The Toronto Blue Jays will have an interesting time navigating the MLB Trade Deadline this year with some key players available
This season there is only one trade deadline: July 31st. As a rebuilding team, the Blue Jays are likely to move some number of their veteran players for long-term pieces by that day. At the moment, five Blue Jay vets stand out as the most likely to be moved by the end of the month: Marcus Stroman, Ken Giles, Justin Smoak, Freddy Galvis and Eric Sogard.
One thing worth quickly addressing from the get-go is whether these vets should be traded or not. There is value in keeping each of these players beyond 2019 and there is value in moving them now. For each player, the decision comes down to whether keeping or moving them better helps the Blue Jays compete for championships in the 2020s.
Given the high-quality infield depth in the Jays system, moving Galvis and Sogard makes a lot of sense to me. Credit goes to Galvis and Sogard for playing so well this year and being the kind of players and people that a contender would want to add. From the Jays perspective, getting assets in return for them would be a great piece of business and would open up playing time in Toronto for Bo Bichette, who is just dominating the International League right now (176 wRC+ over 122 plate appearances since coming back from injury on June 7th).
Smoak is a tougher choice for me. The main reason, which I’ll discuss in more detail later on in this post, is that I just don’t think there’s a big market for first basemen this season. Another factor is that first base is a relatively thin area of the Jays’ system (obviously, the caveat is that first basemen are increasingly shifted from other positions, rather than developed specifically for the position). Nevertheless, these considerations, combined with his veteran presence and still-effective bat, might justify seeing if he’d like to stay in Toronto for another season.
Giles is a great closer. In terms of fWAR, he ranks sixth among relievers this season (1.5) and fifth among relievers since 2014 (9.2). He will be one of the very best relievers available this month. He also makes the Jays a better team. This year, that isn’t very important, but it might be next year and it definitely would be in 2021 and beyond (should the Jays extend him). However, I can’t help but think that pencilling a reliever into future lineups because they’re great right now is a very risky game. It seems to me that one of the most reliable rules of thumb in baseball is “if you have a reliever and teams are willing to give you a king’s ransom for him, take it!” Contending teams would be stupid not to give up that king’s ransom for Giles and, if one does, I think the Jays would be stupid not to take it.
In the case of Stroman, my feelings are pretty simple: based on the publicly-available info I have, he should definitely be extended. He’s 31st in fWAR among starters since 2014 and has been far more consistent than he’s given credit for—over his six major league seasons, Stroman has produced FIP- of 74, 87, 88, 88, 92 and 83 (the league average is 100, lower is better). His worst single-season FIP- was 92 in 2018 (it’s worth noting that his FIP- after his DL stint that season was only 83). 71 starting pitchers have appeared in each season since 2014, but only seven (very good) pitchers have had a lower “worst FIP-” than Stroman: Max Scherzer (78), Chris Sale (81), Jacob deGrom (82), Clayton Kershaw (83), Corey Kluber (88), Carlos Carrasco (89) and Stephen Strasburg (89). Plus, he loves this city and country. All that said, he will very probably be traded and I’ve made peace with that. I can only hope that the return will justify the decision.
Estimating each player’s surplus value, potential return and possible destinations
Obviously, a post like this is limited by the fact that I’m not privy to the trade negotiations the Jays have had with other teams. However, by estimating each player’s surplus value, I can lay out a rough idea of the return each player could net. Given the fact that teams across the majors use very similar methods of valuing players, this guess work should be reasonably accurate.
One assumption I am going to make, based on the Blue Jays’ past decisions, is that they will eat the full salaries of the players they trade away. This will help them get the most return for these vets and fits with their recent approach (e.g. Tulo and Russ).
Steamer and ZiPS project Galvis to be worth about 0.6-0.8 WAR in the second half of the season, with most of that value coming on the defensive side. Both systems discount his league-average production at the plate this season (.328 wOBA)—which is fair given that he’s needed quite a bit of batted ball luck to get there (.286 xwOBA)—instead expecting him to regress to a wRC+ in the low-to-mid 80s.
