Some thoughts on Toronto Blue Jays’ pre-arbitration agreements

 

Jays From the Couch offers up some thoughts on the Toronto Blue Jays coming to agreement on player contracts before arbitration hearings begin

 

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Yesterday was Major League Baseball’s deadline for arbitration filings. The Blue Jays were particularly active, with nine players offered arbitration this off-season. Throughout the day, Sportsnet kept fans up to date via their very handy arbitration tracker. Of those nine players, the club agreed to one-year deals with seven.

 

Josh Donaldson is the biggest name of the bunch in a few ways. His one-year deal for $23 million is the biggest via the arbitration process in MLB history and it makes him the highest-paid Jay in 2017 (barring a highly unexpected move for J.D. Martinez or a highly unexpected price jump for future Jay—hopefully, ideally—Lorenzo Cain). While news of an extension would’ve been better, I’m glad that things went smoothly and the two sides were on the same page. Hopefully, extension talks are ongoing and lead to some more positive Josh-related news.

 

A recurring theme today was the comparison of player’s salaries with their MLB Trade Rumours projection. While the details of their projection system is not public, work done by Fangraphs helps provide some information on the topic. The key observations of their work was that playing time (PA, G, IP) plays an important role in the arb process, as do traditional offensive counting stats (XBH, RBI, R, HR).

 

Kevin Pillar is one player whose salary ($3.25 million) ended up coming short of MLBTR projections ($4 million). That’s a relatively big miss for them (off by 18.75%). While some have mentioned that the arb process underpays defence-first players like Pillar, that’s something MLBTR would have accounted for. My guess was that the MLBTR model valued his career-high 16 HR quite a bit. Perhaps the team and his agent accepted that the league-wide power surge of 2017 undercut the value of his increased power output.

 

At any rate, I’m curious to see how his next two seasons in the arb process go. Given the importance of a player’s previous arb salary to their future arb salary, the $750,000 difference between MLBTR’s projection and Pillar’s actual salary will have knock-on effects in 2019 and 2020. If the Jays end up keeping him on board through those seasons, his salary becomes much more palatable. If the Jays lean towards moving him, his trade value will be that much higher.

 

Aaron Sanchez beat his MLBTR projection ($2.7 million vs. $1.9 million). This is a more clear-cut case: his limited playing time in 2017 led to a projection that didn’t account for his incredible talent. After the mild ruckus caused by his pre-arb contract last season, I was relieved to see that the process went much more smoothly this time around.

 

Ezequiel Carrera is a…special player, who ended up receiving $1.9 million for 2018. He had a solid 2016 season (0.7 fWAR) on the back of bad hitting (85 wRC+ over 310 PA), average base running (0.4 BsR) and solid defending (7 DRS across 643.1 outfield innings). Fair enough. Not great, but pretty okay for a fourth outfielder. In 2017, he sorta did the same thing (posting 0.7 fWAR), but in a very different way. His base running was still about average (2.4 BsR), but this time around it was his hitting that was great (107 wRC+ over 325 PA)—if very much driven by his unsustainable .358 BABIP—and his defence that was objectionable (-14 DRS across 702.1 outfield innings).

 

Aaron Loup received the oddly specific amount of $1.8125 million for 2018. I’ll have more to say about him in another post.

 

I love Devon Travis ($1.45 million). He seems like one of the nicest, most upbeat professional athletes. Plus, the guy produces when he’s in the lineup. He’s an above-average hitter (career 112 wRC+), an above-average base runner (career 3.5 BsR) and an above-average defender (career 6 DRS at second base). His injury history is unfortunate, but it still seems premature to label him as injury-prone, as our understanding of the issue is very limited at this point.

