a nutshell: strikes out more than all but a few, but barrels the ball more than all but a few. His sky-high ISO and wOBA on batted balls are well supported by strong fundamentals, suggesting that he can sustain this power.
He generates high-quality launch angle-exit velocity combinations (high xwOBA on batted balls) and has done so quite consistently. Among batters who generated 200+ batted balls per season, Grichuk ranked 13th (out of 271 batters in 2015), 41st (out of 272 batters in 2016) and 36th (out of 281 batters in 2017) in xwOBA on batted balls. He has also consistently generated a high average exit velocity, ranking 5th (2015), 23rd (2016) and 61st (2017) among the aforementioned group of batters.
Year in and year out, a exceptionally high percentage of his batted balls are “hit hard”. Among batters with 300+ plate appearance per season, Grichuk ranked 29th (out of 268 batters in 2015), 22nd (out of 268 batters in 2016) and 26th (out of 287 batters in 2017). Baseball Info Solutions has been tracking soft/medium/hard hit balls since 2002. From 2002 to 2017, Grichuk ranks 10th in Hard% (among 812 batters with 1000+ plate appearances). Among batters in their age-22 to -25 seasons, Grichuk ranks 6th (out of 215 batters with 1000+ plate appearances). In terms of Hard%, Grichuk’s worst season was 2015, which also happened to be the year the Jays mashed their way to the league’s highest ISO. If he was on the Jays that season, he would’ve ranked behind only Josh Donaldson (2015 Hard% of 37.3%).
His barrel rate is extraordinary. Over the last three seasons, only Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, David Ortiz, Khris Davis, Nelson Cruz and Mike Trout have out-barreled Grichuk. Two of his potential teammates are just behind him—Josh Donaldson has barreled in 8.4% of his plate appearances in the Statcast era, while Justin Smoak has a barrel rate of 8.3%. Even in his “down year” of 2017, Grichuk had the 6th best barrel rate in the majors.
Looking ahead to 2018
Grichuk fits the Blue Jays in a lot of ways. They obviously need a major league ready outfielder in 2018 and would prefer one who can run and field better than most. He’s not a top of the order guy, but he does mash baseballs. He is under team control for three more (fairly affordable) years, which allows the Jays to patiently wait for their outfield prospects to bang on the major league door before calling them up.
His versatility and ability to hit both lefties (career wRC+ of 102) and righties (career wRC+ of 110) allows Gibby to plug him into the outfield strategically. As an example, when the Jays face a lefty, Steve Pearce (LF) and Grichuk (RF) can flank Kevin Pillar. When they’re up against a righty, Grichuk (LF) and Ezequiel Carerra (RF) can flank Pillar—Zeke finally has normal career platoon splits and both DRS and UZR prefer him in RF. [Leaving aside the potential for further outfield reinforcements or a Pearce trade.]
Grichuk’s 2018 projections are a bit divergent. On the one hand, ZiPS projects him to produce 1.9 WAR over 518 PA via above-average hitting (107 wRC+) and fielding (Def of 3). [BsR projections are not yet available for ZiPS.] On the other hand, Steamer projections are more pessimistic. [Given that Steamer has him as the Cardinals fourth outfielder and getting only 237 PA, I will use the Steamer600 projections instead]. Grichuk is expected to produce 1.1 WAR over 600 PA thanks to slightly above-average baserunning (1.0 BsR), slightly below-average hitting (97 wRC+) and below-average fielding (Def of -6.6).
If we split the difference between the two systems (1.5 WAR), Grichuk ends up projected to produce a season similar to 2017. His hitting ends up a bit better (a hypothetical 102 wRC+ vs. 94 wRC+ in 2017), while his defence (-1.8 Def vs. 0.6 Def) and base running (1.0 BsR vs. 3.0 BsR) end up a little worse. With a win worth about $9 million, his projected level of production (1.5 WAR converts to $13.5 million) would be worth much more than his projected arbitration salary ($2.8 million).
What might Grichuk cost the Jays?
In terms of trade cost, it seems like the Cardinals are motivated sellers, to some extent at least. Their outfield looks set (Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham), with Jose Martinez likely to represent the fourth outfielder. Beyond the MLB roster, the team appears loaded with outfield prospects, making Grichuk surplus to requirements.
