Payroll Flexibility with Young Roster Creates Opportunity for Blue Jays

Having survived much of the post-2016 crash already, the Blue Jays are getting closer to a clean slate.

 

 

 

 

It does not need to be explained how brutal the past two seasons were for the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans. After having witnessed two exciting playoff runs following a 22-year drought, everyone from the fans to the organization itself was hoping to squeeze a little bit more juice out of an aging core before having to reset.

 

Unfortunately, the predictable drop-off after 2016 could not be avoided, and the team saw a massive decline in performance. While the front office took one more stab at it in 2018, possibly on the behest of ownership who understandably did not want to derail the money train before they had to, they realized fairly early in the season that change needed to happen.

 

Thankfully it now appears that everyone in the organization is on the same page, and that change is becoming a reality. The Blue Jays under team president Mark Shapiro have to tried to compete and rebuild at the same time due to the circumstances after his arrival, which worked in 2016, but failed in 2017 and 2018. Now it is crystal clear that the organization has no delusions of being an AL East contender for at least another season, possibly two, so a shift towards the future has finally begun.

 

That was very apparent during the 2018 deadlines (in July and August), which saw 8 players traded and 13 players added in return, 11 of them being prospects.

 

The turnover has not stopped, as general manager Ross Atkins made a small but significant trade last week by moving infielder Aledmys Diaz to the Houston Astros for pitcher Trent Thornton.

 

It is also being reported by Jeff Passan that the Blue Jays are seriously considering moving Russell Martin and are willing to eat up a large portion of the $20 million he has left on his contract to make it happen. Considering the team already has three other catchers on their 40 man roster, that type of deal would make a lot of sense.

 

Players who are not likely to be part of the team’s next competitive window (like Diaz and Martin) will be moved. Salary will be freed up and young players will be given an opportunity to see if they can be co-stars during the Vladimir Guerrero Jr years.

 

One benefit to veterans being moved in favor of young talent is it will organically lower payroll without hurting the team. In 2019, the combination of Troy Tulowitzki, Martin, Justin Smoak, and Kendrys Morales will make a combined $60 million. However, the latter three are all impending free agents (if they are not moved beforehand), and Tulowitzki will be a free agent after 2020.

 

Speaking of 2020, that is the final season of control the Blue Jays will have on the following players: Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ken Giles, Randal Grichuk, and Kevin Pillar. It is entirely possible that all of those players will be moved at some point between now and the 2020 trade deadline, with Grichuk being the only extension candidate due to his age and the lack of outfield options in the system.

 

What that means is, the Blue Jays are going to have a lot of payroll flexibility coming up very soon, possibly as soon as the start of the 2020 season.

 

That appears to be the perfect timing for the Blue Jays, as not only is their star prospect ready to take over in 2019, but so are a bunch of other prospects in the system.

 

The front office has also targeted players that are close to big league ready in recent trades, creating a crowded 40-man roster situation, but also putting the team in position to field close to an entire roster of controlled, inexpensive talent.

 

That is going to leave a lot of payroll room. Spending big in free agency is not something Shapiro is known to do, but with so much money available over the next few years, it creates a lot of opportunity to add assets.

 

So how can the team maximize its opportunity right now? What can they do with money to make sure the transition to the Guerrero timeline is as seamless as possible? Without doing anything crazy in free agency, there are ways for the team to use their payroll flexibility to add more talent.

 

For starters, how about a dip into the Japanese market? It was recently reported that the Blue Jays hired Hideaki Sato to scout Japan for the organization.

 

While it is likely just coincidental, that happened around the same time that Yusei Kikucki, the top Japanese pitcher to be posted this off-season, is up for grabs. Kikuchi will officially be available on December 5th, which will begin a 30 day posting period where he can sign with a Major League team.

 

 

While the Blue Jays have never been known to dip into the Japanese player market, what better time than now? They will have no payroll concerns, and need to add as much talent that fits the 2019-2025 timeline (Vlad’s years of control) as they can.

 

Kikuchi is projected by MLBTR to get a six year, $42 million deal, not counting the posting fee that will go to the Lions. He is 27, so he is not super young, but a six year deal takes him through age 33, and if he can be had at an AAV around $8 million (about what a win is worth), then it would be extremely low risk with medium to high upside depending on how he transitions to the league and his health. Even if he ends up being a 2-win starter, it would be worth the investment using that contract as a baseline.

 

Japanese starters have done pretty well in MLB over the past 5 or 6 years, such as Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda, Hisashi Iwakuma, and most recently Shohei Ohtani. Obviously expecting that type of impact from Kikuchi, regardless of where he ends up, is asking a lot, but recent history suggests that Japanese starters can be a safe investment from a performance standpoint (health is a different story as pitchers in general are injury risks).

 

A six year deal for Kikuchi would cover nearly all of Guerrero’s pre-free agency years of control, so it would fit the timeline, and if his salary projection is even close to accurate, then it would not be a bad investment from a dollars and cents standpoint either.

 

Another way of taking advantage of the payroll flexibility is doing something this front office has already done a few times.

 

This is the same front office that took on the $18 million left on Francisco Liriano’s deal in 2016 in order to get prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez from the Pirates. A year later they paid what was left of Liriano’s contract and absorbed the remainder of Nori Aoki’s contract to acquire Teoscar Hernandez in a deadline deal with the Astros.

 

It has been reported that teams are looking to move payroll, such as the Philadelphia Phillies with Carlos Santana, and the Seattle Mariners with Robinson Cano. Clearly adding a player of Cano’s age and contract would not be a smart investment, but the point is to find teams with payroll issues that want to clear salary and are willing to add sweetener to make it happen. If the Jays can get a useful player and prospect(s) just for the cost of absorbing some money, then it creates even more assets at their disposal.

 

Realistically the team can also wait until the existing roster looks like they are a piece or two away before splurging in free agency or trade, but there is no guarantee that opportunities will look better two or three years from now, and by then a few years of Guerrero’s service time may have already been eaten up. They can pick and choose their spots, but starting early isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.

 

The team is in a very favorable position. They have intentionally set up a situation where they will have much of their 40 man roster being young and inexpensive, with depth in the minors on top of that. They should be able to add even more prospects in trades over the next year and a half as their existing veteran group starts to get closer to free agency.

 

It will put them not only in a position to spend money but also eventually consolidate some of their prospects for big league pieces. In the mean time, this might be the perfect time to use money creatively to take advantage of situations available to them. Who knows, a few good investments early in the process and suddenly a contention window that looks years away might come sooner than expected.

 

 

 

 

 

Featured Image Credit: S Doyle- JFtC

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Srikant Kabse

Srikant Kabse is a long time baseball fan, accountant, and writer. He currently resides in New Jersey, but grew up in Scarborough Ontario where his love for the sport and for the Blue Jays began as a child. Aside from baseball, Srikant's interests include fitness, basketball, and traveling.