Based on FanGraphs’ research into the value of prospects (here and here), that level of production is worth a position player whose future value (FV) is around 40+/45 or a pitcher whose future value is around 45/45+. While a 40+/45 FV position player or 45/45+ pitcher seems a steep price for Galvis, shortstop is a pretty important position and a desperate enough team might pull the trigger at that valuation. Among potential playoff teams, the Brewers jump out as a possible landing spot. Collectively, their shortstops have produced a 71 wRC+, so even a 2017-18 Galvis would be an offensive upgrade for them. The Reds are another possibility, with their shortstops producing only a 77 wRC+ this season.
Sogard’s projections are a little lighter than Galvis’ (0.2-0.4 WAR)—on the one hand, he’s expected to be a slightly better hitter, but on the other, second basemen are less valuable than shortstops. Like Galvis, Sogard’s over-performance at the plate this year (.359 wOBA) seems mainly down to good batted ball luck (.302 xwOBA). That level of production is worth a position player prospect with a future value around 40/40+ or a pitcher with a future value around 40+/45.
The market for second basemen seems quite strong—based mainly on the fact that a number of playoff teams have seen their second basemen produce less than 75 wRC+ this season—so Sogard might actually net a meaningful return. The Cubs have clear World Series aspirations and have a struggling Addison Russell (85 wRC+) manning the keystone. The Cardinals and Cleveland each hope to make the playoffs, but Kolten Wong (86 wRC+) and Jason Kipnis (69 wRC+) have scuffled all year.
Steamer (117 wRC+) and ZiPS (107 wRC+) disagree on Smoak’s offensive potential, which results in differences in his overall value in the second half—Steamer projects him to be worth 0.9 WAR, while ZiPS pegs his rest-of-season value at 0.5 WAR. That corresponds to a position player with a future value anywhere from 40+ to 45+ and a pitching prospect with 45/45+ FV.
As I mentioned earlier, one potential roadblock to moving Smoak for assets is the lack of a market for 1B/DH types. MLB Trade Rumours is quite optimistic about his trade value, viewing him as “the top rental bat”, and a team might give the Jays something for Smoak just to have his bat on their bench. Nevertheless, there’s no obvious playoff team looking for 1B/DH help. If I squint, I could see Smoak landing in Boston—given that Mitch Moreland and Steve Pearce are both on the IL right now—or Tampa Bay—given that they’ve used the DH spot to give players a half-day off. Otherwise, the good teams already appear to have good first basemen and designated hitters.
If there is indeed a good offer out there for Smoak, I think it makes sense for the Jays to take it. That said, if the quality of offers is limited, extending Smoak for another season makes sense too.
This methodology generally doesn’t work well for closers, like Giles, as they often pitch in high-leverage situations, which is not captured by WAR. For now, let’s push on. Steamer and ZiPS are oddly pessimistic about Giles’ second-half. Steamer projects him to produce a 3.10 FIP, a mark he has never produced over a full season. ZiPS is a little more positive, but still expect him to regress a lot (2.60 FIP). As such, they project his second-half value to be in the 0.5-0.6 WAR range, which is a little less than Galvis.
Clearly, given the two issues noted above (he’s a closer and he’s underrated, likely because of his 2018 season), we need to approach this problem differently. Comparing Giles to previously traded relievers is one option. The tricky part with this approach is that there are very, very few closers who have been traded in recent years who are both at least as good as Giles and had exactly one extra year of control remaining after the current season.
So, let me approach this by asking the question “how does 2019 Giles compare to 2016 Aroldis Chapman as a trade asset?” In terms of long-term track record, 2016 Chapman has the clear edge over 2019 Giles—over the five and a half seasons before he was traded to the Cubs, Chapman produced a 1.99 FIP over 337 innings (12.1 fWAR). For his career, Giles owns a 2.30 FIP over 325.1 innings (9.2 fWAR).