The Ozuna trade that the Cardinals pulled off this month could provide some guidance on Grichuk’s prospect cost. Ozuna (3.5 WAR per 162 games over his career) was traded for two 50 FV prospects with ETAs of 2019 (Sandy Alcantara and Magneuris Sierra), a 45 FV prospect with an ETA of 2018 (Zac Gallen) and an unrated prospect (Daniel Castano). [Prospect future value based on MLB Pipeline scouting.]
Ozuna has two arb years remaining and MLBTR projects him to earn $11 million this year. [Grichuk is in a similar position, but one year behind. This makes Ozuna a decent comparison for Grichuk.] Let’s say he ends up earning $16 million in 2019 (a little less than what Manny Machado‘s sixth arb year is projected to cost). That would leave him earning $27 million over two years, against a production value of about $63 million (3.5 WAR x 2 seasons x $9 million per WAR). So the Cardinals traded away two 50 FV prospects, a 45 FV prospect and a flier in exchange for $36 million of surplus value (spread over two seasons).
Fangraphs estimates that 50 FV prospects are worth $10 million, while 45 FV prospects are worth $5 million. Thus, the Cardinals paid about $25 million in prospect surplus value for Ozuna, a bit less than he is likely worth. Oh, Jeets.
Grichuk has three arb years remaining and MLBTR projects him to earn $2.8 million this year. In order to help me estimate his 2019 and 2020 arbitration salaries, I turn back to Lorenzo Cain. Like Grichuk is projected to do, Cain earned $2.8 million in his first arb year. He then avoided arbitration by signing on for $6.5 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017. Let’s use this $20 million sum as an estimate of Grichuk’s three-year arbitration cost.
In order to calculate surplus value, we need to estimate Grichuk’s production over the next three years. On the low end, we can use the Steamer-ZiPS blend (1.5 WAR per season) that I mentioned earlier. On the high end, we can use his career average, 2.9 WAR per 162 games. This gives us a reasonable range of Grichuk’s three-year production value: 4.5 WAR ($40.5 million) to 8.7 WAR ($78.3 million). Bringing in his estimated three-year salary gives us a range of his potential surplus value: $20.5 million to $58.3 million. That’s actually a decent amount of surplus value.
My guess is that the Cardinals are bearish on Grichuk: they demoted him to AAA three times over the last two seasons and he is openly unsure about his future. Moreover, their outfield logjam is a motivating factor. Finally, it seems highly unlikely that the Cards view Grichuk as having as much or more surplus value than the widely sought after Ozuna, even with Grichuk’s extra year of control. This opens up an opportunity for the Jays to get some serious surplus value at a very good price.
Let’s try approaching this from another angle. It seems safe to assume that the Cardinals have made an offer for Josh Donaldson that was rejected by the Toronto Blue Jays. [Just to get ahead of potential questions in the comment section, I’m firmly in the re-sign Josh Donaldson camp, so I really wouldn’t want to trade him for a package that included Grichuk. I’d rather just go get Grichuk. And re-sign Josh.] Given his obvious superfluousness to the Cards but upside to an outfield-starved team like the Jays, Grichuk’s name has been a big part of the Donaldson trade rumours.
Donaldson is projected to generate $57.6 million of production value this year (6.4 projected WAR x $9 million per win). With a projected salary of $21 million, JD has $36.6 million of surplus value in 2018. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Grichuk represented about half of the offer that the Cards made, say him and Jedd Gyorko for JD. That would imply that they put his surplus value at around $18 million, right around the lower end of the range we came up with earlier.
With that in mind, a Grichuk trade could go down a couple of ways (well I guess a million ways, technically). If the Cards insist on MLB talent in exchange, one of the Jays relief arms (with a few years of team control) could potentially be enough—after losing Trevor Rosenthal and Seung Hwan Oh, the Cards are a bit light in the bullpen, which is a position of depth for the Blue Jays. If the Cards would prefer prospects, the Jays have a deep enough system to send over a package (perhaps a 50 FV prospect, a 45 FV prospect and a flier or some such combination) that should entice the Cards without remotely debilitating the Jays’ system.
While Grichuk is not a perfect player, he provides value in the field and on the basepaths and has proven himself to have a great deal of power. A move from Busch Stadium to the more homer-friendly Rogers Centre might even help him pad those power numbers. Importantly, he shouldn’t cost much prospect capital, as the Cardinals seem like rather motivated sellers. Whether as a Plan B if Cain signs elsewhere or as a complement to Cain’s signing (just imagine a Cain-Pillar-Grichuk outfield), Randal Grichuk would be a great piece for the Blue Jays to add.
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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.