Despite the Toronto Blue Jays’ unfortunate 2018 season, we can look at the offseason additions as a successful group
During the 2017-18 off-season, the Blue Jays front office was focused on adding players who could help bridge the gap between the past and the future. As such, the eight key players added all came on either short-term free agent deals or in trades with a few years of team control. The additions added depth across the team and included position players (Randal Grichuk, Yangervis Solarte, Curtis Granderson and Aledmys Diaz), relievers (Seung Hwan Oh, John Axford and Tyler Clippard) and one starting pitcher (Jaime Garcia).
While the 2018 season hasn’t gone well, much of the problems have stemmed from injury or underperformance by a number of 2015-16 holdovers—Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Devon Travis, Troy Tulowitzki, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez have combined for 1.6 fWAR this season. For perspective, by the 2016 all-star break, the six combined for 11.6 fWAR and, after a strong second-half, ended the season with a combined 22 fWAR.
When we focus on the eight key additions, the only one who hasn’t worked out is Jaime Garcia. On the other hand, there are clear positives to take from the performances of the four position players and the three relievers.
While Randal Grichuk’s outcomes at the plate haven’t matched those he’s produced in recent seasons, there’s strong evidence that he’s suffered from bad batted ball luck. While his wRC+ is down from 2016-17, his xwOBA has remained league-average. He’s also providing solid defence in right field, as he did for the Cardinals, and is capable of playing a strong centre field as well.
Yangervis Solarte is seeing league-average outcomes at the plate, not much different than he had produced with the Padres. However, he’s made significant improvements in his contact quality, noticeable in his increased xwOBA. He’s also continued to provide league-average defence from third base.
In Curtis Granderson’s case, his plate outcomes have been a bit better than those he produced with the Mets. He’s also maintained his solid underlying contact numbers. While his defence is down some, that’s to be expected from an older player.
Aledmys Diaz has been even more unlucky than Grichuk. In his first two big-league seasons, Diaz was fortunate to produce a combined 111 wRC+ on only a .299 xwOBA. This season, it’s quite the opposite—he’s improved upon his contact quality enough to generate an above-average xwOBA, but his outcomes paint him as a below-average hitter. In addition to his strong xwOBA, Diaz is producing his finest season defensively, maintaining a league-average DRS at shortstop.
The group of new relievers has been even more successful this season, led by Seung Hwan Oh. Now, Oh’s ERA, xwOBA and FIP are all slightly up this season, relative to 2016-17. However, that’s driven by his exceptional performances in 2016. Relative to 2017, his 2018 marks are all serious improvements. Relative to other relievers in 2018—the average MLB reliever is producing a 3.96 ERA, 3.94 FIP and .320 xwOBA—Oh is well-above-average.
After a rough couple of years, John Axford has improved quite a bit. While his ERA and FIP are a little bit higher-than-average, his solid xwOBA suggests that he has been deserving of somewhat better outcomes.
Tyler Clippard’s recent seasons were a mixed bag, with a high-ish ERA and FIP, but a strong xwOBA. This season, not only have his ERA and FIP improved, his previously strong xwOBA has improved even further. He currently ranks 21st in xwOBA among the 198 relievers who have faced 100+ batters this season.
While fans are (justifiably) concerned primarily with on-field performances, it’s worth highlighting how much of a bargain this group of additions were. The combined 2018 salary of these seven players is just $18.7 million ($26.7 million if you want to include the money owed to Garcia). Now, that performance-to-cost efficiency doesn’t mean much this year, but this is the front office that is building the next Blue Jays contender. It’s comforting to know that they are a competent bunch, capable of acquiring bang-for-your-buck talent.
The other important plus of these successful additions is their trade value. Clippard, Axford and Granderson are all free agents at the end of the year. The Jays can keep Oh for another year, Grichuk and Solarte for two more seasons and Diaz for another four seasons, so they aren’t necessarily motivated to move them. That said, Oh is just the kind of high-quality reliever any contender would be looking to add ahead of a playoff run. Moreover, moving Solarte and/or Diaz in the coming off-season could make sense.
Based on xwOBA and DRS, Diaz has been a league-average shortstop this season, something that doesn’t grow on trees. Few teams would look to move an average shortstop, but the Jays have a farm full of high-potential shortstops. They likely want to have a veteran shortstop to help ease the transition, but they would still have Troy Tulowitzki to play that role (presuming he can be healthy for 2019).
Solarte is a league-average hitter who can play passable defence at third base and second base. He can even step in at shortstop, if necessary. A reasonably versatile defender with a decent bat, who is great in the clubhouse, with affordable team options for the next two seasons would have his fair share of suitors on the trade market.
Obviously, this wasn’t the sort of post I was hoping to write as we neared the all-star break. In the full-of-hope pre-season, I would have hoped to now be optimistically explaining why the second wild card spot-possessing Blue Jays might have a shot at the division crown.
But, when all you have is lemons, you make some delicious lemonade. The front office had a solid off-season. While it hasn’t helped much this season, there are long-term positives to take from it. Trading some of these additions to contenders could net some useful prospects. More intangibly, it reflects the quality of the process this front office uses when acquiring talent. I, for one, am willing to put my confidence in their ability to build a contender. Not out of blind faith, but because they make a lot more good decisions than bad ones.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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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.