However, 2019 Giles is having a better season than 2016 Chapman did before he was traded. Over nearly the same number of innings—31.1 for Chapman, 31 for Giles—Giles has a meaningful edge across virtually every key category, whether FIP (1.49 vs. 1.93), ERA (1.45 vs. 2.01), xFIP (2.30 vs. 2.38), SIERA (2.06 vs. 2.16), K% (43.4% vs. 36.7%) and K-BB% (36.1% vs. 30%). In contrast, in the key categories where Chapman is ahead—like BB% (7.4% vs. 6.7%), HR/9 (0.58 vs. 0.57) and xwOBA (.228 vs. .224)—his edge is relatively small.
Moreover, in terms of control, Chapman was a free agent after 2016, whereas Giles has one more year of arbitration eligibility remaining.
Chapman netted the Yanks a Top 25 prospect in Gleyber Torres, as well as now-Blue Jay Billy McKinney (who was given a 50 FV rating by MLB Pipeline at the time), Adam Warren and Rashad Crawford. While it might be best to use that haul as a ceiling for Giles’ potential return, the fact is Giles compares quite well to the 2016 version of Chapman (probably much more so than most would think).
Who’s in the market for an elite closer? Virtually every team in baseball can improve themselves at the closer position by adding Giles, but a handful stand out as potential landing spots. The Red Sox could use a closer and might turn to Giles if the Nathan Eovaldi experiment doesn’t pan out. The Phillies bullpen ranks 28th in FIP (5.05). Hector Neris (3.53 FIP) is a fine reliever, but with the only sub-4.00 FIP in the bullpen, Neris could use some help. The Nationals are in a similar boat—Sean Doolittle is a great reliever (2.93 FIP), but the Nats’ bullpen (4.70 FIP) ranks in the bottom third of the MLB. The Braves’ Luke Jackson is pitching well (2.79 FIP), but has a limited track record closing games. The Diamondbacks and Rockies both remain in the Wild Card hunt and both would benefit by upgrading themselves at the closer position—Greg Holland has posted a 4.74 FIP, while Wade Davis owns a 4.59 mark.
Ultimately, every potential playoff team would be better off with Giles than without him. That alone should drive a strong market for his services.
ZiPS and Steamer both project Stroman to produce 1.3 WAR over the second half of the season. Plus, ZiPS projects him to produce 2.3 WAR in 2020, so we can put his production value over the next season and a half at 3.6 WAR.
While the Jays might opt to offer cash to cover the rest of his 2019 contract, they can’t do so for 2020, since he currently doesn’t have a contract for 2020. As such, we’d have to deduct from that 3.6 WAR the value of his 2020 salary. I’ll guess it’s around $13 or so million, which equates to about 1.5 WAR, leaving a surplus value of 2.1 WAR.
Using that surplus value as a guide, the Jays could expect to receive as much as a 50 FV pitcher, if they opted for a single prospect in return. For context, FanGraphs currently views Nate Pearson as a 50 FV pitching prospect. Or, they could opt for two or three 45+ FV prospects (e.g. both Jordan Groshans and Alek Manoah).
As with Giles, any contender would benefit from adding Stroman. Near the top of the list are the Yankees—their rotation ranks 20th in terms of FIP (4.61) and only James Paxton (3.63 FIP) is having a better season than Stro (3.81 FIP). The Brewers are in a similar boat—below-average rotation (4.55 FIP, 19th) that would be much better with Stro in it. The Red Sox rotation seems fine, but rumours suggest they are looking for rotation help.
Among the teams with an outside shot at a playoff spot, the Athletics, Rockies and Cardinals could all benefit from adding a top starter. The A’s have Frankie Montas, a good but oft-injured Daniel Mengden and little else. The Rockies’ rotation is similarly front-loaded—German Marquez (3.75 FIP) and Jon Gray (3.93 FIP) are solid, but the other Rockies starters have combined for a 5.94 FIP. The Cardinals’ best starter (Miles Mikolas) owns a 4.45 FIP.
It will be interesting to watch the next few weeks play out. We can guess at what the trade markets for various players are, but ultimately we’ll have to wait and see. We don’t have the amount of info that the front office has, which is something fans should always be cognizant of. To this point, the front office’s body of work leads me to give them the benefit of the doubt that they will navigate these decisions as well as possible. Hopefully that faith is rewarded by a strong trade haul (and/or a Stroman extension).
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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.