 

An analysis produced a rough equation for predicting time lost due to injury based on time lost to injury over the previous three seasons, plus the player’s age:

Days missed this year = .18*(days missed last year) + .1*(days missed two years prior) + .02*(days missed three years prior) + .004*Player’s Age

If I’m using the equation (and MLBTR’s days missed data) correctly, Travis is projected to miss 47 days in 2018, a career-low. That amounts to about 42 games out due to injury, slightly more optimistic than Fangraphs’ projection of 54 games missed (due to some combination of injury and rest). For me, the key takeaway is that while the data shows that there’s some correlation in days missed to injury from one season to the next (and the next and the next), that correlation isn’t too, too strong. In this case, the correlation might be strong enough to predict that Travis will miss some time, but weak enough that the projected days missed are a career-low. That said, I’m a big fan of the acquisitions of Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz—gotta keep increasing that talent floor.

 

Dominic Leone represents one of the best low-key pickups made by this front office. In 2017, he recaptured the form he showed in his rookie season, ranking 29th among all relievers in fWAR! He achieved that via a mix of quantity (70.1 IP, 28th most among all relievers) and quality (2.94 FIP, 28th most among qualified relievers). He received $1.085 million in his first trip through the arb process. He will hopefully continue to form a big part of one of the best bang for your buck bullpens in the majors.

 

In the cases of two players, Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna, the arbitration process continues. While a similar argument might be made for others, Stroman and Osuna are each in situations conducive to going to an arbitration trial. Also, as noted by Ross Atkins, their shared agency has multiple players going to arbitration hearings. Perhaps it’s part of their strategy.

 

Stroman is a Super Two, which means he still has a third and fourth year of arbitration remaining. Those years tend to get very expensive. With previous salaries playing a big role in future salary awards, it makes sense that the team would try very hard to avoid paying Stro more than they need to, in order to maximize available resources in the coming years. Also…

 

Osuna is poised to end up close to the first-year reliever record, his MLBTR projection of $5.6 million just short of Jonathan Papelbon‘s $6.25 million record. That said, he has fewer clear comps than a typical player going through the arb process, potentially creating a modest gap between player and team.

 

In the cases of both Stroman and Osuna, a longer term deal remains a possibility—as a “file-and-trial” team, the Blue Jays have a policy not to negotiate one-year deals after the arb deadline. As a fan, the idea of these two forming the core of the pitching staff well into the Vlad Jr. and Bo years is a very nice thought. As a realist, I accept that the FO has an incentive to take these guys one year at a time. Unfortunately, stuff happens to pitcher’s arms (sometimes suddenly), which incentivizes flexibility over locking down guys.

 

All in all, most of the business that needed doing got done. With most of the uncertainty surrounding the Jays’ salary situation for 2018 cleared up, the FO can approach the free agent and trade markets with a bit more clarity and confidence (as can most teams, to be fair).

 

Using data from Spotrac, we can think about what the current situation looks like. 15 players are all signed up for 2018, at a total of $126.7 million. Let’s make the conservative assumption that both Stroman and Osuna win their arb hearings: that’s another $12.7 million, for a total of $139.4 million and 17 players. If we assume, for now, that the remaining eight spots are filled by pre-arb players at $550,000 each, we are left with a grand total of $144.3 million currently allocated for the 2018 roster (including Jose’s $500,000 buyout). That leaves $20-25 million in remaining payroll for acquisitions.

 

 

Let’s set aside reality for a second and be hopeful fans. Fangraphs projected Lorenzo Cain to receive a four-year, $72 million contract ($17 million per season) and Alex Cobb to receive a four-year, $56 million contract ($14 million per season). Recent evidence has shown that, on average, free agents signed after January 1st received a contract that was 25.6% smaller than their Fangraphs crowdsource estimate. With that kind of discount, Cain and Cobb could potentially be signed for a total of $23 million per season (about $12.5 million for Cain and $10.5 million for Cobb), fitting nicely into the Blue Jays remaining payroll.

 

Even if the discounts only end up being half as large, signing the two prized free agents should still fit, financially. It would amount to Cain inking for about $15 million per season and Cobb for about $12 million per season, putting the team around $171 million. That’s right around where the payroll ended up by the end of last season. Wishful thinking? Yes. A not-that-unrealistic way to jump right back into the thick of wild card contention? Also yes.

 

 

 

 

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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.