In a changing baseball environment, the Blue Jays need to decide if mid-season trades or extensions make the team better long-term.
The Toronto Blue Jays are not making it a secret that they are using 2019 as a transitional year as they wait for the exciting young group of prospects in the upper minors to filter their way up the system over the next year or so.
By the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, the team should have an influx of young talent at the Major League level including consensus #1 prospect in baseball Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Anthony Alford, Cavan Biggio, and Rowdy Tellez, joining Danny Jansen and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. who both will begin the 2019 season at the big league level.
That is just the position player side. The pitching in the upper minors, while lacking a true front of the rotation potential arm, is littered with depth as well with varying degrees of upside.
The front office had been rebuilding in the background over the past three seasons while trying to build a team that could contend for a Wild Card spot at the same time, but this is the first year where there is no hiding behind a veil of wanting to contend.
If it happens organically due to young talent performing at a high level right away, then great, but the team is prepared for a down season in order to get some of the lumps of rebuilding out of the way early.
One of the keys of rebuilding is to have veterans around in the absence of young talent in order to both create depth and also potentially have trade assets to move at the deadline. That explains the signings and acquisitions of Clay Buchholz, Bud Norris, Matt Shoemaker, and Clayton Richard, but those are not the key veteran trade chips the team will potentially be selling at the deadline.
If the Blue Jays want one last crack at cashing in on veterans in order to add more talent to their ever growing farm system, then the players they will need to move at the deadline are Marcus Stroman , Aaron Sanchez, Ken Giles, and Randal Grichuk.
That makes sense. All four of those players each only have two years of control left, and if the team does not expect to seriously contend for at least one of those years (2019), if not both, then cashing in on those assets to add pieces that might help during the team’s next competitive window is a sensible approach to take.
However, with the way the market is shaping up in Major League Baseball, especially over the last two seasons, is the sensible approach to building a roster changing?
Let’s consider the environment.
THE FREE AGENT MARKET
In what seems like an eternity ago, players used to salivate at the thought of finally hitting the free agent market after paying their dues in the minors and accepting being underpaid for their first six years in the Majors. They knew that while they would not be paid fairly in their primes, it would even out as they got older.
That type of certainty is no longer there for the players. Teams are placing a lot more value on age and term in free agency. Players are reaching free agency in their late-20’s/early-30’s and suddenly are no longer being rewarded for their past performance.
Logically, you cannot fault the teams. Why should teams pay more for a player’s decline when they just underpaid them for six years during their primes? They already got the player’s best seasons for way under market value, so what incentive do they have to pay them more for less performance?
If teams are getting smarter about how many years and dollars they give to players in free agency, then that might give a player that doesn’t have Bryce Harper’s name value more of an urgency to sign a contract extension before reaching free agency.
THE TRADE MARKET
Another thing to keep in mind, especially in today’s market, is that teams are not trading top prospects for shorter term assets anymore.
Teams seemed to have figured out that a player is most valuable in years 0-6 of their service clock due to cost and expected value, and the movement of top prospects are few and far between nowadays.
So what can the Jays reasonably expect for their trade chips?
TRADE OR EXTENSION?
If the free agent market is not as desirable for players anymore, and teams are reluctant to trade prospects in deals for shorter term veterans, then has this made extensions to arbitration eligible players more beneficial to both parties, and for teams in particular?
Of the four players mentioned above (Stroman, Sanchez, Grichuk, Giles), only Grichuk seems like a realistic extension candidate. He fills a position of need throughout the organization, is only 27, is a good defensive player, and has legitimate big league power.
As is, he is a ~2 WAR player, but there is reason to believe he might be better than that, and he’s still in his prime years. If he has a good first half in 2019, the team could dangle him in trades, but wouldn’t he be an ideal candidate to extend given the market conditions? Will the return for him in a deal justify losing out on potential ~3 WAR seasons in his late-20’s on a potentially reasonable AAV?
The same applies for Stroman and Sanchez, although for different reasons there might be uncertainty on whether extensions are possible with those two.
Stroman made headlines last month for a media scrum where he expressed disappointment in many things, including not being offered a long-term extension by the club (among other gripes).
Without knowing what Stroman’s camp is asking for, and how the Jays value him as a long-term asset, it is hard to know whether the lack of commitment is justified or not.
Certainly with any contract talks it takes two to tango. Both sides have to be in agreement with the term and dollar value, and we simply do not know where each side stands.
With Sanchez, it is a combination of his 2017-18 seasons being shortened due to injury, and the fact that he is represented by Scott Boras. The latter makes a team friendly extension seem somewhat unrealistic.
Still, the team faces an interesting decision there. Sanchez will be 28 when he is a free agent. Stroman will be 30. Both have a combination of performance and health issues, but also give the team some talent certainty as well as veterans in an area of need to have around when they want to win again (presumably in 2021 and beyond).
As far as Giles, he would easily have the most trade value in theory given how important relievers are for playoff bound teams, and given the way Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro view relievers, he seems like the most likely to get moved because he should be able to fetch appropriate value.
I don’t think an extension is likely in his case, and if he pitches as well as he is capable of, then chances are he will not come with the type of cost advantage that the others would. If any position has not been impacted negatively by the new free agent market, it is high leverage relievers (although I am sure Craig Kimbrel would disagree with me).
TRADE RETURN VS. VALUE
So the question becomes, is the value the team could reasonably expect in a trade for those players worth more than the value the players themselves could contribute beyond their existing years of control?
Three years ago, that answer might have been completely different, but today?
The Blue Jays are in a very strong position in terms of payroll. The only player with a guaranteed contract after 2020 is Gurriel. Everyone else is either arbitration eligible or will still be on their pre-arbitration deals. So they should not have any financial limitations when it comes to extending talent.
They could choose to trade Stroman, Sanchez, and Giles, and then replace them via free agency when the team feels they are closer to serious contention, but there is no guarantee the team will be able to get better pitchers than that, and the price/age ratio might be different as well.
If you ask me what I expect to happen, it will be trades involving Stroman, Sanchez, and Giles (not Grichuk) in July for the best package of prospects the team can get back. I don’t even mind that strategy as the team is clearly building towards 2020 and beyond, and the more young talent in the system, the more pieces the team will have to either fill big league spots or use as trade bait for veterans when the time comes.
However, it is hard to look at the way free agency and the trade market has played out and not wonder what is the higher value play; keeping the established big leaguers or trading them for potentially average prospects?
The Blue Jays have the luxury to be picky in terms of who they want to keep, if anyone. They have some options, and the payroll flexibility to make it happen if they chose to.
If the team intends on winning sooner rather than later, which seems like a smart strategy considering Guerrero’s six plus years of control will be super valuable, then having some (good) veterans around that can complement the young talent will be necessary.
Whether the veteran players currently on the team are the ones you want to keep in 2020 and beyond is the question. The team still has a few months to figure that out.
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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.